Today we are very excited to share an interview with Authors Chaquita Mullins Lee and Carmella Van Fleet & Illustrator Jennifer Mack-Watkins (You Gotta Meet Mr. Pierce)!
Read on to learn more about them, their book, and a giveaway!
Meet the Author: Chiquita Mullins Lee
Chiquita Mullins Lee is an Arts Learning coordinator at the Ohio Arts Council (OAC) where she manages Ohio’s Poetry Out Loud and Arts Partnership programs. She is a former teaching artist in creative writing on the OAC teaching artist roster, hosted the Emmy-award winning program Traditions: Ohio Heritage Fellows, and has served on the Arts Education review panel for the National Endowment for the Arts.
Meet the Author: Carmella Van Vleet
Carmella Van Vleet is a former kindergarten teacher who now writes full-time. She’s the author of over a dozen books including the award-winning middle-grade novel Eliza Bing Is (Not) A Big, Fat Quitter and the picture book To the Stars! The First American Woman to Walk in Space (co-authored with astronaut Kathy Sullivan). Carmella lives in Columbus, Ohio.
Meet the Illustrator: Jennifer Mack-Watkins
Jennifer Mack-Watkins is a printmaker whose work investigates power through the complexities of themes like womanhood, beauty, body image, and gender roles. Her solo exhibition “Children of the Sun” at Brattleboro Museum has been featured in the New York Times, Vogue, and Essence Magazine. Read more about her work at mackjennifer.com.
About the Book: You Gotta Meet Mr. Pierce
A picture book biography about the barber shop of woodcarver Elijah Pierce, recipient of the highest folk art honor in the United States.
“Creeeeak!” goes the screen door to self-taught artist Elijah Pierce’s barbershop art studio. A young boy walks in for an ordinary haircut and walks out having discovered a lifetime of art.
Mr. Pierce’s wood carvings are in every corner of the small studio. There are animals, scenes from his life, and those detailing the socio-political world around him. It’s this collection of work that will eventually win Elijah the National Heritage Fellowship in 1982 just two years before his death. But the young boy visiting the shop in the 1970s doesn’t know that yet. All he knows is: “You gotta meet Mr. Pierce!”
Based on the true story of Elijah Pierce and his community barber shop in Columbus, Ohio, this picture book includes cleverly collaged museum-sourced photos of his art and informative backmatter about his life. With engaging text by Pierce to the Soul! playwright Chiquita Mullins-Lee and Christopher Award-winning author Carmella Van Vleet, it’s illustrated with striking Japanese woodblock by Jennifer Mack-Watkins. A new addition to vital Black art history!
YABC: What brought you two together to write this book?
Chiquita: I wrote a play called Pierce To The Soul, that was produced by CATCO, the Contemporary American Theater Company, which is the Equity theater here in Columbus. It had about a three-week run at CATCO and then the director, Geoff Nelson, started his own touring company, so it toured around different places in the state of Ohio. One of the places it toured was Village Academy in Powell, and I would try going to the productions as I just enjoyed everything about it. I made it to the production at Village Academy, and once it was over the actor (it’s a one man show) and I talked about the play during an audience talk-back and this really nice woman approached me and said “That was great. I really enjoyed it. Have you ever thought about doing a children’s book on Elijah Pierce?” Take it away Carmella.
Carmella: Yep. That’s how it happened. I handed her my card and then we connected over email, decided to meet and then move forward to make sure that Elijah’s story got out. I’ve lived in Columbus for thirty some years and have never heard of him until I saw Chiquita’s play. And I thought “how do I not know about him?” He’s an amazing person and I was really, really intrigued by the play’s description and the actor’s description of “The Book of Wood” and I just thought that kids need to know about this. So, I kind of just asked and that was it. From there the two of us started talking and we came up with multiple drafts.
YABC: What inspired you to put his life into book form?
Chiquita: I’ve always been interested since I worked on the play. A lot of stuff didn’t go into the play, but I’ve always wanted to do more about him. I figured it would be directed more towards adults, but when Carmella mentioned a children’s book that was a completely different approach to me and I was intrigued by it. And because of his work, he’s a visual artist so the medium was perfect for it.
YABC: What came first, the title or the book?
Carmella: Like we said, there were lots of drafts and different approaches that we tried. We got to this point where we were on speaker phone with the editor and Chiquita said something about that his place in the community was very well respected and everyone felt like “oh, you gotta meet Mr. Pierce” and it just kind of clicked in my head. I was like “oh, this is what we’re gonna do.” So, the approach that we ended up taking in the end was inspired by Chiquita’s kind of accidental title. It worked out that way, usually for me the title comes first then the rest of the story.
Chiquita: We did, we thought it would be a great title. And the expansion that came with it. Camella has an amazing track record with this kind of work, so I thought that was a brilliant selection for the title itself.
YABC: Who is your favorite character in the book?
Chiquita: Absolutely. I am completely tickled with Elijah Pierce. The story is only a thumbnail of his life. But he had a fully-orbed life, a very full life. Living and being born in Mississippi, moving to the Midwest, riding the rails. He did all kinds of amazing things. He had a gift that he was giving during childhood; he had a calling that he actually ran from. He did become a minister eventually. He was an interesting man. People that knew him said he had this charm about him and he is just a compelling character.
YABC: What was the most difficult or emotional scene to write/narrate?
Chiquita: There’s an incident in Elijah Pierce’s life, when he was out with some friends, baseball players. And he is on his way home and he gets arrested because a white man was shot and killed, and Elijah resembles the person who perpetrated the crime. And he gets locked up even though he is innocent. He is eventually let go, but the idea of him being locked up because of the color of his skin and having to deal with the racist issues in Mississippi in the early 1900s and being a black man, and knowing there was a lynch mob out to get the man the perpetrated this crime.. we just wanted to tell this story in a way that was not threatening, that was simple and basic enough for children to understand but still get the point across that race was an issue in Elijah Pierce’s life.
Carmella: Yep. That’s the one I would have picked too. We wanted to handle it in this kid appropriate way, but also be truthful to what happened. It’s tricky.
YABC: Who was the character that gave you the most trouble to write?
Carmella: Possible the young boy. I think because we were trying to figure out a way that we could connect readers with Elijah so we used the young boy as a way to get into that. What was the little boys motivation for being there and how did he change from no knowing who Mr. Pierce was to having his world changed and his view about what art was and the stories told through art. He had a big job and we had to figure out how to do that in a workable way.
Chiquita: And to make it feel authentic.
YABC: What else do you want readers to take from your story? The main message.
Chiquita: Oh, I think it has to do with each of us having a story.
Carmella: That’s exactly what I was going to say. We all have a story, and we should tell those stories. And kids can tell those stories in different way. Early on we talked about how there’s lots of ways in how stories are told and wood working and carving is another way that maybe that hadn’t thought about, so maybe exposing them to this knew medium.
Chiquita: Elijah Pierce has this famous phrase that may have been the title of the book at one point, for a few minutes, but he would carve slogans in addition to all the other things he would carve. One of his slogans was “Your life is a book, and every day is a page.” And that kind of communicates that your life matters and everyday you’re writing a different page and at the end of it you want to be proud of what you’ve written. You should be aware of that and live the best life that you can.
YABC: What is next for you?
Carmella: We’re both doing individual projects. But we have definitely talked about other possible subject and collaborating together moving forward. I just had a middle grade novel come out this past July called Nothing is Little from Holiday House and I have a book coming out next year that I’m kind of in the middle of putting together called Frozen in Time: What Ice Cores can Teach us About Climate Change, I’m excited about that one too. It’s been really interesting. I’m hoping to get back into picture books and working with Chiquita again, we’re very same minded which makes collaborating so much fun. I would love to do it again.
Chiquita: That’s absolutely true. I have several ideas that are percolating that are in various stages of development. But I also have a day job; I work for the Ohio Art’s Council and one of the things coming up very soon is the Poetry Out Loud State Finals that features high school students reciting poetry and learning to connect to their literary heritage through poetry. We are planning to have the semifinals, then the state finals, and then the national finals in DC. The program is in its 18th year funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation.
YABC: Do you have an organization that’s close to your heart?
Chiquita: I do support the United Negro College Fund, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I’m very much in support of projects that take care of the homeless and hungry, I know I can’t take care of everybody but there is one person in Columbus that I have an affinity with and that’s close to my heart. The Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts and Sciences in Rabun Gap, Georgia, is a place writers can go on residencies. I participated in a residency there a few years ago, and it is a nice opportunity for writers to have.
Carmella: Those are impressive. I hadn’t expected that question so I’d hadn’t really thought about it, but we give to the Mid-Ohio Food Bank, you know that hunger, especially in our community is one that we like to support. Another organization for writing is the SCBWI; The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. They do a wonderful job of sort of building that community for writers and illustrator because it’s a very isolated job and being able to have that community really helps.
YABC: What would you say your superpower is?
Carmella: My superpower is persistence. This project took us a while, five or six years and I have another project that I co-authored with Cathy Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space, and that took about ten years. So, yeah, my superpower is being persistent and sticking with something.
Chiquita: I’m inspired by that, it’s a reminder to not give up. Pierce to the Soul, we started working on in 2004 and finally reached the stage in 2010, so yeah, persistence. And I’d also say high sensitivity, which is a double-edged sword, but it helps in my work, creating characters – being able to feel things on a deep level.
YABC: Anything else you’d like to add?
Carmella: For authors wanting to collaborate, having a similar vision for the project is very helpful. And moving egos out of the way, knowing that everyone is going to bring something different to the table but being able to put that out of the way to get your story across. Collaborating can be a wonderful thing, but also stressful.
Chiquita: Yeah, it really can be a blessing when you’re open minded enough to realize you can collaborate. You’re only going to go so far by yourself, so the option to collaborate can create some opportunities for discovering things you wouldn’t have found by yourself.
YABC: Tell me more about Illustrating You’ve Gotta Meet Mr. Pierce
This was a great opportunity. You Gotta Meet Mr. Pierce is my first published illustrated book and I thoroughly enjoyed taking text and combining that with visual imagery.
YABC: What was the process like when creating these illustrations?
I started looking at sculptures to help me develop a strong profile of males of various ages, as I usually work with female forms in my work, so it took me a while to develop the faces and different expressions that related to the emotion of each page.
After many sketches, these turned into drawings, then prints which are the basis of each page, then mixed media was added, such as collage and watercolor, to complete each image.
The whole book is a total of 34 woodcuts, including the cover.
YABC: You’re a print maker, how different was that in comparison to illustration?
It’s very different from creating fine art. In illustrations, you’re working with a team of people to decide if it connects to the main concept of the book. In illustration, there are deadlines based on production and publication dates. With illustrations, it helped me work with deadlines and make sure my message was clear before going on to the next page. As a printmaker, I work alone in my creation process and make work that I am interested without approval from anyone.
YABC: Were you familiar with Elijah Pierce before you started working on You Gotta Meet Mr. Pierce?
I honestly did not know a lot about him until I received the manuscript. I found out that he had an exhibition in PA at the Barnes Foundation and ordered the book titled “Elijah Pierce’s America” to see who he was and researched to learn more about him. During this time, I also discovered Elijah Pierce in a film, I reached out to two filmmakers had known him and connected with them via Zoom! The film makers, Jeffrey Wolf, and Carolyn Allport, shared with me photographs that they took of him around 1974 that were used to make these films.
YABC: Did you use or reference any of the photos of Elijah that you have found or seen when illustrating this book?
I used several different photos of Elijah and his barbershop. I found some of his work that was displayed at the Barnes Foundation and used those for inspiration in the book. Throughout the book, you’ll see frames of my interpretations of his work and those that are his actual work.
YABC: What is it about You Gotta Meet Mr. Pierce that drew you in?
Well, it took me a little bit to read the manuscript and get a grasp on how to translate it into a book with illustrations. His story is so empowering, and I felt that the fact that there is a historical reference to everything he created really drew me in. History is a major inspiration for me and something I’ve always been interested in as an artist.
YABC: What is your favorite illustration you’ve done for this book?
I love all of them, but the front cover is the opening to my work. I wanted to have a Mr. Roger’s approach, where Elijah is in the studio and he’s looking out, a friendly introduction. I also love the full spread of the barbershop. The publishers wanted me to show energy in the barbershop, so the solution was to add my daughter as a set of twins dancing in the barbershop.
YABC: What was the most difficult or emotional scene to illustrate?
For me, it’s the scene where Elijah was racially profiled and chased after being accused of a crime he didn’t commit. They put him in jail, and after letting him go they told him to run. It’s mind-blowing that it’s still an issue today. There is still more work to be done.
YABC: Do you think you would ever illustrate another children’s book?
I do. I’m interested in writing and illustrating a book. Or even worked with these same authors again, we got along so well and it was fun.
YABC: How long did it take you to illustrate the book?
Oh, about a year and a half. I was working full time as an art teacher, working all day, and had a newborn, so when everyone was sleeping, I was working on the book at night.
YABC: What inspires your art, outside of Mr. Pierce?
I would say life, just in how people live; how they follow their passions, their struggles, and family histories.
My own history, my observations, my experiences, what I want for my family’s future, and how I see the world.
YABC: What helps you unwind when it [work] becomes too much?
Playing with my children and going on trips with my family. Really my art is my escape, I don’t see it as work.
YABC: Who are a few artists that inspire you?
YABC: What is your superpower?
My superpower is to have a vision and being able to create things that don’t exist.
YABC: Is there an organization that is close to your heart?
Chelsea’s Charity, she’s a young girl who started her own non-profit with her parents to help provide art supplies to people. She helps her community by providing art supplies to those who don’t have access to them.
YABC: What’s up next for you?
I have two solo shows coming up, my art will be shown in Savannah GA. And a book project that will take place at the Zimmerli Art Museum in Jersey, it will show some of the woodcuts and prints from You Gotta Meet Mr. Pierce. I am also planning my first book tour.
YABC: Where can we find more of your work?
Insta: @mack_jenniferprints for my fine prints and @Mwatkins_jenniferillustrates as well as my website https://www.jennifermwatkins.com/
Title: You Gotta Meet Mr. Pierce!
Author: Chiquita Mullins Lee and Carmella Van Vleet
Illustrator: Jennifer Mack-Watkins
Release Date: January 31, 2023
Publisher: Kokila, Penguin Random House
Genre: Children’s Nonfiction Picture Books
Age Range: 4 – 8 years old
~ Giveaway Details ~
Three (3) winner will receive a copy of You Gotta Meet Mr. Pierce (Carmella Van Vleet & Chiquita Mullins Lee) ~US Only!
*Click the Rafflecopter link below to enter the giveaway*