From a young age, Kadir Nelson demonstrated artistic skill. With encouragement, apprenticeship, education, and experience, Nelson has become recognized worldwide for his pieces in prominent collections, contributions to movies and music albums, and illustrations in books and magazines.
You began your artistic journey when you were three years old. Do you have copies of your early work? What were the main subjects in your drawings?
“Fortunately, my mother saved much of the artwork I created when I was a child. As a kid, I drew and painted superheroes, animals, basketball players, etc. Essentially, I drew what kids like at different ages.”
Can you remember books or artists you found inspiring as a youngster?
“I was very fond of the artwork of Ernie Barnes, Boris Vallejo, my uncle, and comic book artists. I also loved the book Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.”
What did your parents do to encourage your creative side?
“Both of my parents were very supportive of my work. They had the ability to draw, but chose different career paths. My mother was discouraged from becoming an artist and chose to become an engineer instead. She regretted that decision, and when she saw that I could draw well as a kid, she made sure to encourage my artistic pursuits. She in particular always gave me plenty of paper for drawing. I thank the universe for her love and encouragement!”
It seems that artistic tendencies run in your family. In fact, I heard that in addition to your parents, your uncle Michael Morris, an artist and art instructor, also played a significant role in developing your talent and skills. Do you believe it is important for young people with artistic abilities to have mentors?
“I think one of the best ways to learn is through a mentor. I was very fortunate to have an artist in the family like my Uncle Mike. My uncle babysat for my mother and put me and my brother and sisters to work drawing for the afternoon. He noticed I held the pencil I was drawing with very purposefully. He told my mother that I might be an artist and to keep an eye on me. Well, he was right. He also would send art supplies to me every so often to keep me motivated. I later apprenticed under my Uncle Mike for more formal instruction.”
After graduating from college, you found work and success quickly in magazines, movies, and books. Soon after, the awards followed. You’ve been awarded two Caldecott Honors, Coretta Scott King Awards, an NAACP Image Award, and many more. Did you ever expect this level of success? How have the awards influenced you and your career?
“I didn’t expect to receive awards, but I did expect to become a working artist. I love what I do too much not to do it full time. I made the decision that even if I had to starve, I’d become an artist. Fortunately, that hasn’t been the case. Regarding awards and their influence, I’ve always felt that if I do my best work, that in itself is an award. You never know when you’ll receive an award and it’s a lovely bit of encouragement to be acknowledged in that way. It’s so nice to receive recognition from your peers, and if adding a shiny sticker to the cover of my book makes a reader pick it up and look at it, then that makes it even sweeter.”
Speaking of shiny stickers and awards, you were selected to create new cover art for the 40th anniversary edition of Mildred D. Taylor’s Newbery Award-winning book, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Penguin Random House, 2016). Further, you are creating covers for Taylor’s entire series as well as her 10th book Logan (Viking) due out in 2017. Prior to being selected as the artist for the reintroduced series, had you read Taylor’s books?
“Unfortunately, Ms. Taylor’s books weren’t part of my curriculum in school, so I hadn’t read them until I began working on the new covers. It was an easy ‘yes’ for me to create new covers for the series. I think the Mildred Taylor series is stellar.”
Last year your picture book If You Plant a Seed (Balzer + Bray, 2015) was published and the Mildred D. Taylor books have begun their reintroduction. What are you currently working on that readers can look forward to seeing from you soon?
“I’m currently working on a book about basketball, and another that celebrates the American flag; the latter will be published sometime next year.”
Mildred Taylor’s Logan Family Celebrates Ruby Anniversary
In 1975, Mildred D. Taylor introduced readers to the Logan family in her novella, Song of the Trees (Dial Press). And in 1976, Taylor’s better-known and Newbery Award-winning novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Dial Press) was published and later followed by additional books continuing the saga. Since then, the chronicles of the Logan family have been featured on many reading lists.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, the book is getting a new look and being reintroduced to a new generation of readers. Kadir Nelson, a multiple Caldecott Honor award winner whose work has been featured in books and magazines, on postage stamps, and on album covers, was selected to create the artwork for this new edition of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Penguin Random House, 2016), as well as new covers for the entire series.
“I’m not sure how I was chosen to paint new covers for Ms. Taylor’s classic novels,” Nelson shares, “but I was thrilled nonetheless to have the opportunity. It was an easy ‘yes’ for me to create new covers for the series. I love Ms. Taylor’s work. Her clear, poignant, informative, and powerful storytelling resonates very deeply with me and I’m honored to share her work with a new generation of readers and long-time fans of her books.”
Told from the perspective of nine-year-old Cassie Logan, Taylor’s series follows the Logans, an African American family living through the Great Depression. It addresses important issues of the time—racism, prejudice, and social justice—that are also relevant in America today.
“From the time I was a child, I was fascinated by the stories my father told about the history of my family and the history of others in his Mississippi community,” says Taylor. “The stories my father told, that my family told, were stories of the human experience and survival, to which many people, no matter the race or culture, could relate. I have simply written books based on the many stories that were told, and I have tried to be as true to them as when my father and other family members told them.”
Like Taylor, Nelson also grew up listening to stories passed down from prior generations. “Growing up hearing powerful stories had a great impact on my life and work, so when doing research for books like Heart and Soul (Balzer + Bray, 2011) or We are the Ship (Hyperion, 2008), I immediately identified with the historical characters because they reminded me of people in my family who were very present not only in my life, but in the stories I heard as a child. My father was a great storyteller so I always loved hearing stories; the African American saga is a long intriguing story full of ups and downs, humor, triumph, defeat, emotion, innovation, thrills, and drama.”
In recent years, there has been a growing emphasis and discussion about the level of diversity in children’s books. Organizations and movements, such as We Need Diverse Books, have campaigned for all types of young people to be reflected in literature. Nelson agrees.
“I always knew that there had been a lack of representation of people of color in children’s literature, but it wasn’t until I was shown the staggering numbers that substantiated the current situation that I understood the reasoning surrounding the current discussion, and why it has gained even more momentum. I wasn’t a big reader as a child, and I think it was partly because I didn’t see characters in children’s books that I could identify with in a deeper way. I think we all can agree that books resonate with readers much more when the reader can identify with the story and protagonist. Readers of all ages are done a great disservice when they are left out of the story.”
With the reintroduction of Taylor’s series, all readers will connect with the characters and the stories told—including African American young people who will find Black protagonists featured front and center. And Taylor believes young people will also find the issues addressed in the books to be relevant as well.
“The stories my father and other family members told dated back to slavery,” adds Taylor. “Those stories were meaningful to me as a child growing up in the 1940s into the 1960s. They gave me a solid foundation about who I was, who my family was, and what my people had been through. Of course, I also experienced firsthand the racism of America, the Jim Crow laws, and segregation. With the passing of so many who fought to end the laws that legally allowed racism in America, I believe the history of race relations becomes even more important to be known. Much has changed, but much has not.”