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?

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