Sunday, September 18, 2011

Meet the Author: Kadir Nelson

Today my son and I went to a talk by a renowned children's author and illustration, Kadir Nelson, that was sponsored by our beloved premier independent book store, Quail Ridge Books.

Nelson is primarily an artist, and got into the book business by illustrating a number of books, many focusing on American American themes or history, such as the Caldecott Honors-winning books Henry's Freedom Box and Moses:  When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom.  In recent years, however, Nelson has taken to writing his own books to go along with his paintings.  His first book, We Are the Ship:  The Story of the Negro Baseball League, grew out of his fascination with the Negro Baseball League, which drove him to paint around 50 painting on the topic, and then eventually to turn them into a book with his own text.

However, today he was mostly speaking about his latest book, Heart and Soul:  The Story of America and African Americans.  He stated that the subtitle was the key for his work; while he wanted to incorporate the black perspective, which is so often left out of US history books and arts, he views the African American path as integrally linked with general American history, just like the two long strands we find in DNA.  So the book is not just geared to tell the African American story; it tells the American story, with a focus on the African American perspective and contribution.

The book sounds like a compelling book.  I bought a copy (and got it autographed, of course), but haven't read it yet, but I will post a review when I have.  But what is wonderful about attending a talk like this is that you can hear about what was going on in the artist's mind as he was creating it, or hear funny stories about the path from idea to published book.

For example, he explained that the narrator was really based on his own grandmother, combined with a dash of Debbie Allen, whose books he has illustrated and who is going to voice the audiobook version of his text.  He talked about how much harder it is for him to write than to do the artwork, and how much he appreciates his high school English teacher who worked him hard until he knew how to write essays (take note, all you teachers!).   He stressed how much work it takes to research all the details that make a difference in both his art and his text.  And he revealed that he likes to take photographs of models on which to base his work, in order to get the high level of realism in his work, and that often that model is himself.  He admitted to sitting in his front yard (where the light was right), wrapped in a sheet, as he tried to capture the folds in the skirt of a field worker sitting in a background of cotton.

Most of all, you get a sense of the person, which I think makes the reading experience that much richer.  For example, he says that he uses the number seven to represent God in his work.  So in various pages of the book,  including this illustration depicting the travel of Africans on a slave ship, he incorporates the number seven somehow as his personal statement that God was present, even in what seemed like the darkest times.  So people who know that can look at his art with a finer eye, trying to find the hidden sevens in his work.

If I have one regret about this afternoon, it is this.  As Rosemary, the wonderful children's specialist at Quail Ridge, stated in her introduction, Kadir Nelson is like children's literature royalty.  He has won numerous awards for his work, and this book certainly will be a contender for many of the major ones this year.  He drew a really large crowd on a lovely September Sunday afternoon.  Many African American families were there with their children, knowing that it is a privilege to hear from a man who is so accomplished and so committed to presenting a fuller representation of American history.  And while there were certainly some older white people, I only saw one other Caucasian parent there with a child, and that child was only three years old.   I'm really glad that my son got the chance to learn from him, but I wish there had been others outside the African American community who had gotten that opportunity as well.

I think his point is really important.  This is not an "African American" book.  It is a book that he wants all Americans, regardless of ethnic background, to be reading.  Yes, as a Caucasian, it is not pleasant to reminded about the ways of the past that were clearly wrong.  But this is not (from what I've seen so far) a blame-and-guilt-based book.  It is a building up of the African American experience, not a tearing down of other experience.  And I truly believe that a rising tide lifts all boats.

But keep checking back, and I'll post an official review once my son and I have read the entire book.

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