Shades of brown were Laura Wheeler Waring's passion. Born in 1887, when African-American children couldn't go to the same schools as white children and had limited job opportunities, nothing could keep her from delighting in chestnut, topaz, ebony, russet, and all the other nuances of color she could see in the eyes and skin of her family. She would even bribe her brothers and sisters with peppermints to get them to pose for her. And although she knew there were no portraits of African Americans in museums yet, she hung her paintings in her room as a ten year old so that her sisters and brothers "could see pictures of people with all different shades of brown staring back at them."
Undeterred by social standards of the time, Laura went on to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and then in Paris, even though she was surrounded almost entirely by white people. She kept a notebook of luminous browns that she didn't want to forget.
When word of her remarkable work spread, she was invited in 1944 by the director of the Harmon Foundation to build a collection of portraits of important African Americans for a special exhibit. She agreed and painted people like Broadway lyricist and poet James Weldon Johnson, educator and writer W.E.B. Du Bois, and singer Marian Anderson. Her paintings — seven of which earn a special two-page spread in this book — became part of the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where you can still see them today.
Nancy Churnin has done an inspired job of making this biography reflect aspirations held by African Americans in particular but also by any young person with a vision for expressing what they love most. Laura herself would be proud of the way that illustrator Felicia Marshall brings the story to life, starting with the book's cover portrait of the young artist testing her paints to match her own skin tone. Intended for children ages 6 - 12, this book is sure to spark delight in anyone who appreciates art and the strength of the human spirit.