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  • Ratha Tep

Interview with The Pumphrey Brothers, THERE WAS A PARTY FOR LANGSTON

Back in the day, there was a heckuva party, a jam, for a word-making man. The King of Letters. Langston Hughes. His ABCs became drums, bumping jumping thumping like a heart the size of the whole country. They sent some people yelling and others, his word-children, to write their own glory.



Max's Boat Pick


THERE WAS A PARTY FOR LANGSTON

Written by Jason Reynolds and illustrated by Jerome Pumphrey & Jarrett Pumphrey

Publisher: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books (October 3, 2023)


Congratulations on receiving both the Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor! There Was a Party for Langston is such a joyous, exuberant, beautiful ode to Langston Hughes (as well as other word-maker greats Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin—the list goes on). And Jason Reynolds’s text—wow. How did you two get involved with the project and what was the process like? The Pumphrey Brothers: "Thank you, Ratha! Yeah, Jason’s text is amazing, isn’t it? He’s a master at what he does. That’s why we knew before we even read the text that we were in. Jason Reynolds comes knocking, you answer the door and invite him in. We knew whatever the project was, we couldn’t pass it up. It was only after reading the text and learning the subject matter that we really knew just how significant the project would be. Not only did we have Jason to impress, but we also had to do right by Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka. Oh, man. Talk about pressure!


Hand-made stamp by The Pumphrey Brothers for the cover of There Was a Party for Langston (above)


This was one of the most challenging projects we’ve had so far. Some of that was self-imposed—see above, lol—but also, for one, this was our first time illustrating a text we hadn’t written ourselves, and two, how in the world are you supposed to illustrate a text that conjures so many images all on its own? Usually, we know exactly where the space in the text is for the illustrations because we’re the ones who left it there. With this one, it took us a minute to find it. Thankfully, we had two amazing guides to light the way as we worked through it—editor Caitlyn Dlouhy and art director Sonia Chaghatzbanian. They knew what this book could ultimately be long before we figured it out and without their infectious joy, unwavering faith, and critical eyes, we wouldn’t have ended up where we did." 


Using Langston’s words as art--how did that idea come about?

TPB: "We knew almost immediately after reading Jason’s text that we’d want to incorporate excerpts from Langston’s work in the art. We didn’t know exactly how we’d do it until our second pass. 


In our first pass, we incorporated Langston excerpts in these sort of river-like streams that flowed from one spread to the next. It was supposed to be a nod to Langston’s poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers and also, in turn, a nod to the cosmogram that’s on the floor of the Schomburg, which also references that poem. It’s the very cosmogram under which Langston Hughes’s ashes are buried, the one Maya and Amiri were photographed dancing on in his honor. We thought it could be a cool sort of full-circle idea so we found all the poems we thought Jason was referencing in his text (because he didn’t include any notes) and then pulled excerpts to create these rivers of words flowing from spread to spread. In the end, as cool as the idea sounded initially, it turned out to just be okay. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t quite right. We actually ended up scrapping all but one spread from that first pass. And that’s the one spread that gave us the clue as to what might be the right way to do it.


The 'Harlem' spread, the one with 'Harlem' spelled out in the lights of the windows, was the only spread to make it out of round 1. It was the one Caitlyn and Sonia were most excited by. It was fun and playful. And it unlocked something for us. After thinking about it a bit, it kinda struck us like a bolt of lightning. 'Jason calls Langston a word maker. What if we just make stuff out of Langston’s words? WE COULD JUST MAKE STUFF OUT OF LANGSTON’S WORDS!' Looking back, it’s kind of like duh, but it was not at all obvious to us then. From there we just started iterating and things began to fall into place. We’d come up with a fun idea for a spread, send it over to Caitlyn and Sonia, and we’d know just how well we nailed it by the amount of ALL-CAPS and exclamation points we’d get back in the reply."



Hand-made stamp by The Pumphrey Brothers of Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka (above) along with the corresponding spread in There Was a Party for Langston (below):




Hand-made stamp by The Pumphrey Brothers of Martin Luther King Jr. (above) along with the corresponding spread in There Was a Party for Langston (below):





What would be on your list of 100 best picture books of all time? TPB: "There are so many books we love for so many different reasons, so many books that are the best at what they do, that this sort of question is always a hard one to answer. Apart from all the books we’ve already mentioned, here’s a list of some we think are the best at something that we always keep close to hand:









I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen
























Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis













They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel












A Polar Bear in the Snow by Mac Barnett and Shawn Harris














Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson













Layla’s Happiness by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie and Ashleigh Corrin














Freight Train by Donald Crews











The Ranger by Nancy Vo












Shh! We Have a Plan by Chris Haughton

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