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) writtenby 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.
Family history has always fascinated me. Like the elders of many African American families, mine migrated from backwater Southern towns to a more thriving one in the 1930’s. Their personal histories were, however, closed doors. Fortunately, encountering Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry and Let the Circle Be Unbroken in elementary school gave me keys to understanding. Once this access was granted, I could feel and imagine the worlds of my grandparents and their predecessors– comforts and terrors alike.
Like the West African griots of long ago who passed down family histories, Taylor has devoted most of her literary career to telling one story: that of the Logans, a proud black family of the Southern United States. Her stories are to children’s literature what Alex Haley’s Roots is to adult historical fiction. Both make history dance and command our attention, awakening ancestral memory in a way that cold facts and timelines cannot.
Special thanks to Janell Walden Agyeman of Marie Brown Associates and Regina Hayes of Penguin Random House for helping to arrange this exchange which happened by email in Spring 2019. It has been lightly edited for posting on this blog.
JW: First, thank you for agreeing to this interview. After Song of the Trees was published in 1975, did you have any idea that you would continue to share parts of Cassie’s family story for the next forty years? Also, you’re putting the finishing touches on the final installment which you’ve titled All the Days Past, All the Days to Come. How does it feel drawing the Logan family saga to a close?
MDT: I had planned from the very beginning to tell Cassie’s family story, although I didn’t have any idea how long it would take. I have felt such an obligation to finish the story; it has pressed on me. At one point I even gave back the contract advance for the final book, feeling the pressure was too much. But I had made a commitment, and I wanted to finish the Logan story. It saddens me that this book is the end, but there is also a sense of relief. I am done!
JW: Along with the inspiration that you got from your family, specifically your father, what published writers influenced your storytelling?
MDT: It may surprise you to learn that the writer who influenced me the most was Harper Lee. I loved Scout of To Kill A Mockingbird. My Cassie Logan had a different story to tell, from a Black point of view.
JW: Your work foregrounds the dignity and self-respect of the Logan family in the face of the indignities of the Jim Crow era. In every instance, your stories move beyond struggle and woe to emphasize courage, the power of family unity. I also love how nature plays an important role in all of the Logan stories that I’ve read. Do you intentionally place courage and reverence for nature at the heart of your work?
MDT: Yes, both courage and reverence for nature. I was born in Mississippi but left when I was three months old, and although I grew up in Toledo, my family went yearly–sometimes even twice a year— back home to Mississippi, to the land. It was beautiful, with forests and ponds and we would walk it drinking in the beauty and appreciating the calm and peace of the trees and the land our family had struggled to obtain and hold onto. This was land my great-grandparents had bought after they came from slavery. When I saw the land where I now live in Colorado, it spoke to me in the same way.
JW: After winning your first literary awards, namely the CSK, what changes happened in your career? And did this kind of recognition have any effect-on how you approached your writing?
MDT: Well, actually, my first literary award was winning the contest sponsored by The Council on Interracial Books for Children, and that led to the publication of Song of the Trees. My second literary award was the Newbery Medal, for Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. So in a sense, big changes had already occurred. But of course it was wonderful to win the Coretta Scott King award for four of my books. I have never liked making speeches. Preparing speeches and delivering them drained and distracted me from my work; therefore, I have seldom attended award ceremonies. When The Road to Memphis won the award, I was actually on the dais with Mrs. Rosa Parks and was able to talk with her. My greatest regret concerning the award is when I was unable to attend the ceremony to accept the Coretta Scott King award for The Land, and I missed the chance to receive the award from Mrs. King herself.
JW: Before becoming an established writer, I read that you taught on both a Navajo reservation in Arizona and in Ethiopia. These cultures have strong poetry and verbal storytelling traditions. How, if at all, did these experiences influence your own storytelling?
MDT: I spent three weeks on the Navajo reservation in preparation for teaching with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia. There were only white teachers on the reservation and the children crowded around me since my skin was brown like theirs. One little boy in particular was so sweet to me; he put his arm next to mine and said, “Look, Miss, we’re alike!” I had similar experiences in Ethiopia, where the people I met had never seen an African American.
Although both Navajo and Ethiopian cultures have a storytelling tradition, my own storytelling grew entirely out of the Southern tradition [of the U.S]. We were a family of storytellers. Whenever the family was together, we loved hearing and telling the stories of past events.
JW: From your perspective as a literary veteran and culture keeper, what value do you think that awards like the CSK have? Are they still as important as they once were? And how would you compare what’s being published today for children of color to that of past decades?
MDT: I am not in a position to evaluate this. When I am writing, I don’t read other writers’ work, and I’m usually quite unaware of the awards and their impact. One trend I deplore is the pressure to whitewash the past. The past was not pretty – I lived it and I remember and I am determined to portray it as it was.
Mildred D. Taylor has won the Coretta Scott King Author Award for The Land (2002), The Road to Memphis (1991), The Friendship (1988) and Let the Circle Be Unbroken (1982). She is also a two-time recipient of the Coretta Scott King Author Honor for Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry (1977) and Song of the Trees (1976).
Jené Watson is Chair of the CSK Technology Committee as well as a mother, writer, educator and librarian who lives and works in suburban Atlanta. She is the author of The Spirit That Dreams: Conversations with Women Artists of Color.
The 2000s were a decade of change: a new decade, a new century, and a new millennium. A time when our nation experienced the consequences of a horrifying tragedy: the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, but also a time that fortunately ended on a joyful note when many children across the country saw themselves represented in our nation’s highest political office for the first time with the election of the first African American President, Barack Obama. This decade also witnessed the Coretta Scott King Books Awards continuing to shine its light on numerous prominent authors and illustrators. In the 2000s, the CSK Book Award was given to its first Nobel Prize winner, Toni Morrison, 2005 CSK Author Winner for Remember: The Journey to School Integration. Jerry Pinkney won an additional CSK Illustrator Winner Award in 2002 for Goin’ Someplace Special and was awarded a CSK Illustrator Honor two more times, in 2005 for God Bless the Child and in 2009 for The Moon Over Star. Ashley Bryan added two more CSK Illustrator Winner Awards to his mantle, in 2004 for Beautiful Blackbird and 2008 for Let It Shine. Mildred D. Taylor won her final CSK Author Award in 2002 for The Land.
Perhaps most significantly, this was the decade where two prominent illustrators made a splash in the children’s publishing world and made a huge impact on the Coretta Scott King Book Award community. Kadir Nelson and Bryan Collier received numerous honors and awards for their work through art and the written word for celebrating many prominent African Americans in history while also illuminating lesser-known yet equally important stories.
Born in Maryland in 1967 as the youngest of six children, Bryan was always an artistic child. With a mother who worked as a teacher, Bryan was always surrounded by books and was primarily drawn to the art in picture books. He remembers reading The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats and Harold and the Purple Crayon and becoming fascinated by the illustrations and the joy they conveyed. This led him to attend art school at Pratt Institute in New York, where his signature watercolor and collage pieces attracted the attention of children’s book publishers. Of his nine CSK winner and honor awards, five of them were awarded in the 2000s. He has won more CSK awards than any other illustrator.
In 2001, Bryan was awarded his first CSK Illustrator Winner
Award for Uptown, which he also
wrote. Uptown celebrates Harlem, the
historic African American New York City neighborhood that has been the home of
Black intellectuals, poets, and activists. This thriving community, seen
through the eyes of a young boy, allows the reader to feel the vibrant nature
of the neighborhood and its people through everyday life experiences. From
basketball courts and brownstones to the Apollo Theater and the jazz stylings
of Duke Ellington, Bryan’s artwork effectively conveys the joy and sometimes
struggles of this community.
That same year, Collier was awarded a CSK Illustrator Honor for Freedom River, written by Doreen Rappaport. A story that highlights the little-known tale of John Parker, an African-American man who bought his freedom from slavery and devoted his life afterward to helping hundreds of people escape slavery through the dangerous Underground Railroad. Unlike Uptown, where Bryan’s art conveys joy and effusion, the art in Freedom River conveys the fear and terror experienced by those trying to escape to a better life. In his collage work, Bryan’s use of deep blues and blacks accentuates the emotions and the treacherous path that many had to experience to achieve their basic human right of freedom.
In 2002, Bryan won his second CSK Illustrator Honor and his
third CSK Book Award overall for his work in Martin’s Big Words, a picture book biography about minister and
civil rights activist, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Working again with Doreen
Rappaport, Collier achieved an accessible look at the complicated life of one of
modern history’s most famous people. Dr. King was a Baptist minister; many of
Bryan’s illustrations effectively juxtapose light against the stained glass
windows endpapers, revealing King’s majestic serenity. A young boy features prominently throughout these
illustrations, providing young readers with a gateway into the life of this
distinguished man and his activism, making this book stand above other MLK, Jr.,
biographies for children. For his artistic achievement in this work, Bryan was
awarded the first of his four Caldecott Honors.
The following year (2003), Bryan won his third Illustrator
Honor and fourth CSK award overall for Visiting
Langston. Collaborating with acclaimed poet Willie Perdomo, Bryan showcases
the joy of Langston Hughes and his work by telling the story of a young girl
who is excited about the thought of going to Langston Hughes’s house in NYC
(which is still open and operational today) with her father. The appreciation
for Hughes’s work resonates through his complex art that, at times,
incorporates Perdomo’s words in the illustrations. In one particularly
breathtaking spread, the young girl sees the highest peak of Hughes’s home
drenched in light reminiscent of light shining through the window of a church.
In 2006, Collier received his second CSK Illustrator Award and fifth CSK award overall for his larger-than-life work in Rosa. Joining forces with legendary poet Nikki Giovanni, Collier illustrates the story of Rosa Parks, an ordinary woman who did something extraordinary by taking a stand. What makes this story tower over the mountain of titles about Ms. Parks is the breathtaking artwork from Bryan. Not only do the illustrations complement the text, but they also extend the text with his glorious signature use of color and light. Murky greens and grays convey the hot, hazy Alabama heat while bright beacons of light shine on Rosa throughout her journey. The illustration on the front cover is the pièce de résistance of this fine work. The tall white police officer stands menacingly over Rosa while her bright eyes convey her courage, her fear, and her determination to stand up (or, in her case, sit down) for what is right. In the background, Rosa is surrounded by what looks like a halo. This stunning work gave Bryan his second of four Caldecott Honors.
“I feel that art’s highest function
is that of a mirror, reflecting the innermost beauty and divinity of the human
spirit, and is most effective when it calls the viewer to remember one’s
highest self. I choose subject matter that has emotional and spiritual
resonance and focuses on the journey of the hero as it relates to the personal
and collective stories of people.” – Kadir Nelson, author website.
Kadir Nelson was born in Maryland in 1974. He has always been drawn to art and the techniques behind the art. His uncle was a well-known artist who took Kadir under his wing and nurtured his artistic gifts. His work earned him a spot at Pratt Institute in New York (which Bryan Collier also attended.) Since his graduation in 1996, his work has been in constant demand and has attracted the attention of several children’s book publishers. Kadir Nelson has spent his career showcasing and highlighting African-American culture and history. Kadir Nelson has nine CSK awards, including two Author Awards, two Illustrator Awards, and five Illustrator Honors for his work. Five of these awards were given during the 2000s.
In 2004, Kadir won his first CSK Book Illustrator Honor for Thunder Rose, a tall tale featuring a young African American girl with a can-do attitude and the ability to help out those around her. Rose is born during a thunderstorm and controls the lightning as it zig-zags across the deep dark night sky, portrayed to chilling effect in a double-page spread. Kadir illustrates Rose almost always from below to convey her height but also to show how her mighty presence can fill a room. The cover image portrays Rose decked out in country-western gear as she oozes confidence and relatability, looking upon the young reader with a smirk.
A year later, Kadir won his first CSK Illustrator Award for Ellington Is Not A Street, an adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s poem “Mood Indigo.” This poem is a snapshot of young Shange’s experiences with many prominent African-American writers, thinkers, and activists as they made appearances in her father’s home. In this work, Nelson perfects his oil painting portraits of legendary African-Americans, including W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, and Duke Ellington, to name a few. These portraits would become a signature part of his work. The respect Kadir has for these people shines through as each person’s personality leaps off the page, giving the young reader a strong sense of who these people are and how important they are.
Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, Nelson’s collaboration with Carole Boston Weatherford in 2007 earned Kadir his second Illustrator Award. This tribute to the prominent abolitionist and Underground Railroad leader is overflowing with esteem for its subject. Nelson’s dramatic signature portrait is on full display on the cover that not only displays his regard for his subject but also conveys the deep connection that Tubman had to God and her religious beliefs. Nelson showcases the admiration that the people who relied on Tubman’s help had for her, as shown in dramatic double-page spreads throughout. This exquisite work earned Kadir his first Caldecott Honor.
In 2009, Kadir Nelson made history with We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball. The first book he wrote and illustrated earned him his first CSK Author Award, third Illustrator Honor Award, and fourth and fifth wins overall. These wins made Kadir the first person to win both a CSK Author Award and a CSK Illustrator Award. In this retelling of the history of Negro League Baseball, Kadir’s deep regard for his subjects bursts from the page through both words and pictures. Told through his signature oil paint portraits, Kadir makes an everyman baseball player look like a head of state. The perspectives of many of these portraits are shown from below or straight on, making this an awe-inspiring experience for young readers. Readers will smell the dusty fields where the teams played and feel the hard wooden benches they sat on while experiencing all nine innings of Kadir’s delicate yet powerful prose.
These two artists, Bryan Collier and Kadir Nelson, represent some of the greatest talents to earn CSK Awards. Since the 2000s, they have continued to work steadily and have collected more awards for their mantle in the process.
Christopher Lassen is a Youth Materials Selector for The New York Public Library & Brooklyn Public Library. Chris is a member of the CSK Marketing Committee.
The 1970s were the formative years for the Coretta Scott King Award as new African American writers emerged. One of those talents was Mildred DeLois Taylor. Taylor’s relationship with the Coretta Scott King Award is a long and illustrious one, spanning more than three decades and resulting in four CSK wins – Let the Circle Be Unbroken (1982), The Friendship (1988), The Road to Memphis (1991), The Land (2002) – and two honors, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry (1977) and Song of the Trees (1976). Born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1943, Taylor tells her own family’s story, like that of the Logan family whom she brings to life in her novels, one of pride, struggle, and endurance in the face of oppression. Wishing to raise their daughters in an area offering more economic opportunity and less racial strife, Taylor’s parents relocated the family to Toledo, Ohio, when she was three months old. Once a year, however, Taylor returned south to visit her relatives, where she was consistently regaled with tales of their family’s history.
Taylor recalls her father’s knack for storytelling with great pride, noting that “These stories of family history were handed down from generation to generation, and as a child I was inspired to pass these stories on.” Putting those narratives down on paper was more than a way to make a living; it was a calling that paid homage to her ancestors even as it introduced generations of children to a proud black family whose love and solidarity sustained them through the harshest of times. Her childhood experiences strengthened Taylor’s desire to write as one of the only black students in her classes. She was also horrified by how history textbooks downgraded the accomplishments of and injustices suffered by blacks, telling a history of her people that was unrecognizable from the narratives of fortitude and perseverance her own father recounted. Taylor graduated from high school in 1961 and enrolled at the University of Toledo, where she majored in English and minored in history. A frustrating first attempt at publishing a novel (Dark People, Dark World) did not deter her. After earning her Master’s in Journalism from the University of Colorado, Taylor moved to Los Angeles in 1971 and worked as a proofreader and editor.
Her big break came in 1973 when a friend told her about a writing contest sponsored by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. The story she submitted was based on her father’s life, but she decided to rewrite it from a girl’s perspective at the last minute. That tale – which won Taylor the contest and established her career as a children’s author – became Song of the Trees, the first installment chronicling the life of the Logan family. Set during the Great Depression in Jim Crow-era Mississippi, the Logans own four hundred acres of land, insulating them from some of the horrors visited upon their black peers who are forced to sharecrop on white plantations. What makes the Logans unique is not simply their land, which is a source of sustenance and pride, but the strength and dignity with which Taylor imbues each character. Taylor admits in her Penguin profile that she “wanted to show a different kind of black world from the one so often seen. I wanted to show a family united in love and self-respect, and parents, strong and sensitive.” In the sequel to Song, the Newbery Award-winning and CSK Honor Roll of Thunder, Taylor gave readers a family anchored by three generations of strong black women, most notably Cassie, the nine-year-old protagonist and granddaughter of Paul and Caroline, who purchase the land upon which the family lives.
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.
I am currently pursuing my doctoral degree in Educational Leadership and I had been going back in forth in my mind on what my dissertation focus would be. But, finally, I just gave in to what is most dear to my heart—books that mirror the lives of black and brown children; and CSK plays a significant role in pushing such titles to the forefront. So now, the working title of my dissertation is: “Avoiding the Single Story: University Professionals Explore Narratives of the Black Experience through Coretta Scott King Book Award Titles.” I have selected four CSK titles for university faculty and/or leaders to read over the course of the fall semester via a virtual book club: Piecing Me Together, We Are the Ship, Crown, and The Crossover. I wanted to choose titles that told varied narratives of the black experience.
I will never forget my experience as a little black girl perusing through books in the public library in search of titles that mirrored people, places, and experiences familiar to me. Allow me to briefly take a stroll down memory lane to recall some of the friends I have met through CSK titles like Cassie, from Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry. Her ability to maintain her spunky personality and witty nature all while dealing with racism and social ills made me feel like we were best friends. My heart ached for Gayle from Rita Williams-Garcia’s Like Sisters on the Homefront as she went through the trials and tribulations of being a teen mom. And I was terrified for Steve as he stood trial in a world that only saw him as a villain and not as the young, black teen or human he was, but instead, as a monster (Could art be imitating life today?)—an unforgettable character from the late, great Walter Dean Myers’ novel, Monster. I could go on, and on.
I am honored, and I view it as a service to my community, to serve on the Coretta Scott King Book Awards jury. I know how important it is for little black and brown children to see themselves, their culture, their neighborhoods, and their language in literature. But it is equally important for little white boys and girls to see that there are many stories that contribute to the black experience and that having only one narrative of the black experience is what contributes to unfair and inaccurate narratives that lead to stereotyping of black people, prejudice, and racial profiling—all of which we are witnessing in today’s political climate. Through my research, I will challenge university faculty and leaders to open up their hearts and their bookshelves to not only this year’s winners but to go back and read previous CSK award-winning titles, in order to expose themselves to the plethora of narratives that contribute to the black experience. Libraries may transform lives, but the Coretta Scott King Book Award titles have the power to modify your spirit and to change your heart. I’ll be sure to report my findings to the blog next year. See you all in NOLA and happy reading!
LaKeshia Darden is a 2017-2019 member of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Jury. She is the Curriculum Materials/Media Librarian at Campbell University.