Monday, February 28, 2011

Arrival: Pioneers of Black Children's Book Cover Art

We haven't forgotten Black History Month--it just took some time to gather information about pioneering black children's book illustrators. It wasn't easy. Good thing there's the list of the Coretta Scott King Awards for Illustration by an African American children's book creator, a great resource, and perhaps the only online source that lists black children's illustrators from the early days (since 1974 anyway).

Let's begin at the point where African Americans first arrived on the covers of children's books. (I am disregarding Uncle Remus/Sambo-type representations.)

In 1962, Ezra Jack Keats' The Snowy Day appeared on bookstore shelves, the first time an African-American child appeared as a main character on a picture book cover in the States:

Viking, 1962. Caldecott award winner

A breakthrough. Yet the illustrator, Mr. Keats, was not himself of African descent.

It seems weird now, but back then the idea of people of color on the cover was a novel notion. Even the makers of the beloved/loathed Dick and Jane series of early readers made a half-hearted effort to portray children of color in the mid-'60s. Just one example--first came this:

A 1962 Dick and Jane: Guess Who Teacher's Edition
(Scott Foresman)
Then three years later, this curious reworking, adding Mike and his twin sisters, Penny and Pam:

1965 Dick and Jane: Guess Who Teacher's Edition
(Scott Foresman)
Mike, Penny and Pam were, quite literally, afterthoughts. Something had to change.

Who were the illustrators of color creating children's art back in those days and what images did they portray? Who broke the barrier?

One such illustrator was George Ford, who won the very first Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration in 1974 for this book:

Ray Charles by Sharon Bell Mathis
Crowell, 1973, reissued by Lee and Low
in 2006 (?)
A far cry from dull ol' "Mike" on the Dick and Jane cover, no?

Here's a cover illustrated by Ashley Bryan, also a pioneer in the field:

Reminds me a little
of a Grecian urn?
He won the Coretta Scott King illustrator award in 1981 for the lively Beat the Story Drum, Pum Pum. (Atheneum)

There were lots more, such as Carole Byard, John Steptoe, Pat Cummings and the Pinckneys (duh!). How about Faith Ringgold? Although her first children's book, Tar Beach, didn't come out until 1991, she had been exhibiting her paintings and textile art for many years before then.

Tar Beach (Crown Publishers, 1991)
Caldecott Honor
Coretta Scott King award winner
It's been 49 years since The Snowy Day. So why are we still having problems with this issue? Is it mostly YA novel covers that publishers seem to think won't sell with people of color on the cover? Your thoughts?

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Trip to Redwall

“A mouse is small and can go unnoticed: but there is no limit to what a brave heart and a fearless spirit can achieve.” –Brian Jacques

Sad to hear of the passing of Brian Jacques, creator of the Redwall series and many other stories. I mulled over thoughts for a respectable tribute to this notable author of fantasy, but I couldn’t get past Redwall. This is not to say that his other works are not impressive—they are, indeed. There are twenty-one books in the Redwall series alone, and three additional Redwall picture books. Mr. Jacques wrote two other series (Urso Brunov and The Flying Dutchman) and a handful of single books as well.

So many choices leads to indecision: which Redwall cover would I choose?

1987 Penguin, USA; March 1990 Avon, UK;

March 1990 HarperCollins, USA; October 1997 Penguin, USA– 10th Anniversary Edition;

September 2002 Penguin, USA; September 2006 Red Fox, UK;

October 2007 Penguin, USA – 20th Anniversary Ed.; or the October 2007 graphic novel version, Philomel, USA.

The transformation of Martin the Warrior in this series of covers is impressive. But then again, so are the works of his creator. Mr. Jacques wrote this series for children at a blind school—he delivered their milk to them daily, and he wrote “as descriptive as possible, painting pictures with words so that the schoolchildren could see them in their imaginations”(1).

Mr. Jacques, thanks for your brave heart and fearless spirit. You will be missed.

For more about Brian Jacques, here are some helpful links:

His official website:

A catalog of his bookcovers:


His illustrators:

Troy Howell, Gary Chalk, David Elliot, and Christopher Denise.

(1) About Brian—The Start of Redwall

Illustration at the top is by Troy Howell.

Illustration at the bottom is by Christopher Denise.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine's Day - Seeing Red

Looking at all the red covers lining the Valentine's Day book displays made me realize how few red book covers there were on the other shelves. And then I asked "why?".

Let's take a look at how picture books use red. Some use it as a contrast to a focal point, which the following two book covers do very well.

The Red Book by Barbara Lehman
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004)

(A Neal Porter Book/Roaring Brook Press, 2008)

The next one layers the red but this time it's the title that stands out more than the character. The reader is getting some information though about setting: it's hot and fiery.
Teresa Duran, illustrated by Elena Val (Groundwood, 2010)

In these YA selections, red is being used to the fullest in terms of symbolism. Which do you think is better at conveying the themes of love/passion, fear and danger?

Ivy Devlin, book design by Danielle Delaney
(Bloomsbury Books for Young Readers, 2010)

(Razorbill, 2010)

Integrating the moon into the title of the first book and the snake forming a stylized heart in the second made these covers stand out for me, as well as the red of course.

So an answer to the question "why aren't there more red covers out there?" is that red is an intense colour that carries meaning. It has to be used wisely as it can symbolize many emotions. What do you see (and feel) when you pick up a red cover?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Better yet: Silhouette

Silhouette image of
the esteemed
Jane Austen
Striking, versatile and fairly non-race specific: the silhouette. The term derives from a certain M. Etienne de Silhouette, an eighteenth century French finance minister who enjoyed making paper cutouts of profiles when perhaps he should have been coming up with better ways to raise funds for Louis XV than by taxing people's windows and French doors. He left office after eight months.

There are all kinds of uses for silhouettes nowadays, in photography, fashion, and even in military aircraft identification. (Click that link. Pretty pictures to look at.)

Weird fact: An anagram for M. Etienne de Silhouette is "the esteemed in outline."

What follow are a few choice examples of recent YA and children's book covers that use silhouettes.

Shutout by Brendan Halpin (FSG, 2010)
 Love how the soccer ball is red and white.

Bird in a Box by Andrea Davis Pinkney
(Little, Brown, release date: April 12, 2011)
Efrain's Secret by Sofia Quintero (Knopf, 2010)

A Most Improper Magick: The UNLadylike
Adventures of Kat Stephenson
by Stephanie Burgis, UK cover
(Templar, 2010)
If it's white, can it still be called a silhouette?

While we're thinking of it, here's the silhouette-less North American dust jacket for the same book (image from the author's website), retitled Kat, Incorrigible, due out in April, 2011:

Returning to the silhouette, little did Etienne know that his eponymous hobby would one day become an ad campaign image for Wyoming public libraries. To wit:

Mud flap girl, reading
Apparently, a very successful campaign. Wonder what she's reading.