You’ve in for a special treat, Mixed-Up friends! Joining us on the blog today are Carole Boston Weatherford and Jeffery Weatherford, the author-illustrator/mother-son duo behind the middle-grade verse novel, Kin: Rooted in Hope. The novel, which explores the history of Carol and Jeffery’s family tree, shaped by enslavement and freedom, has been hailed by Publisher’s Weekly as “a layered text that highlights the perseverance of the Weatherfords’ ancestors and the horrors that they endured,” and by Kirkus as “a striking work that reshapes the narrative around enslavement.” It’s out tomorrow, September 19, from Simon & Schuster.
A Summary of Kin: Rooted in Hope
Carole and Jeffery Boston Weatherford’s ancestors are among the founders of Maryland. Their family history there extends more than three hundred years, but as with the genealogical searches of many African Americans with roots in slavery, their family tree can only be traced back five generations before going dark. And so from scraps of history, Carole and Jeffery have conjured the voices of their kin, creating an often painful but ultimately empowering story of who their people were in a breathtaking book that is at once deeply personal yet all too universal.
Carole’s poems capture voices ranging from her ancestors to Frederick Douglass to Harriet Tubman to the plantation house and land itself that connects them all, and Jeffery’s evocative illustrations help carry the story from the first mention of a forebear listed as property in a 1781 ledger to he and his mother’s homegoing trip to Africa in 2016. Shaped by loss, erasure, and ultimate reclamation, this is the story of not only Carole and Jeffery’s family, but of countless other Black families in America.
Carole and Jeffery Boston Weatherford: The Interview
Carole and Jeffery… Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files. It’s honor to have you here! Carole: Kin is told from a fascinating array of perspectives. In addition to accounts from your ancestors, the Copper family, key figures include: Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman; your ancestors’ enslavers, the Lloyd family; an archeologist; Francis Scott Key, who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Non-human narrators are represented, too: Wye House; the Chesapeake Bay; a cemetery. How did you inhabit each character as deeply, and as authentically, as you did?
CBW: I realized after writing my first verse novel, Becoming Billie Holiday, which was in first person, that I had this ability to channel the voices of my subjects. I ask my characters to speak to and through me. It helped that I grew up visiting my great-grandparents’ house in the area. So, I was already rooted in the land long before writing Kin.
The Magic of Scratchboard Art
Jeffery: While we’re on the subject of illustrations, Kin features more than 40 black-and-white pieces of scratchboard art. Can you tell Mixed-Up Files readers more about this medium? What made you choose scratchboard for this particular book?
JBW: Certainly! Scratchboard art is a distinctive and evocative medium, offering a visual dance between darkness and light. At its core, scratchboard is a form of direct engraving where the artist scratches off dark ink to reveal a white or light-colored layer beneath. It’s a medium that requires precision, foresight, and an intimate understanding of light and shadow.
For Kin, I felt that scratchboard was the perfect choice because it mirrored the book’s underlying themes—the contrasting narratives of hardship and hope, of oppression and freedom, of the dark past and the light of progress. Much like our own stories where we strive to find clarity amidst confusion, scratchboard art involves meticulously carving out light from the darkness. It’s about finding and showcasing beauty, no matter how deeply it’s buried. The medium’s inherent contrasts and textures brought depth to the narrative, providing readers with not just a story to read, but an experience to feel.
Additionally, the tactile nature of scratchboard echoes the raw, visceral emotions and historical touchpoints present in Kin. Just as the book delves into the intricate tapestry of ancestry and legacy, the scratchboard technique, with its layers and intricacies, became a metaphor for the multifaceted journey of discovery and understanding.
(For more on the fascinating medium of scratchboard art, click here.)
I Call Their Names
Carole: Much of the material for Kin came from the Lloyd family’s ledgers, including the names of your ancestors, which you call out frequently—almost like an incantation: Yellow Molly; Chicken Sue; Prissy; Daphne; Old Suckey; Charity; Nurse Henny; Barnett; Peg Shaw… How do these names resonate with you?
CBW: Wye House, the Lloyd’s flagship plantation, was once home to more than three hundred enslaved people. Their marginalized voices begged to be amplified and their stories to be told. I invoked the names of the enslaved residents of Wye House. Perhaps that was my way of asking their permission to channel their voices and conjure their stories.
Remembering… And Forgetting
CBW: I don’t know whether my great-great-grandfathers told my great grandparents about enslavement. History can be heart-rending—even traumatizing—especially when it comes to enslavement. As one formerly enslaved woman said in the 1930s, “My folks don’t want me to talk about slavery.” Sadly, many firsthand recollections of enslavement vanished before ever being passed down. On one hand is a reluctance to recall painful memories; on the other, the grief over what is forgotten or unknown. I wish I had inherited more stories.
Poetry in Motion
Jeffery: In addition to being a children’s book illustrator, you’re a performance poet. How has your experience as a poet guided your work as an illustrator—and vice-versa?
JBW: My journey as a performance poet has deeply enriched my perspective as an illustrator. Engaging in spoken word and poetry, I’ve been exposed to the raw, unfiltered emotions of an audience, and I’ve felt the weight of words in a room—the palpable tension, the riveting silences, and the roaring applause. This intimate dance with emotions and public vulnerability has emboldened me in my artistry.
It’s often said that public speaking is a fear greater than death, and if that’s true, then through my countless performances, I’ve confronted and embraced that fear many times over. This recurrent act of braving the stage has translated into an audacious spirit in my illustrations.
Art, much like poetry, is an act of audacious vulnerability. It necessitates the courage to mar a pristine canvas, to take risks, and to lay one’s soul bare for the world to witness. My poetry has taught me to speak, while my illustrations have taught me to visualize; and together, they’ve allowed me to weave narratives that are both visually and emotionally resonant. The synergy between both realms is profound—while my poetry gives voice to my emotions, my illustrations provide them a visual stage.
Fertile Ground for Creativity
Carole: You wrote many of the poems for Kin on your family’s farmstead in Copperville, Maryland. What was this experience like for you? Did this rural location help you feel connected to your ancestors in any way?
CBW: I sense ancestral spirits there. My great-great grandfather Phillip Moaney co-founded Copperville during the Reconstruction. The village is less than two miles from Wye House where my forebears were enslaved. My family’s small farm in Copperville is fertile ground not only for agriculture but also for creativity.
Carole and Jeffery: In 2016, you travelled to Africa to learn more about your ancestors—some of whom descended from royalty. How did this trip deepen your understanding of your family’s history? How did it affect you personally?
CBW: The purpose of our African homecoming was to share our debut collaboration, You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen. At the time, we had not begun work on Kin. Off the coast of Dakar, Senegal on Goree Island, we toured Maison des Esclaves (The House of Slaves). Shortly after our return, I learned from an art exhibition that my great-great grandfather descended from royalty and was known as the Royal Black. That knowledge filled me with pride and inspired me to research our roots.
JBW: The trip was NWA NWA, which means incredible, amazing, magnificent! I felt like I was returning home. Getting to stand on the Goree Island I could feel the power of my ancestors and the light of their smiles. It returned something to me that I cannot explain.
It’s All in the Research
Carole: As a follow-up, what sort of research did you do for Kin? Without birth records, marriage licenses, and death certificates available to trace your family’s genealogy, it must have required a tremendous amount of time, patience, and skillful detective work.
CBW: I was researching family history long before I envisioned Kin. Once, I began work on the book, I studied plantation ledgers, letters, military records archeological reports, the landscape and material culture to reconstruct my ancestors’ milieu. I also read Frederick Douglass’s firsthand account of enslavement at Wye House. Last but not least, I visited the burial ground for the plantation’s enslaved residents. Amidst unmarked graves in a grove of trees, I broke down and cried.
Jeffery: How did the research affect, and enrich, your artwork?
JBW: The research process has been instrumental in shaping the authenticity and depth of my artwork. By delving deep into historical accounts, personal narratives, and cultural contexts, I’ve been able to tap into a reservoir of emotions, experiences, and textures that might have otherwise remained elusive.
Carole and Jeffery: This isn’t your first children’s book collaboration, but I suspect it’s the most meaningful. How has Kin brought you closer, both as collaborators and mother and son? Also, how has this project differed from other books you’ve created together?
CBW: Kin was truly a family affair, conceived with collaboration in mind. Kin is the book of our hearts, an offering to our ancestors and to our offspring, born and unborn.
JBW: We have been working together for a long time, this book has allowed us to dive into family history on an entirely different level and share that experience with the rest of the family.
On the flip side, how do you handle disagreements when it comes to creative decisions? Does the mother-son dynamic ever get in the way? When it does, what are your strategies to resolve the problem?
CBW: I can’t recall a disagreement, maybe because I’m the boss. Joking! Seriously, I consider myself an illustrator’s author. My words are evocative enough for illustrators to express their vision for the art. I was blown away when I saw Jeffery’s art for Kin.
JBW: We don’t particularly argue about the process, to be honest–just about chores that need to be done for tidying up spaces. Kidding. I don’t have many chores from my mom anymore. All jokes aside, it’s been a wonderful experience working with her, and going all over the world to enrich the youth.
Carole: You have written more than 70 award-winning books, but my research reveals that Kin is your most personal one yet. Was there a watershed moment, or inner force, that impelled you to share your family’s history?
CBW: In late 2016, I went to an exhibition of Depression-era paintings by Ruth Starr Rose, a white artist who came of age at Hope House, the former plantation where my great-great grandfather was the gardener. I was awestruck that Rose’s paintings depicted my relatives, whom the curator referred to as Maryland’s founding families. I suspect that one painting shows my father as a boy. The exhibition also featured a photograph of my great-great grandfather, whose face I had never before seen. The exhibition underscored for me the significance of my family’s history.
Carole and Jeffery: Thank you for chatting about KIN today. I know your book will resonate with readers as much as it did with me.
Carole Boston Weatherford
Carole has written many award-winning books for children, including You Can Fly, illustrated by her son Jeffery; Box, which won a Newbery Honor; Unspeakable, which won the Coretta Scott King award, a Caldecott honor, and was a finalist for the National Book Award finalist; Respect: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, winner of the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award; and Caldecott Honor winners Freedom in Congo Square; Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement; and Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom. Carole lives in North Carolina. Visit her at CBWeatherford.com.
Jeffery Boston Weatherford