Alum Illustrates New Book Telling the Story of Mamie Till-Mobley and Her Son, Emmett Till – VCU News


Emmett Till was 14 and visiting family in Mississippi in 1955 when a white woman accused him of whistling at her. Two of the woman’s relatives brutally beat the youth before shooting him and throwing him into a river. Once found not guilty in a jury trial, the men publicly admitted to torturing and murdering. After Till’s horrific death, his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, dedicated the rest of her life to education and civil rights activism. Till’s murder served as a catalyst for the civil rights movement.

Paper-cut artist Janelle Washington, an alumnus of the VCU School of the Arts. (Class and Style Productions / artwork – photo credit – Erik Patten Photography)

Seven decades later, a 1999 graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts illustrated a new children’s book honoring Till-Mobley’s work. Janelle Washington collaborated with author Angela Joy on “Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement”.

This is Washington’s first foray into book illustration. The founder of WashingtonCuts LLCa paper-cut art and silhouette company that celebrates and explores black culture, Washington uses multiple blades to hand-cut designs from paper.

As they sketched out designs for “Choosing Brave,” global protests against police brutality and racism were taking place, Washington said, adding another level of difficulty to the handling of Mamie and Emmett Till’s story.

“Black people still struggle with the same issues,” Washington said.

Washington spoke with VCU News about working on “choose bravewhich will be released on August 9 and can be pre-ordered where the books are sold.

How did you get involved in this project?

I got involved with the project in early 2020 when I was stuck during the pandemic. Connie Hsu, the Editorial Director of Roaring Brook Press, an imprint of the Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, emailed me saying she had stumbled upon my website and could imagine my beautiful illustrations bringing this Granny story. After reading the manuscript, I visualized the art of the book and knew this was a project I wanted to be a part of. I absolutely loved how Angela Joy wrote about the life of Grandma Till-Mobley and was honored that they thought my paper cut art would be a perfect fit.

What made you want to work on a picture book?

I love the beauty and detail of picture books and have always admired children’s illustrators. I never thought I would illustrate a book myself since I’m not trained as an illustrator, but I jumped on board when the opportunity presented itself.

An illustration of a pregnant woman on the left holding a string that turns into a heartbeat and then into a heart shape.  On the right side of the image, a small child holds the other end of the string and is held by his father.
A first sketch for “Choosing Brave”. Washington wanted to capture Till-Mobley’s “love and devotion” as a mother. (Courtesy of Janelle Washington)

How did you research this project? How did you decide on the style to use for these illustrations?

I used my paper cut style for the illustrations. Each page is hand cut and lined with tissue paper and kraft paper. After reading the manuscript, I researched every part of Grandma’s life by watching documentaries on PBS and YouTube and reading articles and books about her, her family, and the trial.

It is stimulating content. How did you keep the images appropriate for younger readers?

The book is for everyone [including] younger age groups. I illustrated and focused on what I thought young readers could relate to, such as moving to a new town, being with family, feelings of abandonment from a parent, love and devotion from a mother, school achievements, being sick, and feelings of joy and sadness. I kept the art simple but punchy and didn’t add a lot of background details to make each page easy to digest.

Were there any particularly difficult images to create?

Several pages were extremely difficult to illustrate. I had to think a lot with the editor and sketch several designs before coming up with a strong and impactful design for these pages. I am grateful to have had the time and the grace to secure the best illustrations for the book. The most difficult pages to illustrate dealt with death – there are about five pages that cover this – Jim Crow laws and the murder trial. I wanted the art to complement the text and suggest what happened to the reader – not to fully illustrate the text.

On the left is a paper cut in a coffin and on the right is a woman touching the head of a man lying in a coffin.
Janelle Washington said she “illustrated and focused on what I thought younger readers could relate to”. (Courtesy of Janelle Washington)


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