For something to endure forty years, there has to be lots of love and nurturing. It’s safe to say that the Coretta Scott King Literary Award most certainly has been nurtured. This year marks its 40th anniversary honoring African American writers and illustrators for their contributions to children’s literature.
I can only imagine what the powers that be in the literary field said in 1969 when the award was conceived. Did people think – what nerve, for people of color to create their own award for books? Or was it more like – thank God, now we really don’t have to worry about acknowledging them in the mainstream?
Considering where our country stood then – at the cross roads of the civil rights movement, I’m sure there was scrutiny. But I believe there’s greater scrutiny of the award, now more than ever, because of the country’s current landscape, because we now have a president who identifies himself as a person of color. In a way, the award has come full-circle along with the rest of society.
Current CSK chairperson, Deborah Taylor, chatted with Brown Bookshelf members about the award’s journey. Where it came from, where it’s been and where it and publishing, in general, should go.
BBS: What was the racial landscape of the children’s book industry when the Coretta Scott King Awards debuted?
DT: The award was established in the late 60’s and early seventies. It was a time of racial uncertainty. The publishing world was aware of the need for books about African American life and culture, but the children’s book establishment was slow to change and slow to openly embrace the different stories and styles represented by most African American writers and artists, with rare exceptions.
We had come through the “black is beautiful” stage in African American culture, but little had filtered down to books for young readers. While there were few overtly offensive images, there were few that celebrated the images of African American culture for young readers. There were not many that fully explored the contributions of African Americans to all aspects of American culture.
BBS: How has the industry changed?
DT: As society changed, the industry became more receptive to different stories and styles. Popular culture has become more inclusive, so some aspects of African American culture have become more main stream. This is also reflected in the types of books that get published. There are non African Americans who understand that the diversity can be good for the health of the industry.
There are a few more African Americans working in the industry and the additions of African American imprints such as Jump at the Sun at Hyperion/Disney and Armistad at HarperCollins were important for the field.
What gains have made you proudest?
DT: I am most proud of the writers and illustrators who were introduced to the field by the Awards and the impact they have had. When I remember the early work of an artist such as Kadir Nelson or the writing of Sharon Flake, I am proud of the early recognition they received from the Coretta Scott King Book Awards. Now they and others like them are major names in the field of literature for young people.
Also gratifying is the increased sophistication we see represented in the works that are recognized. I see a growing understanding that while history and the arts are sources of great inspiration; universal themes set in the context of African American culture reinforce the common humanity of all people. I really like the balance.
Lastly, I am very pleased that the high standards the Awards have set help provide a more full and complete picture of African American life and culture.
BBS: What work still needs to be done?
DT: I would like to see a greater variety of books published about the African American experience. I’d like to see more genre fiction featuring young people of color: fantasy, science fiction, suspense, etc. I’d like to see stories about African Americans from many different backgrounds, middle and upper class, as well as families struggling economically. And when we do get books like that, I’d like to see some promotional weight behind them.
BBS: Explain why the task force still believes there’s a need to have ethnic/race-based literary awards/ what do you hope the future brings for African American children’s literature?
DT: The Committee believes that it is still difficult for books written and illustrated by African Americans to gain the recognition they need. The awards provide this recognition and offer a chance in the spotlight. There is an authenticity of storytelling and experience that the creators bring to their story and we think that should be encouraged and celebrated.
I hope the future brings a greater range of stories from the African American experience. I look forward to a wider range of stylistic approaches in the writing and the art. I hope we will see more African Americans producing graphic novels and experimenting with form. Hopefully, the awards will continue to encourage new African American writers and illustrators to see children’s publishing as an outlet for their talents and that publishers continue to see opportunity in these works.
BBS: Some have even gone as far as to say the award is contradictory to Dr. King and Mrs. King’s vision of peace and world brotherhood, because it’s given only to African Americans. Is that an oversimplification of what the award represents? Why or why not?
DT: It is certainly an oversimplification of the complexities of Dr. King’s views of what it would take to remedy the effects of the racial history in this country. Dr. King’s vision included a path that acknowledged the work that needed to be done for getting there. We are on that path. The purpose of the award is to highlight the contributions of African Americans in literature for young people. This broadens the landscape for all readers to read and appreciate the works of these talented artists.
BBS: Can you shed any light on whether the task force works with other ALA award committees when it comes to selecting candidates? Is it possible some African American authors aren’t considered as seriously for the other awards because it’s felt they “fit” better within the CSK talent pool?
DT: There is no “collusion” going on in the award making process. I have served on both the Newbery Committee and the Printz Committee and the ethnic background of an author is not part of the conversation. No chair of a committee would allow such a discussion.
In my experiences, discussion is centered on the works before the committee and nothing else. There have been cases, just a few, where books by African American writers and illustrators received recognition from other committees and did not receive a Coretta Scott King Book Award recognition.
I suspect this question attempts to address the discussion about Kadir Nelson not receiving the Caldecott or Caldecott honor for We Are the Ship. The book did, however, win the Sibert Medal for informational work, the first by an African American for that award or any of its honors since it was first given in 2001.
There have been three instances in the Coretta Scott King Book Awards history when its winner was the winner of another major award: In 2000, Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis won the Coretta Scott King Author Award and the Newbery Medal. In 2004, First Part Last by Angela Johnson won the Coretta Scott King Author Award and the Michael L. Printz Award (for Young Adult Literature.)
BBS: Upon reviewing a list of past winners, one can assert that they go to a small handful of recipients, repeatedly. Talk a little bit about how the task force is encouraging publishers to support African American creators of children’s lit, while also seemingly recognizing only a small pool of the authors, themselves.
DT: The integrity of the award dictates that the Committee selects the best from the works they have to examine. With a small pool of eligible books, it stands to reason that experienced quality writers and illustrators who have been working and refining their craft will certainly rise to the top. Whether a potential recipient has won before, won multiple awards or never won before is not the issue.
The quality of the work in front of the committee is the only issue. For example, The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis was a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. It was his first novel. Uptown by Bryan Collier was his second published book and it won the illustrator award the year it came out.
BBS: With such a small number of African American children’s book creators being published each year, what is the committee doing to take the lead in recognizing fresh voices, beyond the Steptoe award?
DT: One of the goals of the 40th Anniversary Public Awareness Campaign is to keep the awards and recognized books in the forefront for librarians, teachers, parents, and anyone who cares about quality children’s literature. The Steptoe Award is a pretty significant step. Before the Young Adult division (YALSA) established its prize for first novels, the Steptoe was a unique attempt to highlight fresh voices.
I think the best way we can encourage new African American voices is to work hard to maintain the integrity of the award by making excellent selections, work with all of our partners to promote the books, and encourage talented writers and illustrators to consider children’s publishing as a great place for the stories they want to tell.
Please visit ala.org/csk for full criteria on the Coretta Scott King Award.
*Excerpt from site *
The Award is given to an African American author and illustrator for outstanding inspirational and educational contributions. The Coretta Scott King Book Award titles promote understanding and appreciation of the culture of all peoples and their contribution to the realization of the American dream of a pluralistic society.
The Award is further designed to commemorate the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to honor Mrs. Coretta Scott King for her courage and determination to continue the work for peace and world brotherhood.
The Criteria of the award is as follows:
1. Must portray some aspect of the black experience, past, present, or future.
2. Must be written/illustrated by an African American
3. Must be published in the U.S. in the year preceding presentation of the Award.
4. Must be an original work
5. Must meet established standards of quality writing for youth which include:
o Clear plot
o Well drawn characters, which portray growth and development during the course of the story.
o Writing style which is consistent with and suitable to the age intended
6. Must be written for a youth audience in one of three categories:
o Preschool-grade 4
o Grades 5-8
o Grades 9-12
7. Particular attention will be paid to titles which seek to motivate readers to develop their own attitudes and behaviors as well as comprehend their personal duty and responsibility as citizens in a pluralistic society.
8. Illustrations should reflect established qualitative standards identified in the statement below:
Illustrations should… “heighten and extend the readers’ awareness of the world around him. They should lead him to an appreciation of beauty. The style and content of the illustrations should be…neither coy nor ondescending…Storytelling qualities should enlarge upon the story elements that were hinted in the text and should include details that will awaken and strength the imagination of the reader and permit him to interpret the words and pictures in a manner unique to him”
–Cianciolo, Illustrations in Children’s Books (p. 24-25)
Eligibility and Exclusions
1. Author or illustrator must live in the U.S. or maintain dual residency/citizenship.
2. Book must be published in the year preceding the year the award is given, evidenced by the copyright date printed in the book.
3. Only finished copies will be accepted. Do not send advance reader copies, galleys, etc.
4. Titles submitted for the Coretta Scott King Book Awards will not be returned. Titles received by the OLOS office are donated as part of The Coretta Scott King Review Books Donation Grant
Article compiled by contributing writers: Paula Chase, Varian Johnson, Kelly Starling Lyons, Carla Sarratt, Don Tate