A Conversation With Rio Cortez and Lauren Semmer, the Author and Illustrator of the ABCs of Black History
Tell us about your writing/illustrating process?
Lauren Semmer: I like to read the text and then let the story sink in a bit. I usually get an idea of what I want to draw and then build the composition from there. Rio’s words are so beautiful, this book was a joy to work on.
Rio Cortez: Poetry is so difficult to establish process around, so much of it is duende. But procedure is important to the work of writing. I like to write in the evening, when our toddler has gone to sleep and the house is quiet. Sometimes I will scribble lines down throughout the day. I can revise almost anytime, which is just as important, I think.
Is there a particular place you are most comfortable creating?
LS: I usually work at home—sometimes at my desk and sometimes in the living room on the sofa! The pandemic has taught me to be very flexible with when and where I work.
RC: I like to write at home. Usually at the dining room table.
The ABCs of Black History takes young readers through an alphabet of Black history and culture— is there a particular event, place, or person that you were excited to highlight for this age group?
LS: Each subject and spread became my favorite as I was working on it. Looking back, I really enjoyed including so many regular people within the pages of the book. Being able to put events, places and notable people in context of their real lives was special to me.
RC: Oh yes! Happily, we were able to include so many favorites. I was excited to highlight Matthew Henson, who was born in Maryland to sharecroppers and became an arctic explorer and quite possibly the first man to reach the North Pole. His story, like so many figures in this book and throughout our history, is incredible. Another highlight for me was the inclusion of Nat Love, who actually doesn’t appear in my text, but is represented in part of Lauren’s illustration for the letter ‘L’. Nat Love was a formerly enslaved cowboy, one of the most famous Black heroes of the Old West, and actually spent some time as a neighbor to my great aunt Byrdie, in Salt Lake City, UT.
What considerations or challenges did you face in writing/illustrating Black history for this particular age group?
LS: At times, a particular subject would be deeply touching. For example, the story of Ashley and Rose, which you can learn about in L is for Love, is heartbreaking yet being able to illustrate their beautiful story of love was so rewarding at the same time.
RC: For me, one of the biggest challenges in writing this poem and the story of Black history for children was the challenge of addressing the transatlantic slave trade. I wanted to be truthful to young readers, and to not avoid tough parts of the story, and also leave room for righteous joy and celebration. That made D is for Diaspora one of the most difficult letters to write. Traci Todd, our editor, was such a guiding light in approaching this subject.
What do you hope readers take away from the artwork and text of the book?
LS: I hope that readers of The ABCs of Black history feel seen in the pages of this book and understand that they are an important part of our story as Black people. For those who may not be Black and are reading, I hope they learn from the book and enjoy reading about all these amazing individuals and times.
RC: Like Lauren, I hope young Black children feel seen, I hope they feel pride, and I hope they feel inspired and lifted up by a legacy of perseverance and change-making. I hope all readers are inspired to learn more about the lives and events in this book, and maybe even to use this book as a way to connect important dots and provide context from our nation’s past to our present.
Who inspires you?
LS: While illustrating the book, I learned about so many incredible individuals that I only knew a little about before. Madam CJ Walker’s story was actually new to me. It is so inspiring. There are so many brilliant Black women and men to learn about in these pages.
RC: This is such a tough question! Only because there are so many answers. Lately, I’ve been feeling very inspired by the work of Octavia Butler.
What advice do you have for families and children inspired to continue their exploration of Black history and culture?
LS: The back matter of The ABCs of Black History is a wonderful place to learn more about Black history and culture. It goes beyond just a glossary of terms by giving links and suggestions for further reading. You can also use each letter as a jumping off point to learn more online, or by heading to your local bookstore to find biographies on those featured in the book. I also think looking at the work of Black artists whether visual arts, music, literature, theatre, and of course, children’s books, will enrich your life!
RC: I would definitely say the back matter! There are lots of resources and tools for further reading. And in general I would say: read more books by Black authors, see more films by Black filmmakers, view more art by Black artists, look back at Black activists and movements and consider getting involved with the extension of that activist work today.
Is there a letter spread that resonates most with you?
LS: I love Q is for Queens because there is just so much to be inspired by.
RC: I love the spread for the letter J because it’s all about liberation. And Lauren’s illustration on that spread is so bright and vibrant, which feels exactly right.
Rio Cortez is a writer and Pushcart Prize–nominated poet who has received fellowships from Poet’s House, Cave Canem, and CantoMundo foundations. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Miami Rail, and Mother magazine, among others. Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, Rio writes and lives in Harlem, New York. Her daughter was the inspiration for this book.
Lauren Semmer is an artist, children’s book illustrator, and designer. She studied drawing at St. Paul College of Visual Arts and art history at New York University. Lauren’s bright and charming work is featured on everything from kid’s wall art to children’s apparel. She lives in Manhattan, New York, with her family.
More About The ABCs of Black History
A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
B is for Beautiful, Brave, and Bright! And for a Book that takes a Bold journey through the alphabet of Black history and culture.
Letter by letter, The ABCs of Black History celebrates a story that spans continents and centuries, triumph and heartbreak, creativity and joy.
It’s a story of big ideas––P is for Power, S is for Science and Soul. Of significant moments––G is for Great Migration. Of iconic figures––H is for Zora Neale Hurston, X is for Malcom X. It’s an ABC book like no other, and a story of hope and love.
In addition to rhyming text, the book includes back matter with information on the events, places, and people mentioned in the poem, from Mae Jemison to W. E. B. Du Bois, Fannie Lou Hamer to Sam Cooke, and the Little Rock Nine to DJ Kool Herc.