Archive for Kadir Nelson

The Art and Wisdom of Kadir Nelson

“I think a lot of people choose their professions out of fear….. But I’ve found that the opposite is true. If you choose something you love, you can become a master of it.”

— Kadir Nelson, Kansas State University, 12 Apr. 2014

Kadir Nelson, 12 April 2014As an admirer of Kadir Nelson’s work, I was thrilled to meet him and to hear him speak today.  So, let me start by saying this: if you’ve an interest in art, portraiture, children’s literature, invite Kadir Nelson to speak.  You won’t be disappointed. Not all artists (poets, novelists, etc.) are good at talking about their work.  But Nelson is.

Working without notes and with many illustrations, he took us on a journey from a three-year-old Kadir trying to draw a self-portrait, right up to the inspiration for his latest book, Baby Bear (2014). Happily, Nelson’s mother saved his artwork, offering glimpses of the artist as a child, and then young man. He was always drawing. And, as he noted, “As I grew older, I began to improve because I was drawing every day.” Nelson’s dedication to his craft offers further evidence for Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” rule — i.e., that you have to work at something for 10,000 hours to become proficient at it.

Kadir Nelson, We Are the Ship (cover)Versatile, prolific and immensely talented, he’s had an extraordinary career so far. Since you’re reading this on my blog, you probably know him as the award-winning creator of many children’s books: Ellington Is Not a Street (2004), Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (2006), Henry’s Freedom Box: A Story from the Underground Railroad (2007), We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball (2008), Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans (2011), Nelson Mandela (2013), or — his latest — Baby Bear (2014).

But you may not know that Nelson’s art also appears on U.S. postage stamps, magazine covers, album covers — including the latest Drake album. Indeed, he also may be the only children’s author to count Drake, Spike Lee, Will Smith and the late Michael Jackson among his fans.  Indeed, his art not only hangs in galleries, but is in the private collections of Shaquille O’Neal, Venus Williams, Sharon Stone, and Stephen Spielberg.

Kadir Nelson, Drake's Nothing Was the Same

As he told us today, his first job after graduating from the Pratt Institute was designing storyboards to help Debbie Allen pitch Amistad to Stephen Spielberg. While that may suggest that Nelson lives a charmed existence, it’s actually an example of him following his effort, and pursuing opportunities — because you never know where your business card will land, which person you meet may lead to a job. Addressing any students who might not be taking full advantage of their education (tempted away from their studies by the relatively unstructured time of college), he said, “I would urge you to not waste your time, to be purposeful in what you’re doing. Because you never know how that’s going to impact your life.”

He realized early on that he would only be happy if he pursued his love for creating art. Initially, Nelson thought he would study architecture. He’d heard all about “starving artists,” he said, and “I’m allergic to starving.” A career as an architect seemed a better bet.  However, he soon discovered that his heart wasn’t in it. Even though he was at Pratt on an architecture scholarship (and would have to give it up if he changed his subject of study), he decided to switch his major from architecture to painting. He knew, he said, “even if I had to starve, I would be happy.”  As he observed, “I think a lot of people choose their professions out of fear…. But I’ve found that the opposite is true. If you choose something you love, you can become a master of it.”

Kadir Nelson, Baby Bear (2014)Most of his work has been devoted to telling the African American story. “Not only is that my story, but it’s a good story — it’s very juicy,” he said — adding, wryly, “There’s a lot of drama.” But his latest book pursues a philosophical strain that echoes the moments of advice he offered today. I had read Baby Bear as a tale about a child (represented as a bear) finding his way home, gently being guided in the right direction by the other animals. However, Nelson explained, the bear’s search for home is more a metaphor “for finding your own true, authentic self.” In this sense (and this is my observation), the book is more Crockett Johnson‘s The Emperor’s Gifts (1965) than Martin Waddell and Barbara Firth’s Let’s Go Home, Little Bear (1995).

But, of course, the best children’s books operate on multiple levels. The philosophical resonances may elude my niece (who will be getting her very own signed copy of the book!), but the journey resonates with readers of all ages. Nelson’s narrative art keeps us turning the pages. The vivid paintings draw us in, make us feel, make us think. And then we come back to the book and read it again.

Thanks to Kansas State University’s Children’s and Adolescent Literature Community (ChaLC) for organizing this, to all the sponsors for funding it, and to Kadir Nelson for coming!

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Kadir Nelson Is the Best; or, When the Caldecott Committee Strikes Out

What makes an award-winner?  One of the best picture books of 2008, Kadir Nelson’s We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball (2008) won neither the Caldecott Medal nor a Caldecott Honor.  The following year, Jerry Pinkney became the first African American to win the Caldecott Medal — “given to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children” — for his The Lion & the Mouse (2009).1 That said, We Are the Ship did not come up completely empty-handed.  It did win the Coretta Scott King Author and Illustrator Awards, “given to an African American author and illustrator for outstanding inspirational and educational contributions.”2 And it received plenty of great reviews.   But it should have won the Caldecott.

Kadir Nelson, opening to 3rd chapter of We Are the Ship

A lavishly illustrated non-fiction work, Nelson’s We Are the Ship may have missed the Caldecott due to a perception that it is more illustrated book than picture book.  However, art gives the book its narrative power, and an interdependent relationship between words and pictures conveys the histories of athletes who, denied participation in the all-white major leagues, displayed their talents in the low-paying but high-performing Negro Leagues.  A compelling sports history, We Are the Ship not only was the best picture book of 2008, but is one of the best picture books of the last decade.

Kadir Nelson, We Are the Ship (cover)Critics would be correct to point out that, at about 500 words per page, We Are the Ship has far more text than an ordinary picture book; at 88 pages (including index), Nelson’s chronicle is much longer than a typical picture book, which runs 64 or fewer pages.  However, the 2008 Caldecott winner The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007) is over 500 pages, and Nelson’s We Are the Ship succeeds because of “the interdependence of pictures and words,” to quote Barbara Bader’s definition of the picture book.3 In its first page of text, “5th Inning” (each chapter is named for an inning) speaks of five of the “Greatest Baseball Players in the World: The Negro League All-Stars,” including Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and George “Mule” Suttles.  On the page to its left, the chapter’s first image shows Gibson, his uniform’s sleeves rolled up, the muscles on his strong arms visible, hands gripping the bat resting on his shoulder.  Beyond making his story stand out, the portrait amplifies the comment that “Josh Gibson was a powerful hitter, but we had other fellows who could hit just as far” (41): this single picture of a strong player stands in for so many others.  Nelson’s painting — which also appears on the book’s cover — has Gibson looking directly at the reader, unsmiling, ready to play ball.  The look on his face highlights this sentence: “Many of our guys could have rewritten the record books if they had been given the chance to play in the majors” (41).  The juxtaposition of those words with his determined expression conveys the sense that those are his thoughts right now, while he stares at us.

Nelson’s borderless single-page and double-page illustrations immerse the reader in the world of the league.  Just after the narrator tells us that the Negro League’s success inspired white owners of independent Negro teams to form a “rival league of their own” (9), we turn the page to find two pages filled with a single magnified ticket for the first Colored World Series, between the Kansas City Monarchs and the Hilldale Club in 1924.  Both pages of this spread unfold out, revealing a panoramic view — four pages wide — of both teams and their managers, standing in Kansas City’s Muehlebach Field.  The effect is like stepping into a color photograph, even though it’s actually a painting based on a black-and-white photo.  Enhancing the vividness of the athletes, Nelson renders them in detail and in color, but leaves the crowds behind them blurrier and in shades of grey.  The contrast between the fuzzy background and the crisp, bright foreground makes the teams pop out at the viewer.  Though a period photograph would likely have had handwritten names beneath each person, Nelson’s typewritten captions convey an air of historical authenticity.  The result makes us feel as if we are both looking at and standing inside a photo from 1924.

Writing in a conversational tone, Nelson makes history come alive by creating the feeling of an oral interview, as if an old-time Negro league player were talking to us.  When discussing the fact that many ballplayers came from Latin America, Nelson’s narrator says of Cristóbal Torriente: “If he had been a couple shades lighter, he could have played in the majors. Major league owners would take a Cuban before they would a Negro. Guess they didn’t know slave ships stopped down in those islands, too” (53).  The omission of “of” between “couple” and “shades,” the absence of “I” before “Guess,” and the contraction “didn’t” creates an informal, colloquial feel to the language.  In his Author’s Note, Nelson reveals that this was precisely his intent: he read interviews and listened to ex-players tell their stories, and decided that “hearing the story of Negro League baseball directly from those who experienced it firsthand made it more real, more accessible” (80).

Kadir Nelson, Chapter 6 of We Are the Ship

The result of eight years’ work, We Are the Ship will appeal to anyone interested in baseball, portraiture, history, the struggle for civil rights, or beautiful picture books.  Taking its title from Negro National League founder Rube Foster’s comment that “We are the ship; all else the sea,” Nelson’s book chronicles the rise and demise of the league that began to fade when the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson in 1947.  In so doing, Nelson brings to life the unsung heroes of the sport.  As he writes, “We had many Josh Gibsons in the Negro Leagues.  We had many Satchel Paiges.  But you never heard about them.  It’s a shame the world didn’t get to see them play” (51).  Thanks to We Are the Ship, the world will now at least get a glimpse.

However, more people would get that glimpse if We Are the Ship had won the Caldecott — because that would ensure its presence in every single public and school library in America.  I realize, of course, that award-winners are the result of a consensus; the prize goes to whichever book more committee members agree on.  And the work that beat Nelson’s, Beth Krommes‘ pictures for Susan Marie Swanson‘s The House in the Night (2008), is definitely good.  The elegant simplicity of the text (inspired by a nursery rhyme) works well with the scratchboard-and-watercolor artwork, itself reminiscent of classic illustrations by, say, Wanda Gág.  I see why the committee chose The House in the Night. I like the book, and enjoy re-reading my copy. But We Are the Ship is more innovative, distinctive, and virtuosic.  In sum, “the most distinguished American picture book for children” of 2008 was and is We Are the Ship.

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1. “Welcome to the Caldecott Medal Home Page.”  American Library Association. <http://www.pla.org/ala/mgrps/divs/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/caldecottmedal/caldecottmedal.cfm>.

2. “The Coretta Scott King Book Awards for Authors and Illustrators.”  American Library Association. <http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/rts/emiert/cskbookawards/slction.cfm>.

3. Barbara Bader, American Picturebooks from Noah’s Ark to the Beast Within (New York: Macmillan, 1976), p. 1.

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