September 02, 2021

By Lapacazo Sandoval

Contributing Writer


Hello world, and you are welcome, I step into sharing Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s story with that much confidence, utterly convinced that you will thank me, later, en masse, for introducing you to the one, the only children book author/illustrator Mrs. Brantley-Newton.

I’ll begin by sharing her accolades and accomplishments because when I rewind to her beginning, you will understand that despite the devastating obstacles, Vanessa’s stayed true to her passions and didn’t abandon the little girl inside of her, and this is a lesson that I hope (finger and toes crossed) that you take away and share with others.

Vanessa entered my creative orbit during a free seminar sponsored by the Storyteller Academy, a community of authors, illustrators, editors, agents, and publishing professionals who share their creative secrets and insider tips for creating award-winning books.

Storyteller Academy’s mission is simple: To help aspiring authors and illustrators learn the art of storytelling and get published.

Vanessa teaches Character Design in a combination of live-zoom classes and prepared workshops. Her course includes lessons in how to birth a character, diving into questions that explore learning about your character, how to draw their expressions, design their wardrobe, choose colors and textures and bring them to life.


All of the courses at Storyteller Academy are taught by professionals who believe that everyone is creative and has stories to tell and believe that illustrators can write and writers can draw.


They believe that a diverse world deserves diverse books made by diverse storytellers, and they believe in supportive critique groups, revising until you get it just right, learning business and marketing skills are just as vital to your success as the craft of storytelling.



If you get the vibes that Storyteller Academy is filled with positive, creative, experienced instructors (who care) then you will be correct. I joined this community because of Vanessa Brantley Newton.

No one with eyes can deny the incredible gifts bestowed on her by the God of her understanding.

Formally, Vanessa attended both SVA and FIT of New York, where she studied fashion and children’s illustration.

A character herself, in many ways, as an artist she loves all things vintage – especially books and clothes from the 40s through the 60’s – and it shines through in her designs, which run the gamut of fun and whimsical to stylish and sophisticated.


She loves to add unique touches to her work, including mixed media accents, collage, and hand lettering. In short, she’s a bad-ass talent; full stop.


Vanessa was born during the Civil Rights movement and attended school in Newark, NJ. Being part of a diverse, tight-knit community during such turbulent times, she learned the importance of acceptance and empowerment in shaping a young person’s life.


When she read Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats [for clarity for the reader, Keats is a white man], it was the first time she saw herself [illustrated] in a children’s book. It was a “defining moment” in her life, and helped shape her into the staggeringly brilliant artist that she is today.

As an illustrator, she includes children of all ethnic backgrounds in her stories and artwork. The reason, simple, she wants all children to see their unique experiences reflected in the books they read, so they can feel the same sense of empowerment and recognition she experienced as a young reader.


Vanessa doesn’t talk about it like so many in Hollywood do, she walks it and celebrates self-love and acceptance of all cultures through her work, and hopes to inspire young readers to find their own voices.


She first learned to express herself as a little girl through song. Growing up in a musical family, Vanessa’s parents taught her how to sing to help overcome her stuttering. Each night the family would gather to make music together, with her mom on piano, her dad on guitar, and Vanessa and her sister, Coy, singing the blues, gospel, spirituals, and jazz.




Now whenever she illustrates, music fills the air and finds its way into her art. The children she draws can be seen dancing, wiggling, and moving freely across the page in an expression of happiness.



Music is a constant celebration, no matter the occasion, and Vanessa hopes her illustrations bring joy to others, with the same magic of a beautiful melody.



Aladdin Books

American Girl


Blue Apple Books

Book Apple



Cricket Magazine


Focus on the Family



Houghton Mifflin HarcourtHarper Collins

Lee & Low

National Geographic

Random House



Simon and Schuster

Tricycle Press


2019 Washington Post’s Best Children’s Books of the Year – “The King of Kindergarten”

2019 Bank Street College’s Best Books of the Year – “Grandma’s Purse”

New York Times Bestseller – “The King of Kindergarten”

Four Starred Reviews – “The King of Kindergarten”

2019 Society of Illustrators Original Art Show – “The King of Kindergarten”

2018 Bank Street College’s Best Books of the Year – “The Youngest Marcher”

2017 Chicago Public Library Best of the Best Books – “The Youngest Marcher”

2017 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work Nomination – “The Youngest Marcher”

2016 CCBC Choices – “My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay”

2016 Bank Street’s Best Children’s Books of the Year – “My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay”

2015 CCBC Choice – “The Hula Hoopin’ Queen”

2015 CCBC Charlotte Zolotow Award – “The Hula Hoopin’ Queen”

2015 Bank Street College of Education Best Books – “The Hula Hoopin’ Queen”

2015 WSRA Picture This! Selection – “The Hula Hoopin’ Queen”

2015 Delaware Diamonds – “The Hula Hoopin’ Queen”

2014 Best Cover Award for Highlights’ Hello Magazine

2014 Society of Illustrators Original Art Show

2014 The Jane Addams Peace Foundation for Children’s Books Honor – “We Shall Overcome”

2014 Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People – “We Shall Overcome”

2013 Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book of the Year – “We Shall Overcome”

2013 Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book of the Year – “Every Little Thing”

Here is what award-winning author/illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton had to share about having money and still finding way to follow her bliss.

THE LOS ANGELES SENTINEL: I am blown away by the courses that are carefully crafted at Storyteller Academy ( and that I joined because of you.

VANESSA BRANTLEY-NEWTON: That’s wonderful, Lapacazo.

LAS: Well, I can’t draw.

VBN: Yes, you can.

LAS: I joined StoryTeller Academy because of you. Do you remember the teacher, growing up, that made a difference in your life? Mine was Mrs. Nevins.

VBN: Yes I do. That was Miss Russell. Miss Russell had the biggest, orangest afro I had ever seen in my whole life. It looked like a cloud. She wore the shortest dresses and the coolest shoes. I loved Miss Russell. Once she set me on her lap and shared a beautiful book that has stayed with me all these years. It was about a young boy who wore a red snowsuit and lived in the hood as far as I was concerned, LOL! The thing that stood out about this boy was that he was brown just like me!

LAS: You mean THE SNOWY DAY by Ezra Jack Keats?

VBN: Yes. That’s the one. It was 1963 there weren’t many books that had a Black child as the main character, and when they were drawn in children’s books of old, Black people were drawn very cruelly and just plain ugly. The book moved me so because it would be the first time I would see a Black child that looked like me, dressed like me…might have even been me.

LAS: 1963. When you think about it, a lot of positive changes have been made in the children's book world and you are a part of it.

VBN: You’re right.

LAS: But peep it. Ezra Jack Keats was a white man? Why did he color in a character and profit from us?

VBN: It was 1963 and he got in trouble for it. Can you imagine? He told him because [the character] should have been there. Books are not just for White children and he lived in the hood.

LAS: Is that right?

VBN: Even after he got money, he never married and he lived in the hood and he painted. His muses were Brown children. Hispanic, African American children were his muses. This is why we have all of his books because he stayed in the neighborhood. These are the people that were on his heart.

LAS: I was doubly moved when you shared that you use to stutter (me too), and that you are dyslexic. So am I.

VBN: I understand. Being dyslexic. Reading for me sometimes can be a struggle. The words seem to dance on the page. Numbers seem to move and float around. I push myself constantly to read out loud, and while I make it look effortless and fun, it is a struggle for me still. I took “The Snowy Day” and sat on the floor of B&N and I read it through tears. Every wonderful and magnificent word.

LAS: I will not lie. I love words. I have notebooks filled with words and snatches of phrases that move my imagination. 

VBN: That’s nice. So … it began for you on a snowy day. What inspired you? You were challenged from the very beginning. It feels like that book opened those doors.

VBN: Words and pictures came together. I looked for books written and illustrated by [Ezra Jack] Keats, studying his work. I copied the man. I wanted to somehow do for other children what this awesome man had done for me.

LAS: That’s what’s up. So many people peacock the word “diversity” as if it’s exclusive to the Black and White experience. I think. Hey, have you ever seen a map of the world? What’s diversity to you, Ms. Vanessa?

VBN: (laughing) A great question.

LAS: Thank you.

VBN: (umm) I agree. It’s important that not only Black, White, Chinese or Indian children be seen in picture books, but that all children see themselves in picture books.

LAS: All children. I’m a "children". And why, all children?

VBN: (laughing) So they experience another culture so that their minds broaden.

LAS: Exactly because racism is taught. The power of good children books can be a valuable tool. I’m sorry. I am pulling out my proverbial soapbox and stomping with two feet. Please, continue.

VBN: Diversity is needed if we are going to grow as writers and illustrators. I like to call myself “The Multicultural Illustrator”. It is reflected in my work. I come from a very blended background—African American, Asian, European, and Jewish descent—it’s all in there. So if you are thinking that diversity is not important, take it from a little brown girl who was affected by someone’s beautiful pictures.

LAS: How many books do you have published, to date?

VBN: I have written and illustrated five books of my own. I have illustrated over 92 children's books and I love it.

LAS: AMEN. Wow. Your work is prolific. How did it begin? A lot of hurdles?

VBN: Ummmhhhh)

LAS: These are the times I wish I would have chosen a ZOOM interview. Next time. Ummmhhhh! 

VBN: Okay, My husband was out of work as an Aerospace Engineer. He couldn't find work anywhere.

LAS: Damn!

VBN: I know. We had no money.

LAS: Broke. Broke.

VBN: Seriously NO MONEY coming in. I tried to find work and found some small jobs that brought in a little money, but bills were piling up and it got really ugly. I started working for a Reproductive Medicine Center.

LAS: Yikes. That sounds like torture.

VBN: They hated me!

LAS: Naw. No one can hate you but I can see hating the job. My bad, continue.

VBN: Aww thank you. When I got home from work I would read and study everything I could get my hands on about Children's books and illustration. I put enough money together and took classes and starting building a portfolio.

LAS: Sounds right. 

VBN: I created a blog where I could show my work and I made friends with other writers and illustrators. I joined SCBWI 9Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) and honed my illustration skills even more. 

LAS: I wish I could draw!

VBN: You can.

LAS: Ha! Wait. That’s a great idea for a children’s book. Hey — you are a great teacher. My bad. Continue.

VBN: I used my dining room table for my creative space as well. It was always filled with my work. Illustrations were everywhere. My husband got so upset with me and begged me to clean the table off. I got a call from a friend, Karen, who said she wanted to come over for a quick visit, and I’d known her for years. Like years. I knew her to be a dancer and I was singing at the time. I’ll never forget. It was a Sunday afternoon and my husband begged me to clean our table. I tried.

LAS: I bet.

VBN: I did but I couldn't get everything cleaned up. Karen showed up and there was my table still covered with artwork. I will never forget this. She asked me straight up, ‘V, who did all the wonderful illustration work??’ We had been friends for many years, but we never talked about what each other did besides singing and dancing. I told her, ‘I did.’ She said, ‘Vanessa in all the years we have known each other I didn't know that you had this talent! Do you know who I work for??’ ‘No,’ I said shamefully. ‘Vanessa I work for Scholastic Books and YOU ARE HIRED!!’

LAS: I love this story. You told this at the free StoryTeller Academy conferences. 

VBN: I did and I have been working in publishing every since. 

LAS: Any rejections along the way?

VBN: This is hard work. I did get some rejections. I think it keeps us grounded in a lot of ways. Only 1% of people get to do what we do. Rejection pushed me to find my voice in illustration. I found that multiculturalism was at the heart of my illustration style and work. I knew that I could draw all cultures and that was valuable to me. I wanted to be diverse when I illustrated. It was very important to me that ALL children see themselves in picture books! 

LAS: What are you really about?

VBN: I’m about building up children. I’m about children looking at themselves and seeing further along than their parents about who they are. So, if I can draw a little Black boy leaping and jumping, and saying ‘I don’t want to be Lebron James. I just want to be a man who builds rockets, that’s the stories that I want to tell children. I want to tell children that they can go to your magic elevator, called your bedroom closet and it can take you anywhere you want to go.

LAS: Vanessa. That’s another children's book series. My closet. My hamper. My bathtub. My backyard. My left shoe and my sweater. Sorry. You get me going.

VBN: Imagination. I am also a woman of integrity. You have to stay on course. Your gifts can take you where your character can’t keep you.

LAS: Is there an award that’s evaded you to date?

VBN: Good question. I’ve not received a Newberry Library Award, or a Coretta Scott King Book Awards because ‘they’ think that I am not black enough for that, I guess. You can add that into the article: ‘Vanessa said, maybe I’m not Black enough for them …. ‘ I use to watch other people get those awards and feel bad about it even cry about it. I’d question myself — ‘what am I doing wrong?’

LAS: And did you get an answer?

VBN: Great question. In my private mediation time, I learned this: ‘You are mistaking the award for the reward.’ I include all children. Kids are taught to be racists. They are taught to be angry.

LAS: They are — sadly and that’s why I am writing more children's books and learning at Storyteller Academy.

VBN: Often people only see what’s placed in front of them. You have to see yourself illustrating.

LAS: Even though I can’t draw? LOL.

VBN: While you might make mistakes let them be happy mistakes because that’s where art comes from.

Storyteller Academy (


Category: Education