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.
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).
The first Coretta Scott King Book Award winner of the new century was historic. For the first time, a book had won both the Coretta Scott King Book Award and the John Newbery Medal. Christopher Paul Curtis became the first African-American to receive this distinction for his stunning novel, Bud, Not Buddy. This story of an orphan seeking his father in Michigan during the Great Depression continues to be one of the most popular award winners in children's literature.
African-American writers in this decade explored and experimented with new formats and genres. Trailblazing books were created by prominent African-American writers such as Walter Dean Myers’ Monster (2000 honor), which departed from traditional narrative and used a character's screenplay to engage teen readers. The book also had the distinction of winning the first Michael L. Printz Award for literary achievement in a young adult novel and went on to become a New York Times best-seller.
The amazing power of poetry was also on full display during this period. Nikki Grimes' novel in verse, Bronx Masquerade (2003 winner), provides an emotional bond with its cast of high school characters. Marilyn Nelson, an established adult poet, brought her considerable talents to the field and received an honor recognition for three of her unique collections: Carver: A Life in Poems (2002), Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem (2005), and A Wreath for Emmett Till (2006). Nelson used challenging poetic forms to illuminate challenging subjects in African-American history. And this year, Carole Boston Weatherford was recognized for poetry about the life of jazz great Billie Holiday in Becoming Billie Holiday (2009 honor).
As the middle-grade and young adult market exploded due to the success of series such as Harry Potter, novels addressing teen issues and coming-of-age stories became more readily available and distinguished themselves in this decade. Miracle's Boys (2001 winner), Jacqueline Woodson's novel of three brothers struggling to remain a family in the face of tremendous loss, further demonstrated her mastery of storytelling with spare lyrical prose. Two accomplished, yet very different depictions of slavery were explored in Sharon M. Draper's Copper Sun (2007 winner) and Christopher Paul Curtis' Elijah of Buxton (2008 winner).
As in previous periods, this decade built upon and saw a proliferation of new artistic talent. Bryan Collier's brilliant use of collage technique earned him the illustrator award for his first book, Uptown (2001 winner), watercolorist E.B. Lewis brought poignancy and power to his depiction of aviator Bessie Coleman in Talkin' About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman (2003 winner) and R. Gregory Christie presented an expressionistic style to honor awardees Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth (2001 honor) and Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan (2006 honor).
There is no doubt, however, that the illustrator of the decade is Kadir Nelson. Nelson's dramatic illustrations in Ellington Was Not a Street (2005 winner) and Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (2007 winner) were arresting. Ironically, it was Nelson's writing in We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball that garnered the Coretta Scott King Book Award in 2009. However, his bold illustrations did not go unrecognized by the committee, as he received an illustrator honor as well. The 2009 award for illustration went to Floyd Cooper whose warm illustrations accompanied honor recipient Joyce Carol Thomas' poems celebrating the beauty found in the range of skin tones of African-American children.
The Coretta Scott King Book Awards have a full and rich tradition of recognizing the best literature for young people created by African-American writers and illustrators. The honored books are of the highest literary and artistic quality and share the universal themes that celebrate the humanity of all. On the journey of 40 years of history, the awards have also introduced, promoted and encouraged some of the most remarkable creative talent in the field of children's publishing.
Deborah Taylor is an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland-College Park's College of Library and Information Sciences and chair of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards committee.