Keturah Bobo can finally see herself on the page

The artist, who will appear at the Ohioana Book Festival on Saturday, April 20, traced her interest in illustrating children’s books to her desire to see people who looked like her represented.
Keturah Bobo
Keturah BoboCourtesy the artist

Growing up, Keturah Bobo didn’t see anyone who looked like her in the children’s books her mother would read to her at bedtime. And the same went for the dolls that stood sentinel in the aisles of toy stores. And so, Bobo and her siblings began to make paper dolls in their own likenesses, gradually amassing full towns of people who could have passed for distant, two-dimensional relatives.

“It was this whole city of paper dolls,” Bobo said, and laughed. “And I think it was that whole idea of representation, always wanting to see yourself, always wanting to find ways to embody who you are in all these aspects of life.”

This idea has animated Bobo’s work since she illustrated her first children’s book, I Am Enough, in 2018, deepening in the time since she gave birth to her first child, a son, now 2 years old. 

“I want to make sure my son sees characters that represent who he is or who he could potentially be,” said Bobo, who will appear at the Ohioana Book Festival at the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s Main Library on Saturday, April 20. “And you don’t realize how important that idea is unless you don’t have it, you know what I mean?”

From an early age, Bobo exhibited both a talent for art and a deeply ingrained sense of curiosity, which led her to seek out additional information about a range of subjects. Learning about this history of slavery in elementary school, for example, the details were so often generalized that she would bolster her lessons with trips to the library, borrowing texts of diaries kept by enslaved people. 

“I would go and seek out those books, even as a kid at age 12 or 13, because I was curious what it was really like for them,” said Bobo, whose interests were further stoked by being raised around grandparents who came of age in the Jim Crow South. “Part of me wanted to know, what were their lives really like? … I always had a curiosity for those things that were in my ancestral path.”

These extracurricular studies cemented in Bobo the idea that books held an undeniable power, which made the form a natural landing place for her own artwork. It certainly helps that Bobo describes herself as an innately visual reader, with images beginning to build in her head from the first moment she takes in a text. “With all of the books I’ve done, when I read the original manuscript, it was like, ‘Okay, I already see how this is going to look,’” she said.

That’s not to say the artist hasn’t evolved. I Am Enough, by design, eliminated backgrounds, centering the expressions on the faces of the young Black girls at its core. Subsequent books have increased in the level of detail, particularly the ones Bobo has illustrated since the birth of her son, the artist incorporating some of the things she sees spark in him when the two read together. Often, Bobo said, her son will instinctually latch onto some background detail, like an airborne butterfly or some creepy crawler slithering through the grass, which has led her to embed some of these more initially obscured elements in her own pages. 

“I’ll put myself in the mind of a 2-year-old, which can be fun to do,” she said. “It helps me look at the book in a different way, and it’s definitely influenced the way I illustrate, where I’m making sure I’m putting things into the book that little kids are attracted to. … Kids see the world completely differently.”

Bobo has also continued to experiment with new artistic techniques, including one she recently adopted while finishing a large-scale, 6-foot-tall canvas now on display in the living room of the family’s Columbus home. “For that, I started painting with a knife, which creates a heavier texture with the paint. And I even bought modeling paste, intending to put more texture onto the canvas,” she said. “And that started to come out in the children’s book I’m working on, and it’s the first thing I’ve done where you’re going to see those layers of paint in the actual illustrations.”

That book, My Brown Boy, finds Bobo staking out new artistic ground even as she continues to work alongside authors who highlight themes of empowerment – a concept central to the bulk of her works dating back to I Am Enough.

“Black girls and the kids specifically attracted to that book need that book,” she said. “It’s about feeling represented and seeing yourself and recognizing, ‘I can be this. I can be an author. I can be an illustrator.’ … My intention is always going to be to represent the misrepresented and the underrepresented. That’s what it was back then, and that’s what it still is now.”

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