For over five decades, the Coretta Scott King Book Award has provided a platform for showcasing the talents of numerous authors and illustrators. Historically speaking, the CSK Award has recognized African American authors and illustrators where no such distinction existed before. CSK awardees are literary luminaries who have successfully brought African American children’s literature out of the shadows, thus providing much-needed diversity in children’s literature.
The announcement of the ALA 2020 Youth Media Awards marked an unprecedented milestone. For the first time in the history of children’s literature awards, the Coretta Scott King Book Awards as well as the Newbery and Caldecott Medals chose the same winning books: The Undefeated (Versify/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), written by Kwame Alexander and illustrated by Kadir Nelson won both the CSK Illustrator Award and the Caldecott Medal. Additionally, the New Kid (Harper) written and illustrated by Jerry Craft won the CSK Author Award and the Newbery Medal. An examination of the Newbery and Caldecott selections over time and their consideration of African American awardees yields some interesting insights.
Established in 1922, the Newbery Medal is the oldest children’s literature award. In 1975, Virginia Hamilton became the first African American author to win the Newbery Medal for her M. C. Higgins, the Great (Macmillan). Two African American authors followed: Mildred D. Taylor for Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Dial) in 1977 and Kwame Alexander for The Crossover (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) in 2015. In addition, some twenty-six African American authors have been recognized with Newbery Honor Awards. Yet, the Newbery has chosen the same book as the CSK Book Awards jury only one other time. This occurred in 2000 for Bud, Not Buddy (Delacorte) by Christopher Paul Curtis.
Since 1937, the Randolph Caldecott Medal has annually recognized the most distinguished American picture book for children and is awarded to an illustrator. The first Caldecott Medal awarded to an African American occurred in 1976 and went to Leo and Diane Dillon, an interracial couple, for Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears (Dial) written by Verna Aardema. The Dillons won a second medal in 1977 for Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions (Dial) written by Margaret Musgrove. In 2010, Jerry Pinkney became the first solo African American illustrator to win a Caldecott Medal for The Lion and the Mouse (Little, Brown and Company). At present, some thirty African American illustrators have been awarded Caldecott Honors. However, the only other time an illustrator won both the CSK Award and Caldecott Medal was in 2017 when Javaka Steptoe received both for Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquitat (Little, Brown and Company).
These prize-winning books have continued to influence reading choices and inspire young readers. And while the CSK, Newberry and Caldecott have long served as guides to those seeking the best in children’s literature, it’s rare that the juries of these prestigious book awards have shared the same vision. Bravo to new directions!
Carolyn L. Garnes served as CSK Book Awards Chair from 1993 to 1997.