What an absolute treat to welcome Dapo Adeola to the blog! He has been chatting to the lovely Sarah Broadley about how Joyful, Joyful came about, and his experience as a Black illustrator in the publishing industry.
Joyful, Joyful – curated by Dapo Adeola
Sarah Broadley: ‘Joyful, Joyful’ is a fantastic collection of life stories from Black creatives. You mention in the opening introduction that you had the idea back in 2019 – can you tell us more?
Dapo Adeola: So when I first came on the scene back in 2018, I was made aware that there was only one other Black British illustrator working in Children’s publishing in the UK at the time. To make matters worse, I had yet to be published, so technically I couldn’t even be added to the count.
That was a bit disturbing considering all the artistic talent I knew existed in the diaspora. I did a little digging to find out if this was true and why. It was and the reasons being given were things like “the talent’s just not out there” etc.
I knew it wasn’t true so I started doing some digging. I put a call out on Twitter for Black British illustration talent and it led to a very eye catching thread full of talent which caught the eyes of various people in the industry. Including my publishers at Macmillan who called me in to have a conversation about my experiences so far in the industry as a Black person.
The conversation ended with us coming together to put on an event for Black British illustrators and me putting together the first pitch for an anthology idea that January, which would later go on to become ‘Joyful Joyful’.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing though, as my amazing editor Helen Weir struggled to get my idea green lit for a good while. It wasn’t green lit until 2020, when I was fed up and about to take the idea off the table, that the tragic events of that summer’s protests led to a moment in publishing where ideas like mine suddenly became golden. I decided not to get hung up on this and make the best out of the situation and team up with Helen to produce something beautiful as we’d initially planned.
I also didn’t want the publishers to feel like they’d ticked a box. That they can just wheel out my books every year for Black History Month or whenever they need to make a diversity statement. You know. The next stage with this whole thing, as it was with ‘Hey You’, is to make sure that everyone who worked on this book is booked and busy for the foreseeable future. I can’t even get a phone call from the ‘Hey You’ gang any more, they’re all busy! Which is great and I am happy for them. They’re all award winners now as well which is phenomenal.
With this book I am hoping we can repeat the same success. I say all the time that during Black History Month I prefer to rest. I am not working, it is time off. I feel like that should be a thing. Give me time off! Don’t wheel me out during Black History Month, give me time off. YOU do the work. You can bring me out at other times of the year to talk about other stuff. That’s my approach, I am being deadly serious here. Every October I am not doing anything that’s not already been previously agreed to. What happens is, a lot of people start calling you up in the last week of September or first week of October asking you to film a video, can you speak at this event, can you do this interview… No. No. No.
SB: Did you have a list in your head of everyone you wanted to be involved in ‘Joyful Joyful’? Were you a bit wary about approaching them?
DA: Let me answer the second part of that first! I was terrified. I’m always terrified to approach people because I am just like ‘why would they say yes’. Especially if I’m not offering them hundreds of thousands of pounds so I am always really apprehensive to approach people for anything, to be honest.
I did have an idea of who I wanted to work with but I also wanted to leave room for Helen, who is my editor on this project, to have an input so we found a beautiful sweet spot to work from. I gave her a list of names and we managed to get quite a few people from that list. She then gave me her list of talents and sent me links to their work so I could have a look and sign off on various people whose work I hadn’t seen before.
The illustrators and authors from place likes South Africa and the Afro Latino community were amazing to discover, as I was more familiar with the London and US based creatives, so that approach helped broaden my knowledge of what’s out there in the Black creative diaspora. Helen was able to get hold of them as they were people she knew of or people that Macmillan had already published via their imprints in those countries. To my surprise, a lot of them said yes at the first time of asking. An example is Malorie Blackman, who even though I’ve worked with already, I was still surprised she said yes as she’s a very busy individual. Not only did she make time for this, but she wrote something that was completely new and hadn’t been published anywhere else, I’m so grateful for things like that.
SB: How long did it take from first approaching everyone to having the final list of contributors? Did you ask them to write/illustrate about whatever they wanted or did you give them a theme to write about?
DA: It was an ongoing kind of thing. There was no set bracket of time as I had a lot of projects going on at the same time so we worked on it as we went along. The whole thing probably took about 6-8 months to get together – in terms of from the time we had put together the final list to when we sent out the requests and started getting submissions coming in. Some people were quicker than others, for various reasons. I myself took ages! My submission was one of the last as I was so busy doing a million other things. It was a constant kind of thing to work on, in that I’d come back to it between working on other projects. With ‘Hey You’ there was just one author, me, and while I was doing the writing, everyone got to work on their illustrations at the same time so it ended up taking less time.
But with ‘Joyful Joyful’ we have twenty authors and twenty illustrators involved. So, it was trickier to coordinate deadlines, it took significantly longer to do but we figured it out. Also, we had authors and illustrators who dropped out so we had to fill the gaps. Which meant briefing the replacement authors/illustrators, and making sure they were also prepared and supported as best same as everyone else who’d already started. It was a big juggling act and it paid off massively! The crazy thing about it is that when the book came out it looked effortless. Would I do it again? Not for a few years. Helen is already thinking we might do another one and even though I really enjoyed the whole process I‘m reluctant to commit to anything else as I was so busy at the time. I now have to actively spend time trying to recover from the last four years and rejuvenate myself and get my health back together. I also want to let this anthology marinate for a little while before thinking about doing another one.
I know it’s just come out but people are already sending me pics and videos of it in Waterstones for example, and it’s really cool to see it out there. It’s a weird one for me, because it’s Black History Month a part of me wants to see it front and centre but also I’m like ‘let’s see what happens’. In this book, if people want to be ticking boxes, we’ve given them the perfect opportunity to do just that, so i think it would be pretty strange if they’re not displaying this book at this time of year.
SB: I believe that every child should see themselves in a book – their culture, their cities, their family units – this book celebrates differences and should be in every classroom and on every library bookshelf. What is your dream for ‘Joyful, Joyful’?
DA: This is the same with all the books I’ve worked on that I feel very strongly about, which is this one and ‘Hey You’ because of the nature of the books they are with multiple contributors. I hope they age well and I am looking forward to walking into a shop in five/six years time and they’re still there, they’re still on the shelf, they’re still in print and still being passed around. The way this book has been received by people I know, those in my sphere, those who are fans of my book work – the way it’s been received has been amazing. People have picked it up not knowing who I am or what I do, have embraced it and it’s only been out a week! People are already having these strong reactions to it. I think as people read it and digest the stories, that will only grow. I think it’s safe to say there’s something in there for almost everyone.
I was on Amazon the other day looking to see if anyone had reviewed it., Yes, I do that by the way. I go from the best to worst and go ‘Oh, OK’. Anyway, no-one has reviewed it yet but it was charting in groups for LGBTQ+ readers and I thought, wow this is brilliant as people are embracing it from that community and that’s the thing because when we talk about Blackness there’s nuance. There’s so many intersections when it comes to Blackness and I tried to have as much of that in this book as possible. It’s good to see that that’s landing and I hope that it continues to grow in those multiple directions.
SB: Faith, family and trust are themes that run through many of the stories, were there any that you could relate to?
DA: Flicking through my copy…
Lost and Found by Kelechi Okafor, the story by Funmbi Omotayo made me laugh a lot. I loved it! My own story (ha!) and Matilda Feyiṣayọ’s story was brilliant as well. There are so many I liked – Tracey Baptiste’s story was fantastic, as was Sharna Jackson’s and so many well contained stories that I will read again.
SB: There are many formats to the stories in ‘Joyful Joyful’ – poetry and prose. Was that something you were to keen to do or was it just the way it organically happened?
DA: Very much so, even down to recipes. We wanted that. It was intentional. There were a good few contributions I had a bit of input in with the editing and art direction too. I worked quite closely with the people that made these stories and what they did and how they work really resonated with me.
SB: How do you define happiness – either from your own point of view or from being a creative?
DA: I don’t have a definition. The way I look at happiness is not as a constant thing. One of the problems that I think we have is that we want it to be and we are also led to believe that it should be this constant thing. Happiness is so precious because it doesn’t happen all the time. I can’t define it and I don’t think it should be defined. People are going to have their definitions of things but if you’re honest with yourself your definition of happiness is going to change as you change which I think is a healthier way to look at it. What makes you happy in the moment, might not be what makes you happy tomorrow – I am literally having this exact conversation with my younger siblings!
Understanding that it’s OK to be down, that it’s perfectly normal to feel unhappy which is really helpful to me when it comes to happiness.