An Interview with Author Jabari Asim

Jabari Asim is an associate professor at Emerson University, a former editor at the Washington Post, and the author of seven books for young readers. His latest picture-book biography, Fifty Cents and a Dream: Young Booker T. Washington, earned three starred reviews and a spot on the Sharp-Schu Mock Caldecott list. Every third, fourth, and fifth grader at my school read this well-researched  biography. I've heard my students use words like IMPRESSIVE, STUNNING, GORGEOUS, FASCINATING,  and INSPIRING when describing Jabari Asim's text and Bryan Collier's illustrations. 

I am excited to share my interview with Jabari Asim today, and please come back tomorrow to read my interview with three-time Caldecott Honor winner Bryan Collier. Happy reading and connecting!   

Mr. Schu: Fifty Cents and a Dream brings to life Booker T. Washington better than any picture book biography I’ve ever read.  I read in your author’s note that a long-lost jigsaw puzzle put you on the path to tell Mr. Washington’s story. Please share that story.

Jabari Asim: I had convinced myself that my childhood home contained memories of experiences that I could turn into literary material. I had in mind something quite different from a picture book for children, — a memoir, perhaps, or a book-length study of an urban community changing over time. Those projects have yet to take shape, but while scavenging I came across the puzzle in an upstairs closet. If I recall correctly, it had originally arrived as part of a set of puzzles featuring accomplished African-Americans. I seem to remember a puzzle featuring the educator Mary McCleod Bethune but I’m not certain about that. Looking at the image of Washington led me to recall how impressed I was with his memoir when I first encountered it. I had never forgotten that he had envisioned gaining access to a schoolroom and schoolbooks as similar to “getting into paradise.” Eventually I began to piece together the story that became Fifty Cents and a Dream.

Mr. Schu: What most surprised you during your research?

Jabari Asim: While I was never surprised, I was perplexed by Washington’s relative silence about episodes in his life that seemed to cry out for more detail. He covered his journey to Hampton, for example, in about four pages of autobiography. That trek alone impressed me as a quest of epic proportions.

Mr. Schu:  I could spend hours studying Bryan Collier’s distinguished illustrations. They perfectly capture Booker T. Washington and your words. What ran through your mind the first time you saw Bryan’s illustrations?

Jabari Asim: I was blown away but again, hardly surprised. I’d know Bryan for a while and was well aware of his brilliance. It’s not his draftsmanship or technical facility that impresses me most about his illustrations for this book; it’s his imaginative approach that encompasses so many layers and textures. The art enriches and supplements the words so well that re-reading leads to new discoveries. I couldn’t hope for more.

Mr. Schu: Fifty Cents and a Dream includes everything I look for in a picture book biography: illustrations that extend the text, accessible and clear language, a timeline, an author's note, an illustrator's note, and a bibliography. Why do you think it is important to include back matter?

Jabari Asim: I like to think of a book like this one as a launching pad that will inspire readers to undertake further investigations of the subject’s life and times. The back matter, in my view, should point the way toward those investigations. Washington’s life was so full and so eventful that a picture book couldn’t possibly encompass it. Other tools, like the timeline for instance, enable us to provide additional information that we wouldn’t be able to fit in otherwise.

Mr. Schu: What do you hope young readers will take away from Fifty Cents and a Dream?

Jabari Asim: I hope they’ll embrace the notion of reading as a magical device that can transport them beyond their circumstances, make them aware of wondrous new possibilities and lead them inevitably toward them. I also hope they’ll gain knowledge and appreciation of Booker T. Washington and understand that his labors helped make our country a much better place. 

Mr. Schu: Please complete these sentence starters:

Booker T. Washington taught us that a dream plus hard work can lead to success.

Reading is the gateway to glorious possibilities.

Mr. Schu, you should have asked me about...
My career as a children’s book author (how I got started, etc.).

The convergence of three elements led to my writing books for children: 1) My wife used to be a storyteller and children’s librarian (Barr Branch in St. Louis, MO); 2) I used to supervise coverage of children’s books when I was an editor at Washington Post Book World; and 3) I’ve often made up stories while entertaining our five children. Some of those stories have become books.

I am giving away one copy of Fifty Cents and a Dream: Young Booker T. Washington

Rules for the Giveaway 

1. It will run from 12/9 to 11:59 p.m. on 12/12. 

2. You must be at least 13. 

3. Please pay it forward. 

Please borrow Fifty Cents and a Dream: Young Booker T. Washington from your school or public library. Whenever possible, please support independent bookshops


  1. This books sounds amazing! One I'll definitely have to check out. Thanks for sharing it :)


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