Award-winning author and illustrator Bryan Collier joins Zibby to talk about his latest picture book, We Shall Overcome, which connects the iconic anthem of the Civil Rights Movement to our current day. The two discuss how Bryan always knew he wanted to be an artist, the ways in which working with children for twelve years inspired his creativity, and why the book he is currently working on is his most exciting project yet. Bryan also breaks down the layers of the book’s cover which features his youngest daughter.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Bryan. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss We Shall Overcome.

Bryan Collier: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: This book is unbelievably beautiful. The illustrations are just breathtaking. How did you decide to do this book? Tell me the whole backstory of it. I’m just so unbelievably impressed with this, as with all your work, really.

Bryan: Thank you. I was super, super excited to try to tell this well-familiar anthem and song in a way that creates a bridge from its inception and the way it was used through history through the Civil Rights movement and as it pertains to today. I started with the idea of taking two approaches, paint images in black and white that would indicate the past, and then in full color I would paint a little kid walking through history like a timeline as if it’s some sort of time machine that’s making all these connections. The imagery that you see is in both color and black and white.

Zibby: It’s beautiful. I was reading about your — what’s the word? — predilection for collage. It does seem like so many of these images look as though they had been cut out and pasted on in a collage-like illustration. Is that the way you went about this? How did you do this visually?

Bryan: Visually, I paint in watercolor. When you see the cutout, everything is painted, basically. I paint in watercolor. I paint on heavy watercolor paper, like three-hundred-pound watercolor paper. It’s not really three hundred pounds, but it’s the heavy cardstock.

Zibby: I know, I know.

Bryan: I use it. I mold it. I do all kinds of things because I have an affinity for different textures of paper. I try to use a combination of all of those things to build the imagery up. I don’t have a formula at all. I just go by intuition and try to tell the story, what I want to sort of fall to the background, what I want to zoom forward for the visual eye to see. All that is important in the storytelling and the emphasis and then my intentions when I’m creating. All those things come into play when creating. The imagery itself are major landmarks and historical places in history as the Civil Rights movement moved through it and then as it pertains to today as well.

Zibby: Absolutely gorgeous. By the way, I had Tami Charles on my podcast for All Because You Matter. Now I get to talk to the person who made her book so beautiful too. That’s amazing.

Bryan: Tami is so awesome.

Zibby: Yeah, she really is. You have such a gift. You have such an eye and such a talent. When did you realize this was your calling?

Bryan: I think I was at age fifteen, actually. I started making art at fifteen. I was totally in. I was just hooked. Even though I played sports — I was into football and basketball. I played all throughout high school. It was nothing like making art. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t have a plan B. All I had was one plan, is to be an artist and create and find my way. I didn’t know what that would look like. I just knew that was it.

Zibby: Wow. What position did you play in football? My son plays football now.

Bryan: I was a fullback on the offense. On defense, I was a defensive end.

Zibby: Nice. He’s playing center right now, but he hates playing center. We’ll see what happens. He’d like to be a running back, but I don’t know, maybe he’s not fast enough. We’ll see.

Bryan: Oh, he can get back there.

Zibby: So you discovered this talent. Then I know you had this long career working in Harlem in a nonprofit capacity and really making a difference there. Tell me about that.

Bryan: I started during my senior year at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I was told to go up to Harlem and check out this art program that had just started. When I went up there and I met the kids — we were situated in the Harlem Hospital, but it’s for kids for the community as well, not just in the hospital. What I did was, I knew as soon as I walked in how a lot of answers as an artist, for me, were there. I have an affinity for making art. I love young people. I was raised by my grandmother primarily, and so I have for older folks as well. I was bridging those sort of ideas about why I was an artist. What is it all for? What is it all about? Watching those kids create, and then I was creating myself, a lot of answers and affirmations were awarded in those moments. I did it for twelve years.

Zibby: You’re still involved, right?

Bryan: The program is no longer in existence, but I was for a lot of years after I left, as a consultant to the program.

Zibby: Got it. Wait, so Bryan, tell me about the cover for We Shall Overcome. Tell me about how in the letters — it’s hard to describe this since this is a podcast, but I’m going to give it a shot. There’s this beautiful picture, partially black and white, partially with this new, beautiful little girl with a yellow dress holding a flower with a peace sign on it, a little leaf. Then in big, bold, orange letters it says We Shall Overcome. Even the letters look a bit — you can feel them. They’re raised. There are dents in it.

Bryan: The textures. It’s really textured.

Zibby: Yeah, really textured. Tell me about this. I’m assuming you designed the cover as well.

Bryan: I was in on it. There was an art designer at the publisher that pulls it all together. My artistic contribution to it was — the black-and-white imagery in the background is a painting of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. There’s a statue of Dr. King in the park across the street, diagonally across the street from that sanctuary. That’s a key location. During the Civil Rights Movement, that is where the children went to the forefront of the movement as a strategy. It was a dark day there when the church was bombed and the four little girls were killed that day in that sanctuary. That was a key as we’re talking about, we shall overcome. The little girl, that’s my daughter. Her name is Haley. That’s my youngest daughter who posed for the book.

Zibby: So beautiful.

Bryan: She’s standing in a yellow dress with a peace sign. When you open the book, and the first image is of her sitting on her bed getting ready for school, there’s a peace sign on her bedspread. She starts in peace, and she ends in peace in this book. That’s significant as well as her journey. She’s the connection. She’s the bridge from yesterday to today. When you read the book, you’ll see what she does as she walks through the book through history and sees all the black-and-white imagery of the past, but she’s the future. She represents the future.

Zibby: That is beautiful. I didn’t even notice the bedspread. That’s how observant I am. Oh, well.

Bryan: Picture books make you slow down and pay attention to the details. That’s the glory and the wonder of picture books.

Zibby: That’s so true. I think my kids are probably better at this than I am. Is your daughter thrilled? Is she thrilled to have been featured, or did that cause dissention in the ranks?

Bryan: Listen, she’s been in several books, as my other daughters have too. It’s so familiar to them that it’s just another thing. She gets an awakening when her classmates and her librarian at the school bring it to her attention that this is a big deal. To her, it’s just like, this is what Dad does. They’re in my studio every day. They watch me make the art. They pose for the book. They do their thing. I think when she gets a little bit older, she’ll realize what a great opportunity this was for all of us.

Zibby: Wow, what a unique way. It’s just so amazing that they get to think that this is how all kids grow up, having this award-winning dad painting in the back of house type of thing. That’s amazing. What are your hopes and dreams for this book?

Bryan: I dream that we all get together and really analyze what our day and our world looks like today and how we got here and how we go forward. What do we need in our spirit and in our heart as we tackle all the issues that we all are grappling with? When we say we’re in the same boat, the planet is in the same boat. We all need to walk and come together on it. This is a wonderful way to understand where we came from as a species, as the human race, and how we get to the next stop and the next position and how we get there together in a peaceful way. We have all the testimony and all the examples that were laid before us on how to create a blueprint to get there. This book is a catalyst for our young folks to talk about the history, talk about these images that you see and where they came from and really create a wonderful conversation about history, and our own history, not just black folks, not just white folks, but all of us. This is universal right here. I’m so, so happy and pleased to be a part of a project like this.

Zibby: Aw, it’s amazing. You’re so talented. Your illustrations just completely made this book what it is. It’s just amazing. Really, really powerful. What a contribution. What is your next project? What do you have coming down the pike?

Bryan: Tami Charles and I, we’re going to do the follow-up to All Because You Matter. It’s called We Are. Oh, my goodness, I can’t wait. I can’t do it fast enough. I’ve got to pace myself because I’m biting at the bit. Also, I have a book that comes out in June that I both wrote and illustrated. It’s called Music is a Rainbow. In that, I’m sort of channeling the childhood of Quincy Jones and Maya Angelou. I was inspired by a poem by Robert Frost. This is the most difficult project. I piled on the biggest problem that I could ever do to try to make this happen. I think I made it through it. I’m so excited about that.

Zibby: I can’t wait to see that. That sounds amazing. What advice would you have for aspiring children’s book authors or illustrators?

Bryan: The advice is to start right where you are at this very moment. Figure out how to tell stories. If you’re an artist and creator, hone your craft. Work on your craft every single day. Start jotting down your ideas and storytelling. Develop a story. Develop your story. Don’t think about trends that are happening out there. Tell your story. Tell your truth. It’ll be unique. It will be your voice. Nobody has a voice like you. Trust that.

Zibby: Love it. Wonderful. Bryan, thank you so much. Thanks for this amazing book. Thanks for chatting about it. I can’t wait to see what’s next. Amazing.

Bryan: I appreciate you having me. Thank you for everything. We Shall Overcome.

Zibby: Thank you. Buh-bye.

Bryan: Buh-bye.


WE SHALL OVERCOME by Bryan Collier

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