Johnette Downing, October 2017
New Orleans native Johnette Downing is the recipient of the 2017 Louisiana Writer Award given annually to recognize outstanding contributions to Louisiana's literary and intellectual life exemplified by a living writer's body of work. Downing is the eighteenth recipient of the annual award given by the Louisiana Center for the Book in the State Library of Louisiana. She is the second children's author to receive the award; William Joyce was honored with the award in 2008.
Called the "Pied Piper of Louisiana Music Traditions," Johnette Downing is a multi-award winning musician and author dedicated to sharing her Louisiana roots music, books, and cultural heritage with children around the world. With ancestors dating back to one of the first families of colonial Louisiana, Johnette is a proud Creole, with a lineage of Canary Islands Spanish, French, Native American, Irish, Scottish, and German. Her facility for sharing and thus preserving her culture has carried her to the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Europe, Central America, South America, North America, and the Caribbean, as well as 61 of Louisiana's 64 parishes. (She hopes to visit the remaining three in the very near future!) Her talents have garnered her thirty-two awards and have earned her the sobriquet "The Musical Ambassador to Children."
Johnette developed a love of music and books at an early age. As a child, her tuba-and-violin playing father and her saxophone-and-piano playing mother regularly took Johnette and her three siblings to the French Quarter in New Orleans, where they would stand in the doorways of clubs listening to jazz and ragtime. Johnette's father was an avid reader who had a library in their home, filled from the floor to the ceiling on all four walls with books. Johnette would sit in that library for hours reading and visualizing her own books upon those shelves. Stories and songs resonated off the library walls and permeated her family life.
Former Louisiana Poet Laureate Dr. Julie Kane writes, "Johnette Downing thinks like a kid, but writes like a magician." Johnette's passion for combining Louisiana roots music and books, and for sharing that passion with children in the way her parents had shared it with her, led Johnette to write numerous "singable" books over her thirty year career. Her body of work comprises nineteen picture books and one board book with Pelican Publishing Company, two board books with River Road Press, and ten recordings on her own label Wiggle Worm Records.
Her children's music career began organically when a fellow children's musician, Judy Stock, told her, "You would be great performing for children," after seeing Johnette perform in a folk music trio at the then Neutral Ground Coffee House in New Orleans. Once the "eureka moment" bell rang in Johnette's head, there was no un-ringing it. Johnette was hired on the spot by troubadour and teacher Philip Melancon to perform at his school. She worked for many years as an itinerant music therapist for children with special needs for the Jefferson Parish School System and as an early childhood music teacher for Isidore Newman Lower School in New Orleans. Her educator workshops on how to use music to teach English as a second language have been employed on five continents.
She is a regular performer at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the French Quarter Festival, and the Louisiana Book Festival, as well as in schools, libraries, performing arts centers, and museums. For almost a decade, she has performed a free monthly Family Friendly Friday in the French Market concert series at the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park Visitor's Center.
Johnette's first record, Music Time, is a snapshot of a day in the life of a child. It received five awards including a Parents' Choice Recommended Award. Her next recording, From the Gumbo Pot, celebrated all things dear in Louisiana, earning her a Parents' Choice Silver Honors Award. A standout among her other award-winning recordings is Dixieland Jazz for Children, the first-ever jazz recording of its kind, with trumpeter Jimmy LaRocca and his Original Dixieland Jazz Band. This historic recording received an iParenting Media Award and a Parents' Choice Approved Award.
Author, freelance writer, and Louisiana Book News columnist Cheré Coen writes, "Johnette Downing's vibrant storytelling makes every book a celebration between covers." Johnette's career as a published author, like her children's music career, began organically: illustrator Deborah Ousley Kadair Thomas approached Johnette after a library concert and said, "I like your 'Today is Monday in Louisiana' song. Do you mind if I illustrate it and submit it to my publisher?"
Downing's first picture book, Today Is Monday in Louisiana, is a culinary calendar of unique Louisiana dishes for each day of the week. In the decade since its publication, it has become an institution across the Bayou State, where teachers, students, and families know both the story and her adaptation of the traditional song by heart. The book is now in its fifth printing and has received a National Parenting Publication Award. Further, it is being petitioned through a grassroots effort by teachers to be the official Louisiana State song for children and has given rise to Today Is Monday books for Texas, New York, and Kentucky.
Johnette is renowned for her original songs, stories, haiku, and Southern folktales. Her books Why the Crawfish Lives in the Mud and There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed Some Bugs are on the Accelerated Reader list. Today Is Monday in Louisiana was selected for The Big Read young reader component in 2010. Why the Crawfish Lives in the Mud, Petit Pierre and the Floating Marsh, and Mumbo Jumbo, Stay out of the Gumbo, her latest book, were chosen to represent the State of Louisiana at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. in 2008, 2016, and 2017. In addition to her parenting media accolades are a New Orleans CityBusiness Magazine Women of the Year Award, a New Orleans Magazine 2014 Top Female Achievers Award, a Gambit Weekly 40 Under 40 Award, and a New Orleans Magazine Thirty People to Watch Award.
In 2016, Downing was commissioned by the Audubon Nature Institute and the New Orleans Pelicans NBA team to write a picture book about a pelican and the wetlands. Petit Pierre and the Floating Marsh, written by Downing and illustrated by Heather Stanley, was a SCBWI Crystal Kite Award finalist and was donated by the Audubon Nature Institute and the New Orleans Pelicans, as part of their wetlands education initiative, to every public library and elementary school in the state at a ceremony at the 2016 Louisiana Book Festival.
Mumbo Jumbo, Stay Out of the Gumbo is an original Cajun folktale about a clever little rooster who outwits the Courir de Mardi Gras revelers. Kirkus Reviews wrote, "Cultural notes and a recipe for 'green gumbo' cap this mildly subversion nod to a Mardi Gras tradition and a delicious regional dish."
Other books by Johnette include Down in Mississippi; Ten Gators in the Bed; Bugs on the Rug; Louisiana, the Jewel of the Deep South; The Fifolet; Macarooned on a Dessert Island; How to Dress a Po'Boy; Why the Possum Has a Large Grin; Why the Oyster Has the Pearl; Amazon Alphabet; Chef Creole; My Aunt Came Back from Louisiane; and Down in Louisiana.
In 2017, Johnette received a Grammy Participation Certificate for co-writing two songs and singing back-up vocals on the Grammy Award-winning Best Traditional Blues Album Porcupine Meat by blues legend Bobby Rush, which also earned her husband, producer Scott Billington, his third Grammy Award.
Downing and Billington are embarking on a new venture as the children's music duo "Johnette and Scott," with a new record titled Swamp Romp slated for a 2018 release. Writer Herman Fuselier called them "a match made in roots music heaven."
On the horizon for Johnette is the picture book Mademoiselle Grands Doigts – A Cajun New Year's Eve Tale, illustrated by Heather Stanley and slated for a fall 2018 release by Pelican Publishing Company.
Johnette's recordings include Reading Rocks, Boogie Woogie Bugs, Fins and Grins, The Second Line –Scarf Activity Songs, Silly Sing Along, Wild and Woolly Wiggle Songs, and New Moon – Music for Little Folk.