Coretta’s Reading Rainbow

Celebrating four decades of excellence in African-American children’s literature.


It was a period of great recognition for one of the premier picture book artists, Jerry Pinkney, who has won the most Coretta Scott King Book Awards for illustration to date. With a focused attention to detail, Pinkney’s lively watercolor paintings brought richness to every story he illustrated. His work in Mirandy and Brother Wind and The Patchwork Quilt defined African-American picture books. 

This was also a period of multiple recognitions for Virginia Hamilton, a writer who made an indelible mark on all children’s publishing. Hamilton was the first African American to win a John Newbery Medal in 1975. Her body of work was as varied as it was distinguished: There were realistic novels such as Justice and Her Brothers (1979 honor), retellings of fairy tales, such as The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales (1986 winner), and works of fantasy, such as The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl (1984 honor). Before her death in 2002, Hamilton became the first children’s writer to be awarded a MacArthur Foundation Genius award. 

In the area of illustration, this decade saw the only book of photographs ever given the Coretta Scott King Book Award for illustration. Peter Magubane’s Black Child, with its haunting images of South African children made the connection to the African Diaspora for young readers. And books such as John Steptoe’s lushly illustrated Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, presented a more positive view of Africa while retelling the Cinderella story. 

Steptoe, who had been one of the youngest illustrators in the field, had a major impact on the stylistic vision of books about young people of color. He died in 1989, and the Coretta Scott King Committee pays homage to his legacy each year through the John Steptoe Award for New Talent, given to promising new writers and illustrators. 

Interestingly during this time, writers who had established themselves in the adult market were compelled to write for younger readers, such as Alice Childress (Rainbow Jordan, 1982) and Julius Lester (The Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit, 1988), both recipients of author honors during this time. 

And a special citation was given to Coretta Scott King in 1984 for her compilation of The Words of Martin Luther King Jr.  1990s 

By the 1990s, the Coretta Scott King Committee was looking exclusively at books from children’s publishing community. While there were still a small number of books produced by African-American writers and illustrators, the committee no longer had to look to the adult market to round out its list. As interest in African-American artists and books grew, the world readied itself to hear and learn more about the African-American experience, past and present. 

This decade saw a profusion of well-researched and lively written nonfiction. A Long Hard Journey: The Story of the Pullman Porter (1990 winner) by Patricia C. & Fredrick L. McKissack provides insight into the struggle for equality that proceeded the civil rights movement; Walter Dean Myers wove his family story into a compelling narrative in Now is Your Time: The African American Struggle for Freedom (1992 winner). 


The novels recognized during this era demonstrated a high level of sophistication in the storytelling and literary aspects. Angela Johnson received her first, in a string of author awards for Toning the Sweep, a poetic multigenerational story of loss and reconciliation. Sharon Draper would begin her tenure as a multiple winner with Forged by Fire, a hard-hitting novel about a young man struggling with the gritty side of urban life. Rita Williams-Garcia used her considerable talent to uncover the humanity of a streetwise teen mother in Like Sisters on the Homefront. 

Books delved further into the deeply rooted African-American tradition of storytelling. Two unique story collections that were spotlighted include: Dark Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural by Patricia C. McKissack (1993 winner) and Her Stories by Virginia Hamilton (1996 winner). Dark Thirty weaves black history throughout its stories of mystery and magic, while Her Stories focuses on the odd and eerie in the lives of its female subjects. 


The illustrator awards during this period saw established artists continue to produce works of excellence and new artists bringing new energy to the field. Further, the illustrators, just like the authors, were interpreting difficult issues of African-American life in a picture-book format. The traditional was represented by the powerful illustrations of Leo and Diane Dillon’s Aida (1991 winner), a well-known story with a fresh portrayal. The story quilt art of Faith Ringgold burst onto the children’s book community with Tar Beach (1992 winner), a story that did not shy away from harsh economic realities even as it celebrated the bond of family. Similar in theme but with strong oil paintings, totally different medium was Uncle Jed’s Barbershop, illustrated by James Ransome (1994 honor). 

Another generation in the Pinkney clan came to the forefront as Brian Pinkney deployed his unique scratchboard technique to enliven Sukey and the Mermaid (1993 Honor) and The Faithful Friend (1996 Honor), stories from the folk culture of South Carolina and the Caribbean. Another addition to the new generation was Javaka Steptoe, who continued his father’s tradition of award-winning art with various artistic styles in, In Daddy’s Arms I am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers (1998 winner).