For children’s book illustrators, the Caldecott Medal, awarded annually by the Association for Library Services to Children, is the highest honor to which one can aspire. Established in 1938, the medal is given to one artist annually. For 30 years, no person of color had been awarded a Caldecott medal, and so in 1969, a group of African American librarians promoted the creation of a new award, the Coretta Scott King (CSK) Book Award, to honor outstanding Black authors and illustrators of children’s books.
The CSK Illustrator Medal was first awarded in 1974, and was officially recognized by the American Library Association in 1982. To this day, only four Black illustrators have won the Caldecott Medal, although in the past 10 years, the number of Black recipients has increased.
For the next month, thanks to Ann Smith, executive director of the Featherstone Center of the Arts, and Richard Michelson, poet, children’s book writer, and owner of the R. Michelson Gallery in Northampton, Vineyarders will have a chance to view work by a number of winners of both the Caldecott Medal and the Coretta Scott King Book Awards.
The show, curated by Michelson, is titled “From Caldecott to Coretta Scott: Award-Winning Black Illustrators.” The exhibit opened on August 8, and will hang through the end of September. The collection of 177 works of art includes prints and original work from the R. Michelson Gallery, which, the gallerist explains, was “the first gallery in the country to introduce illustrations from children’s books, 40 years ago.”
“Ann has been asking me to perhaps do something for a while now,” says Michelson. “This year, in the wake of the death of George Floyd, the time seemed right to do a show on Black artists and Black illustrators.”
The exhibit includes original work and prints by 10 illustrators. Half of the artists (two as a team) have been awarded Caldecott Medals, the other five have been honored with Coretta Scott King Awards and, in many cases, were also runners-up for the Caldecott.
Biracial couple Diane and Leo Dillon were awarded the Caldecott in 1976 and 1977, making Leo the first artist of color to win the coveted award. The back-to-back winning books deal with African legends and African traditions. Illustrations featured in the current exhibit include a number of wonderful stylized portraits of legendary musicians from the Dillons’ book “Jazz on a Saturday Night.” The couple also created artwork for the covers of a number of adult books, including the James Baldwin classics “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone,” and “The Fire Next Time.” Included in the Featherstone show are original artworks from these books, as well as others.
In 2010, Jerry Pinkney became the first solo artist to be awarded the Caldecott Medal. He has gone on to win five Caldecott Honors (runner-up), five Coretta Scott King Awards, and five New York Times Best Illustrated Awards (among numerous other recognitions), making him the most honored and influential Black illustrator alive today. The selection of Pinkney’s work featured in the exhibition gives a good example of the prolific artist’s range of style — from thoughtful portraits of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks to fanciful drawings of anthropomorphic animals.
The Featherstone show includes a couple of watercolor images from the Pinkney-illustrated book “John Henry,” about an African American folk hero of enormous strength and drive. Across from these illustrations hangs the work of Ezra Jack Keats, who also illustrated (and wrote) a children’s book about the fictitious John Henry.
Keats is the only solo white artist featured in the show. His inclusion is based on the fact that he was among the first children’s book illustrators to feature Black lead characters in his work. Keats’ Caldecott-winning book featuring a little red-snowsuited Black child, “The Snowy Day,” is a longstanding children’s classic that, as Michelson points out, is the most checked-out book in the New York Public Library’s 125-year history.
Keats’ groundbreaking work had a profound impact on Pinkney, who has written extensively about the renowned author and illustrator. Keats also served as inspiration to a number of the other illustrators in the show. “So many of the first generation of Black awardwinners trace their love of children’s books back to Keats,” says Michelson. “Keats was someone who laid the groundwork for some of these artists when the field was not open to Black illustrators.”
The collage image from Keats’ “John Henry” represents the only Keats final children’s book illustration original work in private hands. Michelson notes that this is the first time this important piece of children’s book history has been exhibited.
“From Caldecott to Coretta Scott” includes work in a wide variety of media, styles, and themes, including numerous illustrations from books on Black history and social justice themes.
“Considering the times, I might have chosen to focus on social justice work,” says Michelson. “But it was important to me to show a wide range rather than just a pigeonhole of artists doing this type of work.”
Michelson, who has a home in the Oak Bluffs Campground, adds, “It was exciting to bring this work to Oak Bluffs. It really is a center of Black culture on the Island and in the country. I love the culture here, and I was happy to make my contribution.”