Have you seen this spoken word performance by Theresa tha S.O.N.G.B.I.R.D.? It went viral. So did this recording from the 2019 Trumpet Awards, as well as this video produced by Facebook in 2021. In each instance, the poet’s powerful recitation of YOU SO BLACK reached and resonated with thousands of individuals from various walks of life. Tomorrow, it will officially enter the world as a picture book, allowing countless children to also be bolstered by its brilliance and beauty.
KidLit in Color member Tameka Fryer Brown chats with Grammy-nominated Theresa tha S.O.N.G.B.I.R.D. and multi-award-winning illustrator London Ladd about their new children’s book with Simon & Schuster, YOU SO BLACK.
THERESA THA S.O.N.G.B.I.R.D.
TAMEKA: Hi Theresa! Thank you so much for stopping by KidLit in Color to answer a few questions about your phenomenal new picture book, YOU SO BLACK!
THERESA: Thank you for having me!
TAMEKA: Before we talk about the book, can you give us a little back story about the original poem the book is based on? What inspired you to write it?
THERESA: I wrote the first version of You So Black in 2015. At the time I was very invested in creating work that empowered people of color. It was important to me that this sort of subject matter was included in my body of performance material.
TAMEKA: Your captivating recitations of the poem have gone viral, especially the one you did for the 2019 Bounce Trumpet Awards. Now you’re adding “children’s book author” to your long list of creative titles. How did you get the book deal for YOU SO BLACK?
THERESA: My book deal was like a moment of divine orchestration. In the midst of my poem going viral I had the opportunity to do quite a few interviews, one of which was with an awesome sister named Denene Millner. She pitched the idea of turning my poem into a children’s book. It has truly been her tenacity and hard work that has brought this whole book into reality.
TAMEKA: In making it a book for young readers, the original poem had to be shortened greatly. But there is SO much power and poignance in the original. Was it difficult to choose which lines would be included in the book and which would be left out?
THERESA: The process of editing this poem for the children’s book was relatively easy, especially having already made large edits for the version of the poem that went viral. There were a few words that had to be shifted for the sake of young readers comprehension, but overall, the children’s book was an enjoyable rewrite process. As a writer and creator, I have found over the years that you must become comfortable with editing and rewriting your work.
TAMEKA: London Ladd is a highly esteemed illustrator in the kidlit industry, but his art for this book is next level. What did you think of his illustrations for YOU SO BLACK when you first saw them? Do you have a favorite spread?
THERESA: I was truly in awe and speechless when I initially got to see the illustrations for this book. My favorite spread would have to be the page that reads: Black is you. Black is me. I have two sisters, they are identical twins. Growing up in the south suburbs of Chicago, our mother would take us to the beach at Lake Michigan during the summers. The illustration reminds me of seeing my sisters on the beach and the summers we spent together as children.
TAMEKA: KidLit in Color author Alliah Agostini has used the term “FUBU” to describe certain books, and I believe it’s an apt characterization of yours (“on the Black-hand side” makes my soul swoon). Is YOU SO BLACK a “For Us, By Us” book in your eyes?
THERESA: This book is definitely meant to serve as an empowerment tool for children of color. But I also hope that it serves as an empowerment tool for all children as a teaching implement of poetry and history. I would love for young readers to feel confident and beautiful in their skin, to feel that they are wonderful beyond measure.
TAMEKA: Now that you have your first kidlit title under your belt, is there anything you would have wanted to change about the publication process?
THERESA: I wouldn’t have waited so long to take up Denene on her offer to make this book happen.
TAMEKA: What’s next for you? Are there any more children’s books in your future (asked with fingers crossed)?
THERESA: There are definitely more children’s books in the future. I am very excited to share the stories I have been writing! In the meantime, I am still traveling and performing all across the country.
TAMEKA: Thank you, Theresa, for writing the book that would have blessed little girl me with all kinds of confidence and validation. I know it will do so for young readers today.
THERESA: Thank you. That is genuinely my desire, to give kids an opportunity to see themselves in the pages.
TAMEKA: Hey, London! Thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions for us about this brilliant picture book, YOU SO BLACK.
LONDON: Hi Tameka, it’s a pleasure being here with you. I’d be happy to share.
TAMEKA: Please tell the backstory about how you became involved with this project. What about Theresa’s text spoke to you?
LONDON: A few years ago, I posted some new work I created while in grad school. At the time, I wasn’t going to post anything because I felt I wasn’t ready to share anything yet, but at the urging of one of my professors, I finally did on Instagram. This caught the attention of someone I worked with years ago who messaged me, curious about my new work style. Months later, I got another message with a link to a YouTube video of You So Black, asking if I would be interested in illustrating the poem.
Theresa’s poem gave me goosebumps. To hear her voice speaking with such passion, power, and pride, all I could do was sit there speechless. To see how her words, inflection, and cadence completely mesmerized the audience was inspiring. At the same time, I’m thinking about how I could do the same with my art.
TAMEKA: I’ve been a fan of yours for a long time, London, and correct me if I’m wrong, but this new style of yours—and I’m no illustrator, so I don’t know if this is the right vocabulary—but it appears to have a more expressionist or abstract vibe. How would you describe the art in YOU SO BLACK?
LONDON: Thank you so much. That means a lot to hear you share that. The feeling is mutual. You are correct. Everything I do now is much more expressive and abstract. This is the type of art that has always attracted my attention. From Harlem Renaissance artists like Aaron Douglass, William H. Johnson, and Jacob Lawrence, to others like Romaire Bearden and Robert Heindel.
The art in You So Black is uniquely me. It’s the first full book where all the art is mine, each texture, cut paper, tissue paper…all of it is me poured throughout the book. I love looking at shapes, textures, colors, and designs. I can’t thank the publisher enough for allowing me the creative freedom to explore and trust my vision.
TAMEKA: We all thank your publisher for that. Speaking of creative freedom, I’m always curious as to how artists decide what imagery to create when illustrating text that is more conceptual than concrete. What was your process for determining what the visuals for each spread would be?
LONDON: That’s a great question! For me, it’s an emotive experience when figuring out the imaginary. It depends on what imagery and concepts might pop into my conscience while absorbing the words. For every project, I have a new journal book/sketchbook where I keep everything related to the project inside: manuscript printed out, inspiring images, quotes, and notes I write/draw. I’m always carrying this journal around, so when it’s time to do sketches, I can refer to it. Most picture books can take 7-10 months, so it is critical to document everything.
For example, some were quick, like the Obama inauguration page. The first time I heard the line “Black with privilege, Black with pride. Black on purpose, on the Black-hand side,” all I could think of was vividly remembering Barack Obama being sworn in as president in January 2009.
For “Black is pyramids and mathematics,” it was a challenge to tie pyramids and math together in a way that a child would find interesting. I did a bunch of sketching for weeks, but nothing seemed to work, so I stopped thinking about it and sketched other pages instead. One night I woke up from a vivid dream. All I could see were shapes, colors, angles, and a face, so I quickly sketched it before it faded from my head. When I submitted the final drawings for approval, I was nervous about the page because it differed from the others in concept. It’s one of my favorite spreads in the book because I feel the illustration came from a deeply spiritual place.
TAMEKA: Do you have one, absolute favorite line or spread from the book? My favorite spread is the first one. I think. It really is hard to choose….
LONDON: Thank you! I love that spread. It reminded me of my daughter when she was around that age, full of boundless energy and wonder. Well, I previously explained pyramids and mathematics originating from a dream. It is so difficult to pick a favorite spread because of what each means to me on a personal level. It’s hard to pick one, but if I have to choose one…I’d say, “Black is strong.” The idea for that spread is very personal because I could imagine a young boy would feel mighty on the shoulders of his father. The love between them at that moment is beautiful. I never had a father in my life. His name isn’t on my birth certificate, he was never mentioned throughout my life, and to this day, I don’t know if he’s still alive. I’ve always desired that father-son relationship, but it never happened. I’m thankful for the fatherly figures who were there to help me see and understand what being a father was so that when I became a father, I could be the best influence for my daughter and godchildren. That’s why the boy on his shoulders looks like me when I was that age.
TAMEKA: Why is YOU SO BLACK an important book to share with young readers? What do you hope they will feel while or after experiencing it?
LONDON: It’s essential for young readers of color to see themselves within the pages of the books they read and share with their families. I envision them sitting together, experiencing the joy, pride, and beauty of Blackness throughout this book. I hope that You So Black is passed down generationally within families so that young people today will share it with their future children.
TAMEKA: That would be wonderful. Are you working on any new projects, London?
LONDON: Yes!! I’m currently working on a variety of exciting projects right now. I’m working on the final art for My Hair is a Book, written by Maisha Oso; and I’m currently researching and sketching When I Hear Spirituals, written by Cheryl Willis Hudson, and Myrlie: A Voice of Hope, written by Nadia Salomon. I will be starting The Gathering Table, written by Antwan Eady, in late spring 2023. Also, I’m almost done with a draft of my first written and illustrated picture book. Busy times, but I’m extremely grateful for these opportunities to work with so many great people, doing what I love!!
TAMEKA: Wow! “Busy times” is an understatement! Thanks again for sparing this precious time to speak with us. Continued success, my friend.
LONDON: Thank you, Tameka!! This has been great! Wishing you continued success with all your projects and looking forward to talking more in the future. 😊
THERESA THA S.O.N.G.B.I.R.D. is a Grammy-nominated musical, lyrical and theatrical alchemist, sprinkling magic like hot sauce. She is best known for her appearance on the 2019 Trumpet Awards on Bounce TV, and the now viral recitation of “You So Black,” which has garnered 11 million views and counting. She has gone on to perform with the likes of Jill Scott, MC Lyte, and Jazmine Sullivan, and appears on famed pianist Robert Glasper’s newest album. Theresa is from the south suburbs of Chicago but calls Atlanta home. She holds a degree in commercial music from Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois.
LONDON LADD is a graduate of Syracuse University with an MFA in illustration. He uses a unique mixed media approach, combining cut paper textured with acrylic paint, tissue paper and colored pencil to bring his diverse subjects to life. London’s artwork is steeped in intensity and emotion, a reflection of the artist himself. His hope is that You So Black will be passed down through generations, reaffirming African Americans’ strength, beauty, power and love. His goal is to open a visual arts community center where lower-income families can create their own art. He is also the illustrator of My Red, White, and Blue, Black Gold, Under the Freedom Tree, American Anthem, Lend a Hand: Poems About Giving, Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass, Midnight Teacher, Waiting for Pumpsie, Oprah: The Little Speaker, and March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World. His portrait “Breonna Taylor, Remember Her Name!” was published in Recognize! An Anthology Honoring and Amplifying Black Life. London lives in Syracuse, New York.
YOU SO BLACK is published by Simon & Schuster. Click here to purchase.
Photo of Theresa by: Derrick Dean Photography
Photo of London by: Roger DeMuth