Janelle Harper joins The Backstory today with her picture book debut, My Block Looks Like (Viking Books for Young Readers, 2024) with illustrations by Frank Morrison. Between Janelle's lyricism and Frank's style, this book will have you feeling like you've been dropped into the heart of The Bronx. Keep reading to learn all about the inspiration for this book and for your chance to win a critique from Janelle.
AH: Welcome to The Backstory and thank you for joining us and sharing the inspiration behind MY BLOCK LOOKS LIKE.
First off, please tell us a little bit about your story.
JH: My Block Looks Like is a love letter to The Bronx, written in verse, highlighting people, places and things, such as the Icee man, bodegas and subways, that make this New York City borough unique and “the coolest place I’ve ever been”.
AH: Janelle, this book is beautiful! You can feel your heart and your deep love for The Bronx on each page. This paired with Frank Morrison's incredible illustrations makes MY BLOCK LOOKS LIKE a must-read.
AH: What’s the story behind the story? What was your inspiration? Where did the idea come from?
JH: I grew up and live in The Bronx. I have some of the fondest childhood memories from being a kid in this borough, contrary to the many misconceptions I hear about my hometown. As a teacher in the classroom, I was often surprised by what my students didn’t know about their borough like it being the birthplace of Hip Hop though they enjoyed and participated in Hip Hop culture. I thought about all the wonderful things that exist in The Bronx that even the residents may not know about or may overlook how special it is. This sparked the idea to write My Block Looks Like to pay homage to all the hidden gems in our community.
AH: You have done your community proud! The love you have for The Bronx is evident in every masterfully curated word you have penned. You have let the world in on the amazing aspects your borough has to offer.
AH: How did you approach going from this seed of an idea to what is now MY BLOCK LOOKS LIKE? Was it something undeniable you had to write immediately or did you need to sit with this idea and let it grow for a while before it found its way to the page?
JH: My Block Looks Like has been the easiest story I’ve ever written. I knew with The Bronx being the birthplace of Hip Hop and the natural rhythms of the city, the story had to be told in verse. The story and words flowed from my heart onto the page. It is truly a love letter from me to The Bronx.
AH: You know you are onto something good when those words pour right out.
AH: Did MY BLOCK LOOKS LIKE undergo any major changes/revisions from the original version? If so, what led you to make these changes?
JH: I originally wrote three drafts of MY BLOCK LOOKS LIKE. There were minor changes between the drafts that focused on rearranging the order of the stanzas and editing outlines for the purpose of flow. When my agent received the manuscript, she said it was ready to go on sub as is so we did no edits to it. When my editor received the manuscript, many of our edits focused on formatting the verse (capitalization, punctuation, flow, etc.) From the drafting, revising and editing, everything was a smooth and easy process with this story.
AH: I am so glad it all went smoothly. It is nice having those checks along the way of an agent and editor to provide both affirmation and support, even for those little items like formatting.
Are there any books/authors that you feel influenced your work on?
JH: I was inspired to write My Block Looks Like after reading three books written in verse, The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds and The Undefeated written by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson. Because I felt seen and represented in these books, it gave me permission to tell my story and the story of my community in an authentic way, which for me was also in verse.
AH: This is so amazing to hear because what those authors and books did for you, you and My Block Looks Like are going to do for so many others.
Where do you tend to find your inspiration or your sparks for ideas?
JH: Many of my stories are inspired by the diverse experiences of the African Diaspora. I’m inspired by the beauty and complexities of Black culture. Living in New York City also provides me with a wealth of inspiration for story ideas.
AH: Keep those stories coming! I can't wait to hear that more Janelle Harper books are on their way.
Do you have any upcoming projects or news you would like to share with us?
JH: Unfortunately, there are no upcoming projects that I can speak of right now. Publishing makes you hold onto news for a very long time but anyone can sign up for my newsletter or follow me on social media for future announcements.
Please connect with me on X or Instagram @BXStoryteller. Please also visit my author website www.janellharperauthor.com and subscribe to my newsletter.
AH: Readers be sure to connect with Janelle on social media and subscribe to her newsletter to ensure you are one of the first to know about any upcoming publishing news. While you are at it please consider supporting Janelle and My Block Looks Like in any way you can.
This could include:
- ordering from your favorite indie
- marking as want to read on Goodreads
-leaving a review
- making a library request
Janelle thank you so much for sharing My Block Looks Like. I loved getting a peek at what inspired this gorgeously written and illustrated book!
Janelle would love to give away a picture book critique (fiction, non-rhyming, less than 600 words).
Ways to enter:
1. Retweet my tweet about this blog post. Additional entry for tagging friends!
2. Leave a comment on this post.
3. Post about this interview on social media and tell me in the comments that you did.
Each method earns an extra entry!
ABOUT JANELLE HARPER
Janelle Harper is a Bronx native who proudly carries her New York accent anywhere she goes. As a children’s book author, Janelle is passionate about representation. She hopes to create stories that make children fall more in love with themselves. She’s drawn to stories that are lyrical, multi-generational or showcase non-traditional storytelling structures.
Since she was a child, Janelle enjoyed a deep love for reading and writing. Her head was often buried in The Babysitters Club books. On holidays, she would show off her writing skills by creating greeting cards using construction paper and lots of glitter!
Janelle comes from a long line of educators. She is a veteran New York City public school teacher who is dedicated to providing equitable education and opportunities for Black and Brown children. Janelle can often be found in her dance studio, blasting music, yelling 5-6-7-8, and preparing students for elaborate productions.
ABOUT ANDREW HACKET
Andrew Hacket is a writer, second-grade teacher, and father of three. He is also the author of the upcoming Ollie, the Acorn, and the Mighty Idea, Curlilocks and the Three Hares, and Hope and the Sea. Andrew recognizes that being a kid is hard and he writes to create ways for kids to see themselves in stories and characters, to accept and overcome their insecurities, or to escape for just a little while through the power of their imaginations.