Angela Johnson began her career in children's literature with picture books. Right from the start (Tell Me a Story, Mama, a gentle dialogue between a reminiscing mother and a child eager to hear family history) she embraced the themes of family connection and the linkage between the past and the present. She's now capably produced a half-dozen picture books ranging from the humorously absurd (Julius) to the touching (When I Am Old with You, a Coretta Scott King Honor Book).
Her most remarkable achievements, however, have been her pair of rich and luminous novels, Toning the Sweep and Humming Whispers. We're stingy with stars at the Bulletin, and the unanimous decision to star two out of two was, to say the least, highly unusual, but it was well-merited by Johnson's combination of distinctive voice, fluid yet thoughtful prose, and courageous young heroines. The novels are concise (Humming Whispers is the longer at 121 pages) and rich, with enough internal conflict to keep things going even in the absence of overt villainy, and with an easy and intimate style that young readers will appreciate.
Nor does she fall into the trap that some otherwise talented novelists do of repeatedly writing the same book. In Toning the Sweep (winner of the Coretta Scott King Award), Emmie is piecing together her family's past in the face of her grandmother's impending death; in Humming Whispers, Sophy mourns for the loss of her schizophrenic sister's future and fears that the same fate awaits her. The first, filled with open spaces and dry hot days, is set in the southwestern desert; the second, resonant with the sound of pavement and street life, in the urban midwest.
Both books, however, treat with tender understanding the chasms that can separate people and the necessity of bridging those chasms. Depicting the positive is a real literary challenge, and the results are unfortunately more often syrupy than compelling. Johnson avoids this pitfall, and her work shines with an abounding but never indulgent affection for all her characters, whose love for one another makes both stories hopeful in spite of bitter past tragedies and shadowed futures. In each book, her main focus is a close-knit family of strong African-American women, but her writing finds worth in everyone in the crowd--the dancers, the neighbors, the passersby. Through it all is that rare thing--true generosity towards humankind, expressed with sufficient eloquence and particularity that it may well succeed in convincing readers that such an attitude has merit.
--Deborah Stevenson, Assistant Editor
Bibliography of Titles Mentioned