Bein' with Michael Bryant
An Interview with Michael Bryant
by Tana Elias
Michael Bryant is a relatively new illustrator of children's books with many distinguished picture books to his name. A scene from Bein' with You This Way (Lee & Low, 1994) was chosen for the cover of the CCBC'js Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults: Volume Two. In 1991, Michael Bryant won one of twenty scholarships to attend the Multicolored Mirror Institute for Writers and Artists in Madison, Wisconsin. Soon after, he received his first contract as a children's book illustrator. His work has received the Jane Addams Peace Award Honor, Parenting Magazine's Reading Magic Award, and the Parent's Choice Award. Michael Bryant lives in Pennsylvania with his wife, Gina, and their two daughters, Kristen and Allison.
TE: You were a participant in the Multicolored Mirror Institute for Writers and Artists in Madison in April of 1991. How did the experience influence you?
MB: When I came to Madison, I was with nineteen people that were picked to come; we were twenty people of different ethnic backgrounds. I had a chance to meet a lot of illustrators and authors and publishers. It really was a great experience for me because some of the speakers talked about their experiences and how they got started. I think for the first time I felt that I could make it and that I could do what I wanted to do, which was to pursue an illustration career.
TE: Was that the beginning of your career as a children's book illustrator?
MB: Actually, I had a lot of small jobs, but like a lot of illustrators I was feeling down because I was taking my portfolio out and I was hearing "no." My work wasn't getting used as much as I would have liked, and I didn't know--exactly--what in art I wanted to do. At the time, I was doing some romance painting and some magazine covers. I had just a couple of projects here and there, but at the same time I had a family to take care of--my wife, and my first daughter was just born. I was kind of uncomfortable with where I was going. I remember Walter Dean Myers speaking about, when he was an editor, people constantly dropping off manuscripts, and he would tell his secretary to get rid of the stack of manuscripts. He said it wasn't always personal, but they didn't need everything that came in. They were looking for specific kinds of books, and that was how they would pick art--they would pick books to illustrate. And I started thinking about that: many times I would drop off my portfolio and I'd see a ton of black portfolio cases and I'd think maybe mine would get used... but inevitably I would get my portfolio back with nothing. When I listened to him speak, I remember thinking, "well, I guess maybe it isn't necessarily a personal thing if you get turned down, you just have to keep on plugging along," and for me that was the most important truth I took from the convention.
TE: You became a mentor yourself at the Center for Multicultural Children's Literature in New York at one point. Are you still involved with that even though you've moved from the area?
MB: Yes, though not as much. I'm not sure if the Center is functioning at a full level right now. We encouraged people to send in their portfolios. We talked to them and tried to lead them towards illustrating, or help them get their portfolio at the level it would need to be in order for them to get published. That was good experience. I mentored with that organization, but I also do it on my own because I'm always meeting people that want to be illustrators. I help them with their portfolio and then to hone their skills. Mentoring is an important part of what I do--sharing my work is fun! I usually explain how many of the books I've done come together and what they're about, and I talk about the models and the whole process of book making.
TE: Your career in children's book illustration has focused almost entirely on presenting positive images for African American children. I assume that was a conscious choice, and a factor you consider in accepting projects. Would you care to address the importance of positive images in literature for today's young children?
MB: Exactly what you just said, for today's young children. I don't think of myself as illustrating only African-American books. I like to illustrate books that have positive images. Children see a lot of negative things in movies and television, and I know they are going to see them, so I do the very best I can to pick manuscripts that are good in nature, and that have a clean message. That's the way I feel it should be, so I do it purposely.
TE: What books have you just finished that our readers might not be aware of, and are there others in the works?
MB: I'm just finishing a book called Home Again, authored by Jane Kurtz. I love this book, which is about a father and a daughter. The father is from Ethiopia, but the book takes place in America. The daughter is concerned because her father must return to Ethiopia to visit his sick mother. The girl is sad because she doesn't understand having two homes, one in America and the other in Ethiopia. She thinks of Ethiopia as a wild place in Africa with jungles. Her father sets her mind at ease by telling her about the beauty of the part of Ethiopia that he is from. By the end of the book she feels comfortable knowing that he will return to her. When Home Again is finished, I'll begin work on another book, Is It Far to Zanzibar? by Nikki Grimes, which takes place in Tanzania.
For more information about Michael Bryant:
"Exuding Positive Images: An Interview with Michael Bryant." School Library Media Activities Monthly. 13 (January 1997), p. 19-20+
Books illustrated by Michael Bryant:
Campbell, Louisa. A World of Holidays. (Family Ties series) Silver Moon Press, 1993.
Draper, Sharon. Ziggy and the Black Dinosaurs: Lost in the Tunnel of Time. Just Us Books, 1996.
Grimes, Nikki. Come Sunday. William B. Eerdmans, 1996.
Hazen, Barbara Shook. Goodbye, Hello. (also Adios! Hola! Translated by Alma Flor Ada.) Atheneum, 1995.
McKissack, Patricia and Fredrick. Booker T. Washington: Leader and Educator. (Great African Americans series) Enslow, 1996.
McKissack, Patricia and Frederick. Madame C. J. Walker: Self-Made Millionaire. (Great African Americans series) Enslow, 1992.
McKissack, Patricia and Frederick. Sojourner Truth: A Voice for Freedom. (Great African Americans series) Enslow, 1992.
Medearis, Angela Shelf. Our People. Atheneum, 1994.
Medearis, Angela Shelf. Skin Deep and Other Teenage Reflections. Macmillan, 1995.
Medearis, Angela Shelf. Treemonisha. From the opera by Scott Joplin. Henry Holt, 1995.
Miller, Robert. Buffalo Soldiers: The Story of Emmanuel Stance. Silver Press, 1995.
Nikola-Lisa, W. Bein' with You This Way. (also La Alegria de Ser Tu y Yo) Lee & Low, 1994.
Patrick, Diane. Family Celebrations. (Family Ties series) Silver Moon Press, 1993.
Sierra, Judy. The Mean Hyena: A Folktale from Malawi. Lodestar, 1997.
Reprinted from Friends of the CCBC Newsletter 1997, Number 3 with permission of Tana Elias and the Friends of the CCBC, Inc. ©1997 Friends of the CCBC, Inc.