This year, as we commemorate four decades of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards, it is interesting to see how far children’s publishing has come in featuring books by African-American writers and artists.
The Coretta Scott King Book Awards were established in 1969 to provide recognition for African-American authors and later illustrators of exceptional books for children and teen readers. Two librarians, Glyndon Flynt Greer and Mabel McKissick, and publisher John Carroll observed at that time that “no African-American author or illustrator had ever been honored with the prestigious Newbery and Caldecott awards,” which were established in 1922 and 1938, respectively. In establishing the Coretta Scott King Book Award, it was thought that an award recognizing outstanding work by African Americans would bring “more attention” to the fine work they were creating and would inspire more creators of such work.
In each of the decades that make up the 40 years of the awards, the selections tell us something about the state of children’s and young people’s publishing and the role African Americans played. Additionally, the books selected in each decade provide some insight into the issues faced by the awards committee as they attempted to fulfill its mission.
The first book to receive the Coretta Scott King Book Award was a biography about the man whose life work was the impetus for the award. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: Man of Peace was written by Lillie Patterson, a school librarian and well-regarded writer of children’s nonfiction.
Books to receive recognition during this decade seemed to reflect a need to promote the contributions made by African Americans to the arts and literature, such as the 1971 winner, Black Troubadour: Langston Hughes written by Charlemae Rollins and 1977 winner, The Story of Stevie Wonder by James Haskins. In 1974, the committee bestowed its first illustrator award to George Ford for his drawings in Ray Charles, written by Sharon Bell Mathis, who also won the author award for the lively text. It was the first of many Coretta Scott King Book Awards that celebrated black music.
While many of the books highlighted during this period were inspirational biographies, one notable novel which received an author honor recognition in 1979 was Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. This trailblazing work was also awarded the John Newbery Medal—only the second awarded to an African-American writer since they began in 1922.
Occasionally, a person whose prominence was outside the publishing field produced work the committee deemed worthy of note: Pearl Bailey, the legendary entertainer was a winner for her book, Duey’s Tale, and celebrated actor and playwright, Ossie Davis was a 1979 winner for Escape to Freedom: A Play about Young Frederick Douglass.
The decade, however, undoubtedly revealed the limited number of books written by African-American writers for children, as they included several that were originally published for adult readers but thought to have appeal for young people, such as Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
This period saw a number of interesting developments in the field of African-American children’s books. It identified some of what was to become the most prolific authors and illustrators, who are today among the most honored and revered in the publishing community.