Angela Johnson's earliest inspiration came from a fifth grade snoop. She remembers her elementary school teacher reading Harriet the Spy to the class, and the story of Harriet M. Welsh and her beloved notebook stuck. Shortly after, she asked her parents for a diary-and hasn't stopped writing since.
Johnson was born in Tuskegee, Alabama. Although she remembers the fun of her first years in Alabama, she now says that her heart lives in Ohio, with her family. "My family, especially my grandfather and father, are storytellers and those spoken words sit beside me…." She was raised in Windham, Ohio and attended school at Kent State University. After college she worked as a child development worker with Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) in Ravenna, Ohio.
Some of Johnson's earliest works were picture books, like Tell Me a Story, Mama, published in 1989. She continued to write children's books while simultaneously moving to Young Adult novels, where she explored a broader variety of topics. Many times her books revolve around family relationships, those between brothers and sisters or with grandparents and parents. But Johnson's biggest achievement has been using the common relationships to talk about uncommon situations. Her characters have dealt with mental illness, teen pregnancy (from a male point of view), and death; they have also talked about familiar situations, like moving to a new town, figuring out their identities, and trying to survive high school.
Her 1999 book of poems, The Other Side, shows how Johnson easily writes about all sides of life; the poems, about her childhood in Alabama, recall racism and the Vietnam War, as well as dirt roads, boom boxes, and skinny-dipping.
Three of Johnson's books have won the Coretta Scott King Author Award, and one of them (her children's book When I Am Old with You) was named an ALA (American Library Association) Notable Book. She has produced over fifteen novels and now lives in Kent, Ohio, as a freelance writer. In October, 2003, Johnson received a fellowship of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Fellowships are given to individuals who "have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits" and grants them $500,000 over five years.
Though she admits she has only recently been able to call herself "a writer," she still gives credit to her early years in high school: "…I wrote punk poetry that went with my razor blade necklace….my writing was personal and angry. I didn't want anyone to like it. I didn't want to be in the school literary magazine, or to be praised for something that I really didn't want understood. Of course, ten years later, I hope that my writing is universal and speaks to everyone who reads it. I still have the necklace, though."