There's a new hero for our time, whose adventures rival those of Harry Potter and who uses his imagination and intelligence to solve problems such as how to bring a school bully back from the Triassic period after he tampers with our hero's time machine. He's Emery Jones, the curious science genius of Moms Mabley Elementary School.
Emery is the creation of National Book Award-winning Seattle author and professor, Dr. Charles Johnson, and his daughter, artist and writer Elisheba Johnson. The pair has recently published "Bending Time" (Booktrope), the first book in their planned series, "The Adventures of Emery Jones: Boy Science Wonder."
"Bending Time" has been praised for its humor, sense of adventure, integration of science and history and portrayal of Emery, a brilliant African-American boy. Award-winning young adult writer Tonya Bolden called the book “a riveting, exhilarating, and enriching read.”
Dr. Johnson, who created the illustrations for the book, has published thousands of drawings, including two collections, and hosted the 1970 PBS drawing program “Charlie’s Pad.” A novelist, essayist, literary critic, short-story writer, philosopher, screenwriter and professor emeritus at the University of Washington, Johnson is a MacArthur fellow, a recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature and a National Book Award winner for his slave trade epic novel "Middle Passage."
Elisheba Johnson currently serves as Executive and Commissions Liaison for the Office of Arts and Culture in Seattle. She writes “Curating a Life,” a parenting blog, creates mixed media art and is the former owner and curator of Seattle’s Faire Gallery Café.
Dr. Johnson, Elisheba and Emery Jones’s 20-month-old namesake, Emery Charles Spearman, sat down with me recently at a coffee house in Seattle’s Wedgwood neighborhood.
Robin Lindley: How did you decide to write a children’s book?
Charles Johnson: Last year, Elisheba came into my study and asked, “Why don’t you want to do a children’s book with me?”
I said, “I’ve always wanted to do a children’s book with you, but we have to have a story. We need a subject.” And Elisheba said she’d like to [focus on] bullying. I could relate to that, and a lot of other people can relate to it, [since] about 50 percent of kids report that they’ve been bullied. That’s how we settled on that part of the book.
For about 30 years, I have wanted to write about a black child prodigy. They’re out there in greater numbers than people realize, like white and Asian prodigies, but they don’t appear in mainstream media.
I wanted to have a little black boy with an IQ of 188 who finds himself in adventures that are funny and involve some aspect of science. Our goal is to feature some aspect of science, technology, engineering and math – STEM education – in every book in the series. Educators and even President Obama have been promoting this education for the future.
How would you describe this new hero, the young scientist Emery Jones, to someone unfamiliar with the character?
Charles Johnson: He’s named after this little guy (pointing to his grandson). His birth [helped motivate us] to do this book because it’s a gift for him.
Elisheba Johnson: I wanted to create a character who was empowering for kids, someone they could look up to. Part of it for me is being the mother of a black son and seeing in the media all of these negative images and representations [of black males]. I talk with a couple of other black mothers on a regular basis about how we want to raise our sons to be self-actualized and proud and strong. This book is for those young boys to see a positive representation of themselves and feel empowered.
The book also crosses race and gender. Gabby [Emery's best friend] is very much myself. It's especially for black male kids, but all kids can relate to it.
Charles Johnson: We wanted an intellectual black male hero. We don’t have images of black geniuses in our literature or in the popular imagination. Most people are not even aware that blacks are all over the sciences, so in this book I mention many black scientists. The time travel theory that we use is from "Time Traveler" by theoretical physicist Dr. Ronald L. Mallett, which I read in one nine-hour sitting. And I also mention and have an illustration of [astrophysicist] Neil deGrasse Tyson.
We wanted to profile black scientists and create role models for little boys and girls so they could say “I could be an engineer. I could be an astronaut like Ron McNair.” Those are their possibilities, and not just in athletics or entertainment.
Robin Lindley: How did your collaboration work?
Elisheba Johnson: We came up with the themes together, then he would write a little bit and I would write a little bit. I would give him what I wrote and he put it together with what he wrote, and he’d give it back to me with comments. He was very quick with his ideas. He’d come to me in the middle of the night and say, “I have a new idea.” So we fed each other with ideas back and forth very quickly.
Charles Johnson: We’re doing the same thing right now with a second book: blocking it out and thinking of ideas and possibilities. This is the most exciting story I’ve had an opportunity to tell probably since my first book "Faith and the Good Thing."
Robin Lindley: Why is this children’s book as such an exciting experience?
Charles Johnson: It’s pure fun. ... "Oxherding Tale" dealt with slavery, then "Middle Passage" was also about slavery and "Dreamer" was about the civil rights movement. Those can be grim subjects but, as I put my imagination into the slave experience or the segregation era, I always tried to transform those narratives into adventurous stories in which the black protagonists had agency and dignity, and went beyond the usual tale of victimhood and oppression. They were never beaten down by racism. They were too strong for that.
But this is a pure adventure story. There was suddenly a space where I could do things that I couldn’t do in an earlier book. [This was a] dream project for me because, one, I could do it with my daughter, two, it’s about a character I’ve wanted to write about for 30 years; and three, it turned out that I had to illustrate it. We had an illustrator, but she had a personal crisis at the end of July and we wanted an October publication. And, of course, I worked as a cartoonist professionally from 1965 to 1972.
Robin Lindley: Your background as a cartoonist may surprise a lot of people.
Charles Johnson: Art was my passion all the way through childhood and high school. I was a student when I was 15 and 16 of cartoonist and mystery writer Lawrence Lariar, and began publishing illustrations and comic art when I was 17.
Like Elisheba, I got accepted to art school. That’s what I wanted to do. She went to Cornish. That for me was a delight. I was accepted at an art school in Illinois, but bailed out before going, saying to myself, “I need a degree that has better market value.” So I majored in journalism, which gave me a chance to write and draw intensely as a student. I drew for every black publication I could find in the late sixties and early seventies.
Robin Lindley: And you had your own PBS series Charlie’s Pad on drawing cartoons.
Charles Johnson: I had my own series the year after the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was formed in 1968. I proposed a show, and the people at WSIU-TV said they’d do it. We did 52 15-minute shows in 1969. It was on the air in 1970 in the spring. I still get mail occasionally from people who learned how to draw from that series.
I was tentative [about illustrating the book] because I had not had a drawing assignment for publication for three years. The book world and the creative writing world never gave me opportunities to draw. I’m going to illustrate all of the rest of the books — and give myself more than 18 days to do the drawings next time. '
Robin Lindley: There's a lot of humor in the book, but it’s also a story with compassion. A critic wrote that you’re restlessly exploring the issue of “how to end evil without creating new evil.”
Charles Johnson: Absolutely. That gets into the process of creation and invention. Every problem that you solve may generate new problems.
The only violence in the book is the bullying that happens early on. And Emery goes back [in time] and tries to save someone who has tormented him since kindergarten because it’s the right thing to do. It’s in his nature to do that. He’s a good kid.
Robin Lindley: Emery has his own Boswell, Gabby, a literate girl with a hearing loss. She’s devoted to Emery and they understand each other, perhaps because they’re both outsiders.
Charles Johnson: I think so. They both have disabilities. His is more metaphoric and hers is literal. She has a hearing loss. He’s a geek with the social problems. I love these two kids because they support each other in a world that doesn’t understand them very well.
Now Emery does have a mentor, Professor Dangerfield Edison Haley who, in my imagination, is an older version of Emery. He’s a child prodigy who received a PhD in particle physics when he was 18 years old. He understands Emery and helps him in ways that his father is not able to. His father is anti-intellectual and a couch potato. The mother would love to help, but she doesn’t have the education. So he turns to Professor Haley, who explains the implications of time travel.
Robin Lindley: The fathers of Emery and the bully Chippy are somewhat lame characters, it seems.
Charles Johnson: If you look at every one of my novels, you’ll see that I always return to the theme of fathers and sons, to the absent or unacceptable father, because it’s something in black American life that must be addressed. Seventy percent of black kids grow up with no father in the home. Part of the emotional core of this story concerns fathers in the black community.
Robin Lindley: And Emery is very different from his parents. Where does his genius come from?
Charles Johnson: I think it’s native intelligence. And Emery just happens to be a very strong-willed character. And again, he has his mentor in Professor Haley. His father never feels what he’s doing is good. He never praises him and never says he’s proud of him, but Professor Haley says, “I always knew you were a genius.”
Robin Lindley: Elisheba, you mentioned that Gabby represents you in a way. She’s a skilled writer and a bright girl who’s facing challenges.
Elisheba Johnson: In a lot of ways, she’s very powerful. There’s a couple times she laments her hearing aids or her figure, but other than that, she and Emery are both strong individuals.There’s not a self-pitying moment between the two of them.
I was bullied and felt alone at times. Gabby is very much representative of a strong, fierce woman who is trying to figure out her place in the social dynamics of elementary school.
Robin Lindley: And Emery faces challenges as kids such as the bully Chippy taunt him and ridicule him for reading.
Charles Johnson: Chippy asks, “Why do you study so hard? Why do you always have your head in a book? To suck up to teachers? To make a lot of money?” But for Emery, learning is delicious. Even more important, Emery says you can’t take his knowledge away from him. That is central to Emery’s understanding of himself — his own integrity and what cannot be taken from him.
Robin Lindley: It seems that most kids, regardless of their race or other traits, can identify with Emery’s character because most of us feel awkward or out of place at times.
Charles Johnson: There isn’t a single reference to race in the book. The only thing close is Emery saying he loves science because it’s about evidence and truth, and it doesn’t care what color you are or what culture or country you come from.
Children’s literature is interesting because it’s the earliest writing that kids are exposed to and this shapes their imaginations. They will carry those images and characters and metaphors and tropes around for the rest of their lives. And writers are drawn to kid protagonists because they’re innocent [and] haven’t been corrupted like adults. You can look at the world through the eyes of a child and see it differently than adults do and see some of the absurdities that adults don’t see.
Robin Lindley: That applies to art too. There’s an innocence or nonjudgmental stance in taking the ordinary and making it new.
Charles Johnson: That’s why we have a line for Professor Haley, which also applies to Emery, that he would look at things that were strange as though they were familiar, and the things he knew perfectly well as if he wasn’t sure about them. That’s actually my paraphrasing of William James, who said “the essence of genius is knowing what to overlook.”
Robin Lindley: That’s an advanced notion for kids. You’re introducing kids to science, history, overlooked heroes, philosophy and all that.
Elisheba Johnson: It started as a picture book, but we kept writing more and more. Initially, we wanted to do something for five-year-olds, and it just kept getting bigger and bigger. I said at one point, “This is not a 20-page picture book anymore.” And we kept going with it.
Robin Lindley: Would you like to add anything on the book or what you hope readers take from it?'ê¨
Elisheba Johnson: I hope they find the book exciting and funny, yet a meaty book that kids can read by themselves or with their families. I want people to take away that reading is fun. My brother and I grew up reading and loved reading. And that’s the reason people write children’s books I think: so kids can explore and be creative and imaginative.
Charles Johnson: It’s been a lot of fun and still is a lot of fun. I’m curious about the characters and where they’re going to go in the next story and how we’ll handle certain ideas in terms of the culture of science. I have a pile of notes on that.
Robin Lindley is a Seattle writer and attorney. He is the features editor for the History News Network and his writing has appeared in HNN, Writer’s Chronicle, Crosscut, Real Change, Re-Markings, NW Lawyer, and more. He has a special interest in history, literature and art. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.