My Boyfriend’s Back…

h1 October 3rd, 2006 by eisha

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom… and he’s as awesome as ever, supplying his visual magic to Carole Boston Weatherford’s poignant text in the new picture book biography, Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom.

Weatherford’s text begins with Tubman’s decision to run away from her owner to avoid being sold. The terror and hardship of her journey is vividly described, but the real focus of this book is Harriet’s faith. Much of the text consists of Harriet’s prayers and pleas for guidance; God always answers, sometimes to offer comfort and sometimes with practical commands:

Harriet walks till her legs ache; then she leans against a tree.

Lord, I miss my folks.


God’s words are always in capital letters, and sometimes swirl and curve around the illustrations. It’s an effective device, and for the most part Weatherford succeeds in telling this side of Tubman’s story in a poetic and powerfully emotional way. But while Weatherford included an Introduction on the history of slavery in the United States, and a concluding Author’s Note that fleshes out Harriet’s bio, unfortunately she didn’t include a bibliography or source notes of any kind. I’m kind of a stickler about that sort of thing, and especially with text that seems to speak so personally for Harriet, I really think it needs more than the Author’s Note sentence “She talked to God as a friend and heeded his commands” to ground it in historical fact.

This isn’t the first time that Harriet Tubman’s inspirational story has gotten the picture book treatment – Minty by Alan Schroeder, Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky by Faith Ringgold, etc. – but it must be the prettiest. That’s not to say that Mr. Nelson has prettified Harriet herself, or her ordeals. But every image of her is imbued with dignity and strength – much as he did for the legends he portrayed in ellington was not a street, only more so, with a richness and solidity that almost seems more like sculpture than painting. Look at this one, for example – and imagine it full-size, which makes it about four times the size of an actual face. It’s awesome, in the original sense of the word, isn’t it? And he does some truly amazing things with light here. While Harriet’s on the run, everything is dark and muted – notice the pinpricks of distant torch light from her pursuers in this one. In contrast, several of the portraits of Harriet during moments of relative freedom and safety (like this one also featured on the cover), show her glowing, surrounded by coronas and sunbeams. It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Kadir Nelson’s work, but I really think this one represents a noticeable growth in his already considerable talent.

Right now, if I had to predict the 2007 Coretta Scott King award winner for illustration… it’s a dead heat between Moses and Jazz by the Myers men. Both books show a significant maturation in style for the illustrator; both have strong historical themes. Both illustrators have been honored twice before by the award (Nelson won for ellington and got an honor for Thunder Rose; Chris Myers has two honors for Black Cat and Harlem), so you can’t even say one deserves to win more than the other. I dunno… toughie. But hey, it’s not like I’m on the committee.

*** And that concludes the book review portion of this post. I’m about to rant a bit now. ***

So, why did I automatically think “Coretta Scott King Award” when I saw this book, instead of Caldecott? Something has been bothering me about the whole children’s literature award scene, and I just want to throw an idea out there and see if anyone else has wondered about this too. It’s this: does the existence of awards for authors and illustrators of specific races or cultures, like the CSK or the Pura Belpré, actually make it less likely that an author or illustrator of color will be chosen for one of the non-racially/culturally-specific awards, like the Caldecott or Newbery? To put it another way, when the Caldecott committee is trying to narrow down their selections, do they look at something illustrated by Bryan Collier and assume it will get recognized by the CSK, and therefore focus their attention on other titles that aren’t eligible for
that award? It’s kind of a horrible thought, isn’t it? I really don’t have any answers, I have no idea how award committees make their decisions.

Before I say anything else, I should probably mention that I’m not a woman of color, despite my Arabic name (long story). So I don’t have a personal stake in seeing my own cultural or racial heritage represented in children’s lit or specific awards. But I am responsible for the children’s and young adult collections at an urban branch library. Our neighborhood is extremely diverse, ethnically and culturally. And I am eternally frustrated by my inability to create a collection that reflects the kids I serve. Children’s lit has come a long way as far as diversity is concerned, but it still has a lot farther to go. I think we can all agree on that. Plus, I just generally care about good children’s literature and want to see the really truly wonderful books get their due recognition and reward. If you’re still reading this, I’ll assume you feel the same way.

So, what do you think? Given the relatively small number of African American and Latino/a authors and illustrators working in children’s literature (not to mention Asian, Native American…), is it necessary to recognize the exceptional ones with an exclusive award? Or does doing so actually deepen the divide and make it less likely that authors and illustrators of color will win the arguably greater exposure and guaranteed-in-print-for-life status of a Caldecott or Newbery?

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia to consider: do you know the last year a Caldecott Medal (not an Honor, mind you, the big one) was awarded to an African American? 1977 – to the Leo-half of Leo and Diane Dillon for Ashanti to Zulu. The Coretta Scott King Award began including a category for illustration in 1974.


2 comments to “My Boyfriend’s Back…”

  1. Eisha, great launching of a great discussion — have you ever seen this before? It’s Marc Aronson’s essay from 2000 (‘Horn Book’) — — more food for thought that, I remember, caused quite a stir.

  2. Oh, no, I hadn’t! Thanks so much for the link. I just knew other people must have been talking about this before, but I’d never stumbled across it.

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