Recognizing the importance of inspirational images and stories for children, the annual Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement is presented in even-numbered years to an African American author, illustrator, or author/illustrator living in the United States and with a body of work that inspires youth. The award-winning work must be in print, which guarantees accessibility for readers. In odd-numbered years, the award is presented to a practitioner.
In 2017, the Coretta Scott King Book Award Committee recognized the body of work produced by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, who has been called the “mother of multicultural literature.” As Professor Emerita of Education at The Ohio State University, a position preceded by a professorship at the University of Massachusetts, Sims Bishop has focused her research, teaching, and writing on children’s literature. In her award acceptance speech, she noted that her introduction to African American children’s literature began in graduate school with suggestions made by Virginia Hamilton, who had an endowed chair at Wayne State University. Under Hamilton’s tutelage, Sims Bishop began examining depictions of American middle-class families in children’s literature.
Sims Bishop continued this examination in her book Shadow and Substance: Afro-American Experience in Contemporary Children’s Fiction, which is considered a foundational text in children’s literature and required reading for graduate studies in education. Published in 1982, the book examines African Americans’ treatment in books intended for a white audience, books written for a multiracial audience consisting of Blacks and Whites, and books written for African Americans.
Her article titled “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” explored the importance of children seeing themselves reflected in books. She famously considers books to be “windows . . . [that] you can look through and see other worlds and see how they match up or don’t match up to your own. But the sliding glass door allows you to enter that world as well. And so that’s the reason that diversity needs to go both ways. It’s not just children who have been underrepresented and marginalized who need these books. It’s also the children who always find their mirrors in the books and, therefore, get an exaggerated sense of their self-worth and a false sense of what the world is like because it’s becoming more colorful and diverse as time goes on (Sims Bishop).
Dr. Leslie Campbell Hime is manager of the Richland Public Library in Richland, Washington. She is an incoming ALA Councilor and a former chair of EMIERT and ALA’s Diversity Research Grant Advisory Committee. She obtained her MLIS from the University of Arizona and PhD in English from Michigan State University.
As we celebrate the tenth-anniversary of the Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement and the authors, illustrators, and practitioners who have received it, it is also important to reflect on the life of Hamilton herself, an indomitable woman whose innovative work brought stories of African-Americans to the international literary stage and forever changed the field of children’s literature. Hamilton would later credit her grandfather, Levi Perry, for instilling the gift of storytelling within her.
During her Coretta Scott King (CSK) Book Award acceptance speech for The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales, Virginia Hamilton noted that “Levi Perry’s life, or the gossip about his days, has elements of mystery, myth, and folklore…It’s from hearing such tales that I became a student of folklore.” Levi began his life as a slave, but when he was five-years-old, his mother smuggled him out of Virginia and managed to get him to relatives in Ohio, where he was raised as a free man. That story of maternal sacrifice and the flight to freedom had an indelible impact on Hamilton, who said, “And this was the original story as far as I’m concerned…That was the beginning of the family culture.”
After marrying Rhetta Adams, Levi settled on farmland in Yellow Springs, OH, where Rhetta’s family had lived since the 1850’s. The couple had ten children including Etta Belle, who would become Virginia’s mother. As she grew to adulthood, Etta Belle rebelled against Levi’s rules, particularly his insistence that she only date ministers. While visiting her sister Bessie and her husband in Canada, Etta Belle met her future husband, Kenneth James Hamilton, by chance at a ball. Kenneth graduated from Iowa State Business College in the 1890’s but was told that no one would hire a black man as a banker. A series of odd jobs brought him to Canada where he and Etta Belle fell in love and were married. They returned to Yellow Springs and started a family on a twelve-acre farm while Kenneth took a job as the manager of the Tearoom, a dining hall at Antioch College. Virginia, the youngest child, was born on March 12th, 1934 and was named for her grandfather’s home state.
Even as a child, Virginia’s life was inundated with stories. Her mother put her to sleep with tales such as Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby while her father regaled her with tales of real life African-American heroes like W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson. The Sherlock Holmes mysteries she and her father read together became the inspiration for Virginia’s novel The House of Dies Drear (1968), while a picture of the Watusi people found in her father’s magazine collection influenced her first novel, Zeely (1967). Inspiration for her more than 40 books emanated from her bucolic childhood in Yellow Springs as much as from stories her family told. During adventures wandering through her family’s land and the neighboring glen, Hamilton stumbled upon a ramshackle grand hotel, the memory of which she drew upon for Dies Drear and M.C. Higgins the Great (1974).
Hamilton discovered her career path while working with her father at the Tearoom during high school. Antioch College was integrated, and Hamilton encountered students of diverse backgrounds, many of whom were from New York City. After three years of studying writing at Antioch, Hamilton transferred to Ohio State University as a literature major in 1956. A professor encouraged her to pursue writing in New York City, and after graduation she moved to the East Village, working as a receptionist, an accountant, and a singer to make ends meet. Hamilton’s big break came when Janet Schuetz, a former classmate and wife of an ad writer for Macmillan Publishing, was impressed with a short story that Hamilton wrote in college and encouraged her to turn it into a children’s book, a path Hamilton had never considered. That book became Zeely. Critics enthusiastically embraced Zeely, which not only prominently featured black characters, but was a story whose plot did not revolve around racial struggles. The American Library Association recognized Zeely as a Notable Book, the first of many awards that would come Hamilton’s way during her long career.
In 1975, Hamilton won the Newbery Medal for M.C. Higgins, becoming the first African-American writer to win this prestigious award. She would go on to win the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, the de Grummond Medal from The University of Southern Mississippi, and The Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing, the highest international honor for a children’s book author or illustrator. Central to her success is Hamilton’s focus on relatable characters and deep reverence for children and childhood. In her acceptance speech for The Hans Christian Andersen Award, Hamilton said: “Indeed, it is often said that we authors write especially for children because our childhoods were so vital and heartfelt that we cannot let go of them, ever. But I do write about childhood awareness out of my rich, country experience. I truly loved being a child. I still keep inside me that curious six-year-old, that ten-year-old lover of pranks and jokes, and the defiant thirteen-to-fourteen-year-old.”
Virginia Hamilton’s death in 2002 from breast cancer left a void in the children’s literature world that can never be filled, but her legacy of storytelling lives on to be cherished and celebrated by generations of young people who, thanks to her, see themselves reflected in literature. Learn more about her by visiting http://www.virginiahamilton.com/ .
Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement is presented by the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee in even years to an African American author, illustrator or author/illustrator for a body of his or her published books for children and/or young adults, and who has made a significant and lasting literary contribution. For additional information, including a list of winners, visit this link.
Rodney Marcel Fierce is a Humanities Teacher at Sonoma Academy in Santa Rosa, California and is finishing his dissertation for his English doctoral program at The University of Southern Mississippi. He is a member of the CSK Marketing Committee.
On Sunday, June 24, 2018, in New Orleans, I attended my very first Coretta Scott King Awards Breakfast where Jason Reynolds warmed up the room by saying, “My cousin comes to visit and you know he’s from the South, ‘Cause every word he says just kind of slides out of his mouth,” and BOOM, just like that the room remembered and followed along, chuckling softly. I hadn’t heard or thought about those words since I was a little girl, but in an instant I smiled and went back to being little-me, peering inside the little pocket-sized gem that is Honey, I Love and Other Love Poems.
I had the pleasure of meeting Eloise Greenfield the day before the Coretta Scott King Awards Breakfast at her Virginia Hamilton Award celebration. I stood outside of her circle of admirers, friends, and greeters waiting for my turn to say hello. I told her how much I love and appreciate her work and then asked if I could take a quick picture with her. She has a quiet, kind manner about her.
A few months later, I remembered Jason Reynolds telling us at the breakfast that he kept a copy of Honey, I Love in his back pocket when he was young because it was an important text for him. So, I went to the bookstore and bought myself a little paperback copy, too. Though I consider it part of my “canon” of black children’s books, I’m pretty certain I never owned a copy as a child. But, because the book has been on my mind lately, I included it in a guest lecture I gave this past March at Cornell University. The title of my lecture was: Challenging the White Default: Diversity and Representation in Children’s Literature.
I enjoyed rediscovering the book in preparation for the lecture; it’s such a gorgeous celebration of black childhood. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring my copy with me to Ithaca, so I visited the Tompkins County Public Library to copy down the first poem, “Honey, I Love.” I opened my lecture by showcasing books I loved in addition to Honey, I Love like I Need a Lunch Box, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, and Jambo Means Hello. And then I spoke “Honey, I Love” out loud and into existence in that space. I wanted to show the power, endurance, and beauty of diverse children’s literature, of black children’s literature. It was such a privilege to share it.
I lectured at Cornell University only a few weeks after my mother passed away from a long battle with colon cancer. This stanza of the poem really resonated with me: “My mama’s on the sofa sewing buttons on my coat / I go and sit beside her, I’m through playing with my boat / I hold her arm and kiss it ‘cause it feels so soft and warm / Honey, let me tell you that I LOVE my mama’s arm / I love to kiss my mama’s arm.” My mama had a soft, brown arm, too, and I’m grateful for such a vivid, positive image of black motherhood and love.
It’s important that black children grow up seeing themselves in all shades & variations of blackness in books. The Coretta Scott King Book Awards do such important work in highlighting and celebrating these stories, authors, and illustrators. As a kid growing up in the 90s, it wasn’t easy to find many beautiful images of blackness in books, but when I found texts like Honey, I Love by Eloise Greenfield, they reassured me that my black existence mattered. I’m so thrilled to celebrate fifty years of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards and can’t wait to see what the next fifty years of black books bring for our children.
Alia Jones is a member of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee/Community. She is a Sr. Library Services Assistant at The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County and blogs at readitrealgood.com.
The photos attached are all mine & are: (1) Eloise Greenfield and Alia Jones, (2) Alia Lecturing at Cornell University, & (3) “Honey, I Love” by Eloise Greenfield.
Anything you can do that can stimulate the imagination of another…is the most exciting thing you can do as an artist. ~Ashley Bryan
With 50 books to his credit, Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award winner Ashley Bryan creates beautiful mindscapes for children. Full of love of life and humanity, his body of work shares the stories of people of the African Diaspora as preserved in songs, poems, and folktales.
In tribute to his longevity, Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre has staged two plays based on the works of the beloved artist, teacher, and scholar. Dancing Granny and Beautiful Blackbird, winner of the 2004 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, are the books selected for production by the Alliance’s Theatre for the Very Young. The plays complement the exhibit Painter and Poet: The Wonderful World of Ashley Bryan on view at the city’s High Museum of Art until January 21, 2018.
The opening voice of The Dancing Granny is a character patterned after Ashley Bryan himself. He is the tale weaver and griot whose narration and fancy footwork bookend this tale inspired by Mr. Bryan’s memories of his grandmother.
Elaborate lighting and vibrant costumes along with Afro-Caribbean choreography and a range of percussion instruments– some made by the children in the audience as a pre-show activity– all come together to set the joyful tone of this show which encourages children’s expressive engagement.
Beautiful Blackbirdis more understated than The Dancing Granny. Arranged like an interactive playground for babies and toddlers, children sit on felt sun patches that encircle a chuppah-style canopy. Bold quilts depicting night and day serve as backdrops for live electric guitarists who strum jazzy lines while the young ones roam and play.
The audience hears Blackbird before they see him. When he emerges, with rhinestones glimmering like dewdrops from his dark wings, he glides about the set, coaxing rhythm from his djembe. The little ones play along on miniature African drums as Blackbird shares his musical gifts with the multi-colored members of his flock. The message: know your beauty, find your unique groove.
Eugene Russell IV, who played the griot-tale weaver Ashley Bryan in The Dancing Granny and composed the music for Beautiful Blackbird, says: “The story is an unapologetic celebration of blackness which at the same time encourages all kids to be who they are, that who they are is beautiful, and enough. I think that’s a beautiful combination.” He goes on to say that stepping into the world of Ashley Bryan “really did change me life in a wonderful and beautiful way. I’m a forever fan. It will always be a part of my family’s life.”
Jené Watson works as a public librarian at a system in suburban Atlanta, where she coordinates Books in the Barbershop community outreach and Mindful Monday, a family meditation program. She is also the author of The Spirit That Dreams: Conversations with Women Artists of Color (indigopen.com).
Walter Dean Myers was inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame, Class of 2017, at the New York Center for the Book Induction ceremony on Monday, June 5,2017, at the Princeton Club in New York City.
Master-of-Ceremonies William Schwalbe noted that among Myers’ many accomplishments are five Coretta Scott King Awards as well as two Newbery Honors, the first Printz Award and the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement. Myers, the author of over 100 books, was also appointed by the Library of Congress as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a post he held from 2012- 2013.
Phoebe Yeh, publisher of Crown Books, Random House, delivered a moving tribute, speaking of Myers connections to New York, where he was raised by his father’s first wife, Florence Dean, after the death of his mother.
Accepting the plaque in Myer’s memory was his widow, Connie Myers. Also in attendance were Andrea Davis Pinkney, Vice President and Editor-at-Large of Scholastic Press, Emily Heddleson, Senior Manager of Library and Educational Marketing for Scholastic, and Jessica MacLeish, Editor at HarperCollins.
This is the not the first recognition of Walter Dean Myers by the Empire State Center for the Book. In 2015 during Children’s Book Week, the Center for the Book together with United for Libraries and the Children’s Book Council honored Myers with the dedication of a Literary Landmark at the George Bruce Branch of the New York Public Library, the library Myers frequented as a child.
Rocco Staino, Director of the Empire State Center for the Book, notes that in Myers’ memoir, Bad Boy, Myers wrote, “Harlem is the first place called ‘home’ that I can remember.” This sense of New York as home is reflected in Myers’ writing, including the picture book Harlem and the novels Monster and Darius & Twig. Staino also notes that Florence Dean taught Myers to read in their kitchen, and when he began attending Public School 125, he could read at a second grade level.
Other writers in the Class of 2017 include Lillian Ross, Frederick Law Olmsted, Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow, Christopher Morley and William Kennedy.
Anticipation ran high as the crowd began to gather at 6:00 a.m. for the 8:00 a.m. American Library Association Youth Media Awards on Monday, January 23, 2017, held in the Georgia World Conference Center in Atlanta, Georgia.
Many distinguished books were published in 2016; the buzz and enthusiasm were practically palatable as one entered the rapidly filling room. As the committees entered to sit in the reserved spaces, we got a shot of the Coretta Scott King committee settling in. The Coretta Scott King Award jury was chaired by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, who had a great day herself.
Before the book awards were announced, we learned that Dr. Sims Bishop was honored as the recipient of the Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement. After the standing ovation, CSK Awards Committee Chair Pauletta Brown Bracy had to ask Dr. Sims Bishop to stand so that the crowd could see her!
The CSK (Author) Medal was awarded to Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, who won an unprecedented number of awards for March: Book Three, including Printz, Sibert, and YALSA Nonfiction), while the CSK Andrew Aydin (Illustrator) Medal was awarded to Javaka Steptoe for Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Steptoe also won the Caldecott Medal.
CSK (Author) Honors were awarded to Jason Reynolds for As Brave As Me and Ashley Bryan for Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life. Bryan also won a CSK (Illustrator) Honor for Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life. CSK (Illustrator) Honors were also awarded to R. Gregory Christie for Freedom in Congo Square and Jerry Pinkney for In Plain Sight.
The John Steptoe New Talent Award was given to Nicole Yoon for The Sun is Also a Star.