Shane Evans isn't just a children's book illustrator. He's a true Renaissance Man, a "creative force" who dons the role of children's book author and illustrator, artist, musician, songwriter and global arts enthusiast.
His picture books have received popular and critical acclaim. "Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom" won a Coretta Scott King Award, which recognizes the most outstanding African-American author of children's and young adult literature. "Shanna's Ballerina Show" and "Osceola: Memories of a Sharecropper's Daughter" both won Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. He has collaborated on books with celebrities such as Shaquille O'Neal and Holly Robinson Peete. In "Chocolate Me!," Mr. Evans worked with longtime friend, actor Taye Diggs. It tells the story of Mr. Diggs' childhood difficulties accepting the beauty of his skin color.
Mr. Evans will speak at Hill House Kaufmann Center at 2:30 p.m. Sunday in an interactive visual and music presentation appropriate for children of all ages as part of a Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Kids & Teens event.
His illustrations are colorful, expressive and playful. Faces are often drawn with strong, simple lines but portray a range of complex emotions. Many of his books, such as "We March" and "Black Jack," address significant moments or people in African-American history.
Following a dream -- whether personal or political -- is a theme that runs through many of Mr. Evans' works. "Olu's Dream" celebrates the power of the imagination in childhood, while "We March" focuses on the dream of civil rights.
Speaking on the phone from his home in Kansas City, Mo., Mr. Evans said that he has always been a visual thinker. From his childhood, words would generate vivid images in his mind. "I don't know if everyone is like that. Somehow different pictures and colors come to me," he said.
He got the conceptual idea for "Underground" while on a train ride in Japan with his family. "Underground" is composed of words or simple phrases that narrate the journey of a slave through the Underground Railroad to the North. "I started drawing pictures. Once I had the picture, it created a word, like silence. Then I knew what I wanted to do. Every time I wrote a word down, I saw the picture. I'd try to draw what silence looked like," he said.
Even though he found a certain flow with "Underground," Mr. Evans said that illustration work is not always easy. He has been challenged to illustrate difficult moments of history. While illustrating "Free at Last!" by Doreen Rappaport, he struggled to create visual representations of the civil rights era. "There was some real tragic imagery. People not being nice. How do you illustrate that? How do you show those pictures? I had to go into my heart and look for pictures," he said.
Mr. Evans is at work illustrating a novel by Andrea Davis Pinkney, "The Red Pencil," which is about a 10-year-old girl living in the midst of the civil war in Sudan. Mr. Evans had to "stop being so analytical" in order to get inside the mind of his character and draw like a 10-year-old. "A lot of times for me, it's trust. Trust your hands. Trust your heart. Sometimes you do have to ignore your mind, step away from all the doubt, and just believe and know," he said.
He tries to go to Africa once a year. "Africa changed something in me. It changed the American me into a world me. It also allowed me a universal perspective when I'm home. Home is an idea of comfort. You're pushing yourself when you're outside of your comfort zone," he said.
Mr. Evans believes that all people are creative. His travels in Africa led him to establish art programs for youth in Burkina Faso, Botswana and Lesotho, as well as the Dream Studio in hometown Kansas City. He believes that people need to acknowledge everyday creativity, even if it's just reading a book. When you read, "you're going into the mind of an author. You're commingling your heart's energy into that book. People will get so engrossed in a story; it's your heart and soul," he said.
Mr. Evans dedicates "Underground" to his pastor, Alice, whom he sees as a kind of Harriet Tubman. In the end note of "Underground," he challenges young readers to look for the spirit of the Underground Railroad today.
"If we turned the clock back today, we have to ask ourselves, who would we be inside of that system [of slavery]? Harriet Tubman's spirit continues to thrive; there's a continuation."
Julie Hakim Azzam teaches literature at the University of Pittsburgh.