Alum illustrates new book telling the story of Mamie Till-Mobley and her son, Emmett Till

Janelle Washington uses her paper cut art to help honor two crucial figures in the Civil Rights Movement.

By Leila Ugincius, VCUnews

Emmett Till was 14, visiting family in Mississippi in 1955, when a white woman accused him of whistling at her. Two of the woman’s relatives brutally beat the youth before shooting him and dumping him in a river. Once they were found not guilty in a jury trial, the men publicly admitted to the torture and murder. After Till’s horrific death, his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, devoted the rest of her life to Civil Rights education and activism. Till’s murder served as a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement.

Seven decades later, a 1999 Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts graduate has illustrated a new children’s book honoring Till-Mobley’s work. Janelle Washington collaborated with author Angela Joy on “Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement.”

Paper-cut artist Janelle Washington, an alum of VCU School of the Arts. (Class and Style Productions / artwork – photo credit- Erik Patten Photography)

It’s Washington’s first foray into illustrating books. The founder of WashingtonCuts LLC, a paper-cut art and silhouette company that celebrates and explores Black culture, Washington uses multiple blades to hand cut designs out of paper.

While sketching designs for “Choosing Brave,” worldwide protests against police brutality and racism were taking place, Washington said, adding another level of difficulty to processing Mamie and Emmett Till’s story.

“Black people are still struggling with the same problems,” Washington said.

Washington spoke with VCU News about working on “Choosing Brave,” which will be released on Aug. 9 and can be pre-ordered where books are sold.

How did you become involved with this project?

I became involved in the project early in 2020 while stuck in lockdown during the pandemic. Connie Hsu, the editorial director from Roaring Brook Press, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, sent me an email stating that she came across my website and could envision my beautiful illustrations bringing this story of Mamie to life. After reading the manuscript, I visualized the art for the book and knew that this was a project that I wanted to be a part of. I absolutely loved how Angela Joy wrote about Mamie Till-Mobley’s life and was honored that they thought my paper cut art would be a great fit.

What made you want to work on a picture book?

I love the beauty and details found in picture books and have always admired children’s illustrators. I never thought that I would be illustrating a book myself since I do not have an illustrator’s background, but I jumped on board when the opportunity came.

An early sketch for “Choosing Brave.” Washington wanted to capture Till-Mobley’s “love and dedication” as a mother. (Courtesy of Janelle Washington)

How did you research this project? How did you decide what style to use for these illustrations?

I used my style of paper cutting for the illustrations. Each page is hand-cut and backed with tissue paper and kraft paper. After reading the manuscript, I researched each part of Mamie’s life by watching PBS and YouTube documentaries and reading articles and books about her, her family and the trial.

This is challenging content. How did you keep the images appropriate for younger readers?

The book is for everyone [including] younger age groups. I illustrated and focused on what I thought younger readers could understand, like moving to a new city, being with family, feelings of abandonment from a parent, a mother’s love and dedication, achievements from school, being sick and feelings of joy and sorrow. I kept the art simple but impactful and didn’t add a lot of background detail to make each page easy to digest.

Were there any images that were particularly hard to create?

Several pages were extremely tough to illustrate. I had to brainstorm a lot with the editor and sketch out several designs before coming up with a solid and impactful design for those pages. I am grateful that I was given the time and grace to get the best illustrations for the book. The most challenging pages to illustrate dealt with death — which there are about five pages that cover this — Jim Crow laws and the murder trial. I wanted the art to complement the text and suggest what happened to the reader — not to illustrate the text entirely.

Janelle Washington said she “illustrated and focused on what I thought younger readers could understand.” (Courtesy of Janelle Washington)

Lead Image: One of Janelle Washington’s illustrations for “Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement.” (Courtesy of Janelle Washington)