Episode 26: On Passion, Diversity & Illustrating Your Own Children's Books with Abriana Johnson (Equestrian Author Spotlight Podcast)
Episode 26: Welcome to the Equestrian Author Spotlight podcast! In each episode, you’ll hear inspirational stories from horse book authors including writing advice and marketing tips to help you write your own horse book. If you are an author, aspire to be an author writing about horses, or simply love horse books then you are in the right place!
In this week's episode, you'll meet children's book author Abriana Johnson. You'll learn ...
Watch Abriana Johnson's Interview on YouTube!
Or listen to the audio only version.
About Abriana Johnson of Cowgirl Camryn Books
Abriana Johnson is a horse-loving, craft-making, social media buzzing millennial from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Growing up, she excelled in science and math courses, but was always intrigued by art and creativity.
Abriana's passion for animals, especially horses, started at a very young age leading her to obtain a BS in Animal Science from North Carolina State University and a MS in One Health from the University of Florida. Abriana’s current involvement in the horse industry includes owning two Tennessee Walking Horse geldings and a miniature horse who she has trained for therapy work. She co-hosts a podcast titled Young Black Equestrians and is a co-leader for a 4-H club.
Through her recent involvement in the non-profit organization Saddle Up and Read, Abriana recognized the need for minority representation in books about agriculture and animal husbandry. She wrote and illustrated a series of easily digestible books for young readers who love bright colors and fun characters. Cowgirl Camryn is a witty, compassionate and resourceful young lady whose aim is to teach young readers the ins and outs of farm life.
Abriana Johnson Interview Excerpt
Carly: Tell us how your love affair with horses began.
Abriana: When I was 10 years old, I convinced my parents to let me take horseback riding lessons. I got a few lessons in on the oldest, slowest lesson horse, but he took care of me and taught me how to jump! My parents couldn’t afford the lessons anymore so I stopped going. Fast forward 5 years and I started attending the East Coast Trail Ride Association’s trail rides. My cousin would bring a horse for me to ride and we would spend 4 hours in the woods with about 200 other black cowboys navigating through obstacles and fellowshipping with each other. After that first trail ride I was HOOKED. I have been attending them for more than 10 years now.
Carly: Tell us about your furry friends.
Abriana: Well, my crew is called “The Magnificent 7”, so let me just run through the roster. I have a Dutch Shepherd named Nadia Renee (7). I recently inherited a Plotthound mix named Tigger (6). I have two of the worst barn cats ever named AJ and Micah.
I have my childhood horse, a Tennessee Walking Horse (TWH) gelding named Coco (25), who I first started riding on the trails. He suffers from chronic heaves pretty bad so he is a retired pasture fluff now. I have my current mount Maestro (7) who is also a TWH gelding who I have had since he was 6months old. I trained him from the ground up, competing in local shows in-hand until he was of riding age. We enjoy trail riding and competitive trail events the most, but this year I hope to get into endurance.
Last but not least, Encore the miniature horse (1). I thought it would be funny to have a “mini me” for Maestro so I hopped on Craigslist casually. I found a miniature horse that had almost the same exact markings as Maestro and I had to have him. Turns out his disposition is perfect for therapy so we have been in training for that. He has passed his PetPartners assessment with flying colors. He is a character in the Cowgirl Camryn books and he visits schools with me when I do readings.
Carly: Do you have any stories that people would find interesting or entertaining about your writing or your horse background?
Abriana: I hauled Encore to a reading using my horse trailer and my dad’s truck and felt like an idiot hauling a whole trailer for a little mini. I purchased a minivan, stowed the seats and built 2 stalls in the back. The minivan is big enough to haul me, two passengers, my dogs, Encore (and possibly another mini) and our supplies. The MINImobile is my favorite project to date!
Carly: I love the quote featured on the homepage of your website. “When you feel as if you have more questions than answers put your passion first and the rest will fall in place.” Talk to us about this.
Abriana: My mom has always told me to “pursue your passion”. It’s even engraved on my high school class ring. After undergrad, I felt as if I were in limbo. I did not get into veterinary school, so I was disappointed, dissatisfied with my job and bored as all get out.
After a couple boring years, I decided to go back to school and see what opportunities were in the One Health field. One Health is the interaction and collaboration of human, animal and environmental medicine. I could go one about the importance of this method of thinking, but as my program continued, I realized something was still missing. I was doing important work, but I was not fulfilled.
I was now busy and bored. I decided to pull my passion for horses back to the forefront and haven't looked back. The human-animal bond is a key proponent to the One Health ideology and I felt best when I spent more time with my horses through riding, training, and now EAA (equine assisted activities).
Carly: Your website says you aspire to be the example of a successful black equestrian, a role model I would have wanted when I was growing up. I think that mission is accomplished!! Tell us about your journey of self-discovery, self-promotion and self-love. What does being a successful equestrian mean to you?
Abriana: I have suffered from imposter syndrome since grade school. Being an “advanced” student, you always had to give 110% even when it did not come naturally to you simply because that was what was expected of you, BUT if you gave what you thought was your 110% and it was not enough you have no room for explanation or excuse.
Now as an adult, I realized that my hesitancy to perform at my full potential stemmed from fear of not being enough even when I gave my all. One day I realized that the same amount of time was passing for me and my fear as it was for people who were not afraid, so I had to make a choice. Every day I make the conscious choice to put myself out of my comfort zone, to refuse to let fear/imposter syndrome stunt my creativity or potential and to “be fearless in the pursuit of what sets my soul on fire” (quote by Jennifer Lewis).
Once people see your dedication to your craft, they tend to support anything you produce. I am fortunate to have a family that operates that way at least, but it was the messages in my inbox from complete strangers saying how happy they were to find other black equestrians, Cowgirl Camryn books and how proud they were of me that were like diesel on a bonfire.
Being a successful equestrian is simply about effort. For me it’s not about the accolades, the ribbons or the fame because I know money can buy that as well. Successful equestrians put the horse first always, aim for a better understanding of horsemanship and remain a student of the craft.
Carly: Tell us about your books.
Abriana: Cowgirl Camryn is a witty, resourceful young protagonist who shares her experiences on the farm throughout the series. In the first book, Cowgirl Camryn wakes up with crazy hair and has to find which hat would work best in order to tame her curls and go out to feed the herd.
Abriana: In the second book, “Cowgirl Camryn and the Great Escape”, Cowgirl Camryn goes out to feed the herd only to find there is someone missing! Camryn and the herd work together to find the missing herd mate and repair the fence where he escaped.
Abriana: In each of the books in the series, Cowgirl Camryn uses her farm life experiences not only to teach readers about farm management, but to also share life lessons about teamwork, resourcefulness and compassion. Coming books will hold lessons on anti-bullying, horse industry careers, gardening and much more.
Carly: What excites you about writing children’s books?
Abriana: My favorite part and the hardest part of the Cowgirl Camryn books is the illustration. I am pretty strategic about color choices, placement and small details that it is always fun to see how it will turn out in the end. It is however the part that takes me the longest. I chip away at each book daily until I achieve the look and message I am trying to convey.
Carly: It is said that all stories are "partly personal.” Is there a personal connection in your books for you?
Abriana: Cowgirl Camryn and her adventures are loose representations of my experiences in the agriculture/horse industry. From horse ownership to my pre-veterinary students, her triumphs and challenges are some I have had to face myself. A lot of people ask, “Oh is that supposed to be you?” when she would really be like my future daughter instead. We are very similar but she possesses much more patience and tact than me.
Carly: Tell us why you decided to independently publish your children’s books?
Abriana: I independently published the books because I am a control freak (I actually recorded a whole video about it on my Facebook). I worked on the first book for about a month and almost didn’t submit it. I sat on it for two weeks then realized I literally had NOTHING to lose and published via Amazon. I have learned more about the pros and cons of this route, but it was most important to me to have creative control over all aspects of my books.
Carly: You illustrate your own books, which is awesome! What do aspiring children’s book authors need to know about illustrating their own books? What programs did you use?
Abriana: PRACTICE! As with any craft, you have to practice to develop muscle memory and consistency. I illustrated the book on my iPad with the apple pencil and a program called Procreate. It’s literally the BEST $10 I have ever spent on an app.
Abriana: I spent a year practicing hand lettering and other digital art before even thinking about illustrating a book. Also, learn about graphic design if you don’t know much about it. I have gone down so many Youtube rabbit holes researching graphics, formatting and such. The Kindle Direct Publishing dashboard is very easy to follow and update in regards to uploading manuscripts.
Carly: Walk us through the process of formatting the children’s books. Did you work with a designer?
Abriana: I went to the library and looked at books I wanted to emulate. High color books with minimal wording per page, yet simple graphics. This was important to me because as a former tutor and auntie to many amazing kiddos, I know how frustrating reading comprehension can be when a child is distracted by the random bird in the corner of a page or when the words overlap detailed graphics. I work to create simply, yet engaging artwork that will promote reading comprehension with the lessons from each book.
Carly: How do you reach your readers?
Abriana: I am very fortunate to have a large amount of familial support. My family and friends purchase my books and encourage others to do so. I also attend book readings and local literary events (with or without Encore) and reach readers and their parents in those settings. I use social media to share related Cowgirl Camryn messages such as helmet safety and herd health tips.
Carly: You are a creator, author, student, equestrian and a BUSINESS OWNER. Tell us about your business Black Unicorn Creative. What services do you offer?
Abriana: Black Unicorn Creative (BUC) started out as a craft business. I would create and sell graphic tees (horse related or custom), vinyl decals and custom glassware. I enjoyed that as a hobby, but once I began to seriously monetize, it became more of an annoyance and it was no longer fun. Although this was my “shop” name, I had not actually created a legal business at this point.
It wasn’t until fall 2019 that I filed for an LLC to go ahead and lay claim to the name of my future business. Once I finish my masters this Spring BUC will launch as a creative marketing and design hub whose focus is on One Health, equine and agriculture related businesses. I will focus on social media marketing, SEO, graphic design and website optimization. I have been doing consulting work for the past 2 years and plan to incorporate it seamlessly into my current work in the horse industry.
Carly: What do you wish you had known when you first started out?
Abriana: I wish I would’ve known what I wanted to be when I grew up! I wish I knew the options were endless and I didn’t have to pick one thing. As a pre-veterinary student, you are conditioned to have a very narrow focus or you will not succeed. This is simply not the case. I appreciate my ability to work multiple projects, because it has pushed me forward into more of what I enjoy and less of what I’m “supposed” to do.
Carly: You have a podcast. Tell us about Young Black Equestrians The Podcast, your co-host, and what listeners can learn there.
Abriana: I developed the idea of Young Black Equestrians (YBE) the podcast after there was a burning in me to share my horse knowledge/experiences as well as comparing them to others in the industry. There are some YBEs that have never ridden or shown with another person of color.
It is human nature to flock to areas where you feel comfortable and if up and coming equestrians do not feel comfortable because of their skin color, there is a problem. Instead of saying to the horse industry, “hey don’t be mean to them, try to be inclusive”, I said, “hey, let’s show them stories of success and triumph so they do not have to use their imagination to fuel their dreams”. Show them better than you can tell them. YBE the podcast, Cowgirl Camryn and my community involvement is to show how you can become a successful equestrian.
Carly: You also do a lot of fun videos on YouTube. Tell us about your YouTube channel and how you develop your video content.
Abriana: Our Youtube channel, YBE TV is a visual component of our podcast work. Instead of just recording the audio from our podcasts, we have started recording our video conferences to deliver our content on a more personal level.
Carly: What is the one common myth about our profession or field that you want to debunk?
Abriana: That black people/people of color don’t ride horses, own horses, own their trucks and trailers and tack and barns and land… I could go on. There have been numerous stories from our podcast interviewees that have been confronted by white people and accused of stealing or being asked “who’s stuff [truck, horse, trailer] is this”. It’s an historical stigma, yet as a person of color, when you feel the stares and hear the whispers at horse shows/events, it is pretty obvious it is still rampant today.
Carly: What is the hardest part about being an author?
Abriana: I am my own worst critic. I also put less than reasonable expectations on myself. I mean who publishes two books in two months and tries to get in another before Christmas? Nevertheless, it didn’t work. My stories are more involved and require more illustration now so I am working on being more patient with myself so I release a quality product.
Carly: What is the best part about being an author?
Abriana: Seeing the reactions of the kids when they see the animals or mimic the sounds of the animals. I just love the looks of amazement and wonder.
Carly: What advice would you give to someone who wants to achieve their dreams like writing a book, starting a business or taking up horseback riding?
Abriana: Press the gas and don’t let up! Say YES more than you say NO until you figure out your place. Be willing to take the risk. Failure does not exist.
Carly: What makes you feel inspired or like your best self?
Abriana: Sleeping! I love to nap. When I get a good night's sleep, I am very productive. Outside of napping, empowering others (via podcast or writing) inspires me. Seeing a reflection of yourself in someone else makes the support even more real.
Carly: What are you curious about right now? What’s next?
Abriana: I am curious about the series of books to come this year. I have had several requests and suggestions so I think it will be a fun experience to share these stories with the world.
Connect with Author Abriana Johnson
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About Host and Author Carly Kade
Carly Kade is an award-winning equestrian author and the host of the Equestrian Author Spotlight podcast. Creative writing makes her spurs jingle! She writes fiction about horses, horse shows, Western pleasure and a handsome cowboy or two. Her books are for people just like her — crazy about reading, horses and cute cowboys!
In the Reins, the first in Carly's series of novels inspired by the equestrian lifestyle, has been an Amazon best seller for more than 10 weeks, is an EQUUS Film Festival Literary Award Winner for Best Western Fiction and has earned two Feathered Quill Book Awards in the Romance and Adult Book featuring Animals categories. The In the Reins equestrian romance series is available now in Audiobook, Paperback and eBook on Amazon, Audible, Barnes & Noble, Apple iBooks and Kobo.
Books by Carly Kade
Carly Kade writes for anyone who loves horses, handsome cowboys and a great romance. Creative writing about horses makes her spurs jingle!