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March 24, 2014
By Grace Bello
His new Emery Jones series, published by Booktrope, marks several firsts for Johnson: his first children's book, his first collaboration with his daughter, and the first time he has drawn professionally in about three years.

"I've never believed in boxing people or things into little, convenient cubicles," says Charles Johnson, 65. A recently retired University of Washington English professor, he's the illustrator and co-author, with his daughter Elisheba Johnson, of the new children's book The Adventures of Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder: Bending Time. Additionally, he's the author of several other books: Dr. King's Refrigerator, Dreamer, and Middle Passage, a bestseller that won the National Book Award. In 1998, he earned the coveted MacArthur "genius" grant.

So, his new Emery Jones series, published by Booktrope, marks several firsts for Johnson: his first children's book, his first collaboration with his daughter, and the first time he has drawn professionally in about three years. 

Also new to Johnson is his publisher, Booktrope: "It's not self-publishing. They have a different model. It's a team," he says. He's on the advisory board of the Seattle startup, which launched in 2011.

Booktrope -- which describes its service as "Team Publishing" -- does not charge authors up front to publish, but does not accept all submissions. If a book is accepted, a team of editors, designers, and a marketing manager is assembled for the project. Revenue from the book is split between the author, publishing team, and publishers.

Around November 2012, Booktrope CEO Ken Shear expressed interest in a book by Charles Johnson. Coincidentally, Johnson's daughter Elisheba says that she has always wanted to collaborate on a children’s book with her father. "After I had my son," she says, "something clicked."

Charles Johnson pitched Shear on the concept, and Booktrope was enthusiastic.

Johnson says, "They have a team that they assemble based on the needs of each and every book. It's very hands-on for me as an author – and my daughter, too – at every phase of the production process and promotion process."

Elisheba Johnson chose the book’s web designer and helped decide the book’s final title and cover design. "They asked us to pick the font we wanted for the book, which is something I didn't expect. What if I pick the wrong font?" she says.

Though their original illustrator had to drop out for personal reasons, Charles Johnson happily stepped in and did the drawings: "[In] the literary world, I never had an opportunity to draw. And that was my first passion."

Booktrope calls their model a "low-overhead collaborative approach." And Elisheba Johnson says that, though this is her first-ever book, she prefers Booktrope's model rather than self-publishing: "When you're self-published – depending on money and your schedule – you might not be as focused as you need to be” in producing or promoting the book. Of Booktrope, she says, "They do have a system that works.”

A Father/Daughter Book

The first book in The Adventures of Emery Jones series introduces readers to the title character, a 10-year-old wunderkind who invents a time machine and then must travel to the Triassic Period to rescue school bully Chippy.

"People have been telling me that this is the first fiction collaboration by a black father and daughter," says Charles Johnson. Not to mention that it’s one of a relatively small number of children’s or YA books by a black author: Only 1.8 % of books for youngsters were by black authors and/or illustrators, says the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC).

"It's something I've been thinking about for maybe 30 years," says Johnson of creating a character who's a young, black prodigy. "They just don't appear in our popular media – although they are out there in great numbers."

His daughter Elisheba had been dreaming of working on a project that addressed bullying in schools. "I was bullied pretty badly in middle school. And my dad was also bullied.” It's a common theme, she says, for bullies to antagonize smart, artistic, less aggressive children.

"The way we worked," says Charles Johnson, "I bounced ideas off my daughter, she bounced ideas off me.” In November 2012, he and his daughter outlined the story. From there, writing took about two months.

“I approach it from the standpoint that I do with every story, which is simply to tell the best story that I can,” says Charles Johnson. Still, he and his daughter asked themselves whether a young reader would be able to comprehend the prose. At which point they consulted their book manager Beth Bacon and Johnson’s friend, children’s book author Tonya Bolden, who helped them fine-tune the book for young readers.

Emery Jones is a brainy and entertaining romp – complete with robots, time travel, and dinosaurs. “It turned out to be a dream book because I wanted to write about a character like Emery Jones for 30 years,” Charles Johnson says, “and I wanted to do a children's book with my daughter.”

Grace Bello is a freelance writer in New York.

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