African American Children’s Book Illustrators: A Glimpse into a Rich Story

by | Apr 20, 2021 | IBBYLink Spring 2021

Pam Dix

One of the pleasures of my current research into illustration in children’s information books is the opportunity to look around the world, at histories, styles and approaches in various countries.

I have been particularly fascinated to explore the world of African American children’s book illustrators, very few of them published in the UK.

It was in 1974 that the first Coretta Scott King Award for illustration was presented, four years after the award for writing was established. In the 50 years since, the list of winners represents a dazzling range of subjects and illustration styles. The award has undoubtedly influenced the publishing industry as well as giving status and value to these illustrators. It is worth noting that the awards were set up because at that time, 1970, no minority author or illustrator had been awarded the Caldecott or Newbery awards. This is no longer the case. In 1982 the CSK awards became an official part of the American Library Association, though with a separate structure.

The long history of African American contribution to children’s literature, starting with W.E.B. Du Bois and The Brownies Book in the 1920s, is well documented in Free Within Ourselves (Rudine Sims Bishop, 2007). The Harlem Renaissance (1920–mid 1930s), and the work of Langston Hughes in particular, emphasised the celebration of Black life and culture and a commitment to engaging children in this story emerged. Teaching them to feel pride and dignity in their lives and to understand aspects of their heritage and culture led to a commitment to children’s books. As an example, Hughes wrote five books for the newly emerging Franklin Watts First Book series between 1952 and 1960.

Here I explore just a very few of the illustrators I have researched, looking at a few of the subjects that frequently occur, and thinking about the approach and style they have brought to non-fiction books: the celebration of daily African American life; the exploration of history and historical links with Africa; civil rights; and music and dance.

Harlem, a distinctive geographical area of New York City, became a symbol of urban Black experience as well as a focus and a cultural centre. It was and is the subject of many books celebrating daily life.

The illustrator Christopher Myers worked extensively with his father, Walter Dean Myers, a multi-award-winning writer and US Ambassador for Children’s Literature. Christopher Myers is a writer, publisher and artist, committed to working across cultures. Together they explored historical, cultural and fictional commentaries on the African American experience. Harlem is the Myers’ tribute to this symbol of metropolitan Black life and culture.

Collage is a format used by many of the illustrators that I consider, a tradition made popular by the artist Romare Beardon in the 1960s. It has been said that this improvisation with materials mirrors the African American experience of ‘making something from nothing’, seen also in quilt making, and, of course, improvisation is core to jazz. The life of this community is reflected in the movement and rhythm of the pages, the bold colour and the visual storytelling accompanying the poetry. Each illustration is rich with aspects of life, serving as both a mirror for those who know it and a window to help explain it to outsiders, using the Rudine Sims Bishop metaphor. (Sims Bishop, 1990)

The same sensibilities can be seen in the wonderfully rich reimagining by Christopher Myers of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, set in a basketball court.

Collier revisits the seminal story Uptown (John Steptoe, HarperCollins, 1970) with his own contemporary version, which he wrote and illustrated. Told through the eyes of a young boy, this perspective on the Harlem neighbourhood is captured with imagination, with pride and excitement. For example, Collier shows the architectural details of brownstone buildings as photographs of Cadbury bars, in the boy’s imagination they look like they are made of chocolate. Collier says of his collage that the bringing together of different elements helps deepen your understanding of yourself and others.

History, in America and the links to African heritage, is explored in very creative ways. Biographies are a vital part of this, providing role models and drawing out empathy and aspiration.

Jacob Lawrence is one of the best-known African American painters, gaining national fame in 1940 at the age of 23 for his Great Migration series, which records the movement of African Americans from the rural south to the industrialised north. Lawrence often painted in series, small paintings which he worked on simultaneously. Lawrence painted a number of series of influential figures including Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. The series about his hero Toussaint L’Ouverture comprises 41 tempera paintings, telling the story of the liberator of Haiti. Several series were later produced as books to make them more accessible. Like Ringgold (see below), he is an example of an artist taking work outside the gallery.

Lawrence’s influences are the colours and patterns of the Harlem life. In Toussaint L‘Ouverture: The Fight for Haiti’s Freedom his core colour palette is a mixture of blacks and browns juxtaposed with touches of bright colours used for focus and dramatic effect. The images are reproduced in a mixture of whole page, half page and smaller images, creating pace and dynamism. The figures are minimalist, often shown with markings only for eyes and hair, and very distinctive clothing to reflect their roles.

Tom Feelings is one of the most influential of African American illustrators, a tribute acknowledged by many, including Kadir Nelson (see below). The Middle Passage: White Ships/Black Cargo has become a classic of both children’s literature and art history. Telling of the most painful of histories, of enslavement, Feelings chose the wordless format saying that the experience was literally too painful for words. He felt that the picture could tell the story and the reader would see and feel what was happening. He wanted the images to have a definite point of view, to show the experience, the endurance. The artwork includes 52 black-and-white drawings made over 20 years, which were displayed in his studio and people invited to comment.

Feelings studied cartooning before illustration, and is well known for the cartoon history Tommy Traveler in the World of Black History, first published as a comic strip in the Harlem-based New York Age newspaper in 1958 and released in book format in 1991.

There are many books exploring the roots in Africa, travel often influencing the illustrator. Feelings, for example, worked in Ghana for some time as an illustrator and trainer. This 1976 example, based on research by the Dillons’ Ashanti to Zulu, contains authentic and detailed portraits of 26 African tribes in a very celebratory way with beautifully composed pictures, using earthy colours and rich details of tribal life. The variety of each tribe highlights cultural difference within one country. Each image is individualised by using the same subject – house, people, animal, artefact, animal and landscape – but making each representative of that area. Borders frame each illustration making the pages appear as a work of art. The Dillons were celebrated for their work on cultural diversity. Working as a couple, rather reminiscent of Granström and Manning, they developed the idea of the ‘third artist’ – a collaboration that resulted in work that is different from what either would do as individual artists.

Kadir Nelson is an award-winning illustrator and writer, interested in African American culture and history, civil rights and biographies of famous Americans. His distinctive close-up studies of faces, not dissimilar to photographs, confront the reader and draw them into the narrative. His recent award-winning The Undefeated, a poem written by Kwame Alexander, looking at the famous and also the overlooked heroes of Black history, has been published in the UK by Andersen Press to great acclaim.

Nelson says that he wants his work to create ‘characters of colour for children to identify with, learn from and admire’ and to celebrate the strength and integrity of the human being and the human spirit. His illustrations are painterly with a rich palette. His book I Have a Dream, on Martin Luther King, focusing on the delivery of his keynote speech, is an exceptionally large format book with details of the iconic context in which the speech was delivered. It is almost cinematic in technique with shifting viewpoints, panning from oversize close-ups of his face, to a rear view of his body with the crowd looking on, then panning to a close-up of the crowd. Nelson brilliantly uses light to focus attention and create drama. He works from photographic and other images to create strong realistic illustrations. The same illustrative device can be seen in his books about Nelson Mandela (left below) and Harriet Tubman (right below).

Faith Ringgold is another internationally renowned artist, author of many books for children, a former professor of art and a leading figure in the Feminist Art and Civil Rights movements in the USA. She recently had an acclaimed exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London and was the subject of a BBC One Imagine documentary. Like Lawrence, she wanted her work to reach a wider audience through children’s books. She uses her quilts as a building block to explore narratives of herself and others. Dinner at Aunt Connie’s House uses ‘The Dinner Quilt’, constructed in 1986, a mixture of acrylic, fabric and image, and included in the book as the dinner-table scene. Its collection of portraits of twelve significant, courageous, ground-breaking African American women is used to celebrate the message that the dreams of the young Black child can be realised. Ringgold’s works always move between dream and reality, story and fact.

Books about civil rights are another key part of this story, with the illustrations encouraging an empathetic and emotive response. With a focus on the individual bravery and courage of political leaders and civil-rights activists, these books are a model of approaches to biography. An interesting study would be to focus on a person of significance, for example Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, and compare illustrative approaches. That is beyond the space here but I would commend it as an activity.

A brief mention also about the arts, where illustrators use imaginative and vibrant approaches to look at dance, art, music and jazz, for example Gary Goli’s Jimi.

Brian Pinkney went to dance classes before working on his Alvin Ailey book, in which movement is brilliantly captured.

Javaka Steptoe says that the challenge for the illustrator is to reinterpret the artist’s work, to imagine the creative process, for example his Radiant Child.

This is a ‘glimpse’ – there are many others and some personal favourites not mentioned – Ashley Bryan, E.B. Lewis, Michele Wood. The commitment to self-empowerment for children is strong in these books and the diversity of approach and aesthetic is varied and exciting. Racism, the anguish of slavery, violence, are not avoided. Personal empathy and radical, political with a small ‘p’, storytelling, make for powerful illustrations.

Works cited
Primary works

Alexander, Kwame (2020) The Undefeated. London: Andersen Press (UK edn).

Carroll, Lewis (re-imagined and illus. Christopher Myers) (2007) Jabberwocky. Westport. CT: Jump at the Sun Press.

Collier, Bryan (1970) Uptown. New York: HarperCollins.

Feelings, Tom (1991) Tommy Traveler in the World of Black History. Harlem, NY: Writers & Readers.

Feelings, Tom (1995) Middle Passage: White Ships/Black Cargo. New York: Dial Books. (First published 1995.)

Golio, Gary (illus. Javaka Steptoe) (2010) Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow: A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix. Boston, MA: Clarion Books.

Myers, Walter Dean (illus. Jacob Lawrence) (1996) Toussaint L‘Ouverture: The Fight for Haiti’s Freedom. London: Simon & Schuster.

Myers, Walter Dean (illus. Christopher Myers) (1999) Harlem: A Poem. London: Scholastic.

Musgrave, Margaret (illus. Leo and Diane Dillon) (1976) Ashanti to Zulu. New York: Dial Books.

Pinkney, Andrea Davis (illus. Brian Pinkney) (1995) Alvin Ailey. Westport, CT: Hyperion.

Nelson, Kadir (2012) I Have a Dream: Martin Luther King. London: Random House.

Nelson, Kadir (2013) Nelson Mandela. Fitchburg, MA: Katherine Teger Books.

Reynolds, Aaron (illus. Floyd Cooper) (2009) Back of the Bus. New York: Philomel.

Ringgold, Faith (2003) If a Bus Could Talk: The Story of Rosa Parks. New York: Aladdin.

Ringgold, Faith (1993) Dinner at Aunt Connie’s House. New York: Hyperion Books.

Steptoe, Javaka (2016) Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. New York: Little, Brown & Co.

Weatherford, Carole Boston (2006) Moses: When Harriet Tubman Lead Her People to Freedom. Westport, CT: Jump at the Sun Press.

Secondary works

Sims Bishop, Rudine (2007) Free within Ourselves: The Development of African American Children’s Literature. London: Heinemann.

Sims Bishop, Rudine (1990) Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors. Perspectives, 1(3) ix–xi.

Smith, Henrietta M. (ed) (1994) The Coretta Scott King Awards Book from Vision to Reality. Chicago, IL: American Library Association.

Steele, Vincent (1998) Tom Feelings: A Black Arts Movement. African American Review 32(1) 119–24.

Stuckey, Sterling (1994) Going through the Storm: The Influence of African American Art in History. Oxford University Press.


Coretta Scott King Book Awards. All Recipients, 1970–Present.

Critical Review of Illustrator Christopher Myers.

Christopher Myers 1975–.

Jacob Lawrence and the Great Migration series.

Faith Ringgold Imagine documentary on BBC iplayer.

Faith Ringgold ‘The Dinner Quilt’ 1986.

Bologna Seminar Details.

Pam Dix is currently the chair of IBBY UK and of the Akili Trust. In her working life she was head of a school library service and a lecturer in children’s literature in education. This article has been stimulated by her findings when researching illustrators for a history of illustration in information books, working with Ruth Thomson. Also by attending a panel at the Bologna Book Fair in 2019, ‘Black Books Matter: African American Colours and Words’, with, amongst others, Claudette McLinn (chair of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards), Rudine Sims Bishop, Christopher Myers and Leonard Marcus, and, of course, by many years of collecting books on trips to the USA.