Our Children Can Soar:
A Brief Chat with a Whole Slew of Talented People

h1 August 19th, 2009 by jules


“Rosa sat . . . so Ruby could learn. Ruby learned . . . so Martin could march.”
(Click to enlarge spread.)

This is Ruby Bridges, who was only six years old—during the American Civil Rights struggle of the early 1960s—when she became the first African American child to attend an all-white school in the South. For this, she had to live with threats to her life on a daily basis and face teachers unwilling to instruct her. She is captured for all eternity in Norman Rockwell’s famous painting; he depicted her on her first day of school, surrounded by U.S. marshals as a result of the court-ordered desegregation of public schools in New Orleans. Going to kindergarten with the federal law enforcement agency at your side: This was her reality.

Illustrator Shadra Strickland, who visited 7-Imp over a year ago and who was earlier this year named the Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator of 2009, painted Ruby in the luminescent painting above for Our Children Can Soar: A Celebration of Rosa, Barack, and the Pioneers of Change, a new title (April ’09) from Bloomsbury, which celebrates the American Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s. It was edited by Michelle Cook and includes a foreword from Marian Wright Edelman, as well as illustrations from thirteen illustrators. Yes, thirteen: This is one of those titles that—if you are an Illustration Junkie, as I am–will feed your habit. Shadra brings us Ruby, as you can see above, and James Ransome brings us the arresting opening spread; Leo & Diane Dillon, George Washington Carver; A.G. Ford, Jesse Owens; R. Gregory Christie, Hattie McDaniel; Pat Cummings, Ella Fitzgerald; Charlotte Riley-Webb, Jackie Robinson; Cozbi A. Cabrera, Rosa Parks; Frank Morrison, Martin Luther King, Jr.; Bryan Collier, Thurgood Marshall (as well as the book’s jacket art); Eric Velasquez, Barack Obama; and E.B. Lewis, the moving final spread.

Remember this heavily-circulated quote from last year’s presidential campaign: “Rosa sat so Martin could march. Martin marched so Barack could run. Barack ran so our children can soar!” This is one book’s attempt to capture that sentiment — by showcasing the talents and visions of a handful of illustrators. Publishers Weekly writes, “The spreads understandably represent an array of artistic styles and media, yet they form a cohesive and affecting collective portrait…”

Some of those illustrators are here this morning for a brief visit. I asked them one simple question: What does it mean to you, personally, to have contributed to this book celebrating the U.S. Civil Rights Movement? I thank them for stopping by.

* * * * * * *

Pat Cummings (illustrated Ella Fitzgerald)

“Each book I’ve done holds the memory for me of a time and place. Throughout Barack Obama’s campaign, the feeling that collective effort could bring about change for the better was overwhelming. Our Children Can Soar captured that feeling—that positive change was the result of collective effort—and it will forever remind me of how satisfying it is to work with others to achieve a singular goal. Listening to Ella Fitzgerald as I worked, it seemed that the pure, soaring quality of her voice, like the ending of this book, only leads to another beginning. Working with so many talented people was a celebration, and I will always be delighted to have been included.”

Charlotte Riley-Webb (illustrated Jackie Robinson)

I lived through, and was profoundly affected by, many of the challenges facing African Americans during the years which came to be known as the Civil Rights Movement. The sacrifices and accomplishments of those highlighted in the book, as well as many others, have cleared the pathway and given today’s youth the opportunity to excel unencumbered. Coming from Georgia—as did my illustrated character, Jackie Robinson, and Dr. Martin Luther King—during such a turbulent time, I can personally relate to their strides and appreciate their achievements. By contributing to this book, I’d like to feel that I have played some small role in helping to preserve the legacy of these amazing heroes. Our Children Can Soar gives our youth a beautifully-documented keepsake that can remind them of how truly special they and their forefathers really are and help to encourage a new generation of achievers. I feel honored to have been asked to contribute to such a worthwhile project.

Eric Velasquez (illustrated Barack Obama)

It means a great deal. I grew up during the Civil Rights movement and remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Being able to live in a time when America has elected it’s first black President is a wonderful thing. Ultimately, the work I have done in Our Children Can Soar represents the hope and dreams of my ancestors, as well many friends and loved ones that are no longer with us. The look of hope I painted on Obama’s face is for them.

R. Gregory Christie (illustrated Hattie McDaniel)

Painting historical figures is part of an ongoing dedication to draw attention to people from the past that are often overlooked today. I know teenagers that can rattle off television line-ups for any day of the week and have memorized album lyrics from start to finish. These same young people have no idea of anyone in the civil rights movement, other than Martin Luther King, so Our Children Can Soar is important to me, solely because it is a means to build a bridge that promotes cultural admiration. Additional benefits are to see my name in a book with such great names of the illustration and historical world, the opportunity to paint the portrait of a woman considered somewhat controversial in this present day, and to have such a seamless job opportunity with the hard-working team at Bloomsbury USA.

I see imagery as a universal means of communication; couple the picture with the written word, and you have connected the image to a particular time and culture. It’s an act of cultural documentation, as longstanding as hieroglyphics. The artwork for this project directly showcases the famous descendants of African culture — but incorporates a simple poem that I feel all ethnicities could claim as their own. Also, I appreciate the honesty of this book, as it talked about the hardships, along with the triumphs. Hattie McDaniel, a woman considered by some to have been a stereotyped Mammy actress, in my opinion deserves her place in a poem about pathfinders. Barack Obama—before he was president—was the only black representative of his three-year term in the Senate, one of six African American senators in United States history, including Carol Moseley-Braun, who was also the first female Senator (1993-1999)….I doubt that, without the presidency, Mr. Obama would be as obscure as these other Senators. My point is that many roads to true success are very long, and along the way there are going to be some controversies and hardships. It’s a disservice to society to tidy up what were the causes of a particular change, because without the right information, our children are not going to soar very high at all.

Our Children Can Soar names the names of people who sacrificed for the next generation. If nothing else, this book is an opportunity to delve deeper into American values by picking up the biographies on these figures.

James Ransome (illustrated the opening spread, “Our ancestors fought…”)

It was an honor for me to use my talent to visually describe the contributions African Americans made in the fight for their civil rights. My image was a montage of depictions of the ways in which African Americans fought for their freedom.

Shadra Strickland (illustrated Ruby Bridges)

Growing up in Atlanta, I regularly listened to stories of the courageous heroes {and} heroines of the civil rights movement. Like the characters in the Bible, these people’s lives have become deified and are shining examples of just how high resilience, love, and knowledge can lift us out of the darkest wells of human history. Our Children Can Soar represents a culmination of these lives — and the hopes that my parents and grandparents have for me, a young African American woman in this new age of hope and change. Contributing to this project—that puts into pictures and words the long road that we, as a nation of people, have travelled—is humbling and inspiring. Not only does it make me proud of what a rich and varied history I have, it reminds me of how important it is to keep sharing and building upon that history for generations of heroes to come.

* * * * * * *

OUR CHILDREN CAN SOAR. Illustration © 2009 by Shadra Strickland. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury, New York, New York. All rights reserved.

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15 comments to “Our Children Can Soar:
A Brief Chat with a Whole Slew of Talented People”

  1. I look forward to reading this book and studying the illustrations.


  2. Wow, great idea to round up all the illustrators’ thoughts. Looks like a gorgeous book!


  3. I’m so glad you’re an Illustration Junkie, Jules, and this was a great post to start the day with–energizing.


  4. I just hope Barrack is checked and balanced so that he DOES change things for the good– such as a few small tweaks here and there to Health and Education to offer more possibilities to all Americans…

    Without destroying small business and the positive points of the private sector in the process.

    Regardless, I will be buying this book because even though my views are more moderate than Barrack’s, I still admire him and Michelle. I think they are brilliant, talented people who genuinely want to do Good.

    Thanks for the post on this new work of Art!


  5. Oh, you guys! This is SO gorgeous. What a perfect book for a gloomy, rainy day. I’m cheered.


  6. Thank you so much for featuring this book, Jules. A nice mid-week pick-me-up of positiviness (as Stephen Colbert might say) to counter an awful lot of ugliness in the air!


  7. What a nice treat this was. Our Children Can Soar is a beautiful book.


  8. [...] on over to Seven Impossible Thins Before Breakfast and check out a really cool superview with some of the artists from OUR CHILDREN CAN SOAR (yours [...]


  9. [...] that celebrate the history of African-Americans. Links of interest: More book blogger reviews.  Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast has a great feature with all the illustrators. Genre: Non-Fiction Picture Book, Biography approx [...]


  10. [...] Our Children Can Soar by Michelle Cook [...]


  11. i love this web site!!!!!!!!!!!


  12. people should stop not liking blacks. treat everyone the same.


  13. [...] {Zetta Elliott’s} Bird, Our Children Can Soar, {Renée Watson’s} A Place Where Hurricanes Happen, {Jerdine Nolen’s} Eliza’s Freedom [...]


  14. I just finished telling my 6 year old daughter the story of Ruby Bridges… going to find this book…
    Outstanding!! Proud of all of you.. thank you..

    Can’t wait to talk to the girls I work with tomorrow about Ruby Bridges… and change!!


  15. I am so glad my daughter told me about this website and she is 6 years old. She and her classmate performed this at their blaack history program and i am glad they are learning history


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