Floyd Cooper defies The Brown Bookshelf’s mission of highlighting children’s literature creators whose works may be flying under the radar of teachers and librarians. His name isn’t flying under anything. In fact, he’s probably one of the best known, most celebrated, and highly regarded artists in the industry.
He has won the Coretta Scott King Award and Honor multiple times, including taking the top CSK award for illustration in 2009, for The Blacker the Berry (Text: Joyce Carole Thomas). His most recent authored and illustrated work, Willie and the All-Stars, the story of an African American child in 1934, who dreams of becoming a professional baseball player, has received starred reviews and critical acclaim.
Floyd began his career while still a student at the University of Oklahoma. After which he worked in advertising, then took a job working at Hallmark greeting cards in Kansas City. In 1984, he headed for the east coast and snagged a literary agent, illustrated his first book, Grandpa’s Face, and the rest is history.
Mr. Cooper takes his work seriously. He says: “I feel children are at the front line in improving society. This might sound a little heavy, but it’s true. I feel children’s picture books play a role in counteracting all the violence and other negative images conveyed in the media.”
On day number 10, I’m thrilled to present Floyd Cooper:
Don: Tell us about your book Willie and the All-Stars
Floyd: Willie and the All-Stars is about a boy who lived in Chicago during the heyday of the Negro Baseball Leagues, 1940’s. Hel loved baseball and wanted to be the “best in the world”. That meant not only playing for one of the Negro League teams someday,but making it all the way to the Major League!
It is a simple tale of a kid with a dream and how fragile keeping a dream can be.
With this book, you are both writer and illustrator. Do you prefer one discipline over the other?
Floyd: I will always be an artist first. I see my writing as an extension of my illustrating. The approach to “building” a story with words and phrases is no different than “building” a painting with brushes and pigments.
In my journey to becoming an artist who writes, I tend to start my idea process with simple, concrete messages that relate to what kids may be experiencing as they navigate through childhood and adolescence putting together building blocks of the foundations on which they will become adults. This book started the same way, this time the moral of the story is of course- hold fast to dreams.
What kind of research went into telling this story and what were the challenges related to research?
Floyd: Research is always a very necessary part of my process because all of my books to this point have been historical. Time spent in the library adds to one’s wealth as a writer or artist.
Do you work from memory, photographs, live models?
Floyd: The model for Willie is my nephew. I try to use models at least for the main characters because of the nature of my art. I tend to focus on the humanity of my subjects, the details of expression that add a certain reality to the work. Real faces= real art. That’s the goal anyway.
How did you become interested in illustrating for children?
Floyd: I owe my career in children’s books to my former agent- Libby Ford. She got my work in front of the right people and basically launched my career.
What is your mission as an artist?
Floyd: My “mission”, if you can call it that, is to connect with my readers on an emotional level and have them come away with a stronger impression of the basic message in the story I am illustrating.
What is your primary medium?
Floyd: My method is subtraction. I use erasers to make the images in my paintings. You really have to see it to fully get it, but it is basically erasing shapes from a background of paint. (See him in action at the National Book Festival)
Tell us about your process of illustrating a children’s book.
Floyd: I get the “call”, the story is sent via email and I will then read it to see if it “fits”. It usually does and then right away I begin visualizing with a series of tiny, tiny, thumbnail sketches. Just blocked in shapes that I then enlarge a add details to. Sometimes a model is acquired, usually my son and his friends. (They don’t come cheap!) Once sketches are approved, I start to paint. I like to give myself at least a couple of months to work, but things can move quite fast, if the story is just right I can finish in a couple of weeks. It just depends.
What inspires you as an illustrator? Are there certain topics/
stories you enjoy more than others?
Floyd: I like people. Humanity. My family is a part of my work. They contribute throughout the process with critiques, advice, opinions, etc.
Do you visit schools?
Floyd: I visit schools. You can learn more on my website: floydcooper.com I love visiting schools and demonstrating my eraser techniques!
What are you doing when You’re not creating chilren’s books
Floyd: I love the cinema, sports, playing basketball and hanging out with the fam!
What were some of your favorite books as a child?
Floyd: I loved fables and tales from the Borthers Grimm and Aesop, Anderson and most of all the stories my Mother never tired of telling. My favorite author is Joyce Carol Thomas, my favorite illustrators are Jerry Pinckney and Paul O. Zelinsky. And Ginnady Spirin.
As an illustrator who is African American, have you ever felt pressure to illustrate a certain type of manuscript?
Floyd: Early in my career I did feel this “pressure”. I bucked it and asked to illustrate Laura Charlotte and now am quite proud of the diverse cultures represented in my backlist.
Who are your cheerleaders?
Floyd: I have many who keep me going, I am very fortunate in this sense. There is nothing like a child who knows more about your books than you do!
My family are right there, also.
What advice can you offer to aspiring writers and illustrators of children’s books?
Floyd: My advice to writers is: READ! A lot. Then read some more. read, read, read, read!
What can your readers expect from you next?
Floyd: I just finished Ben and the Emancipation Proclamation about a South Carolina boy who learns to read and “From Way in Back” about a boy on Rosa Parks bus that day in December. Look out for another project from Joyce Carol Thomas/Floyd Cooper collabo.