As told to Anne Ford
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush. A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich.
This is just the smallest smattering of titles that have won Coretta Scott King (CSK) Book Awards in the last half-century. Founded in 1969, the awards have become the mark of excellence for books that are authored or illustrated by African Americans and that demonstrate an appreciation of African-American culture and universal human values. In addition to awards and honors for authors and illustrators, the John Steptoe Award for New Talent and the CSK–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement are also presented annually.
American Libraries celebrates this amazing half-century of excellence by sharing stories and thoughts from nine of the awards’ winners and committee members.
When you were a child, did you have access to many books that featured black characters?
Ashley Bryan: No, not when I was growing up.
Eloise Greenfield: In the 1930s, I didn’t encounter any books with African-American characters, but I didn’t know that the characters depicted were supposed to be white people. They didn’t look like the white people I saw. Many books used line drawings, black lines around white paper. Later, I knew better.
Claire Hartfield: When I was a kid—I mostly had my childhood in the Sixties—I don’t remember black people being portrayed much in mainstream culture at all. The civil rights movement was going on at the same time, so I was well aware of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Panther Party, but it didn’t trickle down into the books I was given. As a little kid, I didn’t think, “Gee, why are there no portrayals?” It was more along the lines of: “Well, that’s just the way it is.” No one ever asked me about it. It wasn’t till later that I realized there was an absence.
I used to read books about little girls a lot, and one of my favorite series was [Sydney Taylor’s] All-of-a-Kind Family, which features a Jewish family. That was as close as I got to feeling like, “Okay, here’s a family that’s more like my family, not the typical white Christian family.”
Bryan Collier: There were only a few that really have stuck with me over the years. One is The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats [published in 1962]. I remember opening it up, and I noticed that Peter and I looked just alike, and I remembered I had the same pajama print that Peter had in the book. I was 4 years old, and it just hit me at a visceral level. It felt almost bigger than magic.
Deborah Taylor: I was a young adult librarian in the early to mid-1970s, and I worked in a majority-African-American community. If there were books about race, they were about the “Negro problem,” so to speak, never by anyone actually growing up and living through those experiences. You could find an occasional biography, but there was not a lot. And many of the books that were about African-American life were not written by African Americans. A little bit later, we started to get books by Walter Dean Myers, and things like [Mildred Taylor’s] Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.
Satia Orange: I’m almost 77. I tell you what I had: I had Little Black Sambo [by Helen Bannerman].
In 1969, the Coretta Scott King Book Award was founded by school librarians Mabel McKissick and Glyndon Greer, who met by chance at the ALA Annual Conference in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Carolyn Garnes: They were in the exhibit hall, and they were going to the booth of John Carroll, a book publisher, and he had posters of Martin Luther King Jr. [to give away]. They arrived at his booth at the same time, and John had only one poster left. Anyway, they were preparing to go to the Newbery-Caldecott banquet, and they said, “No African American has ever won,” and were lamenting that. And John Carroll said to them, “Why don’t you ladies start your own award?” They looked at him and decided to take him up on that idea.
Mrs. Greer was friends with Coretta Scott King. This was the year after Dr. King had died. Mrs. Greer said, “You know, so much is being named for Dr. King. We need to not name this award King,” so she thought of Coretta, her friend and his widow. She called Mrs. King and asked would she mind if we named the award for her. Mrs. King said yes, not knowing what the devil Mrs. Greer was naming for her.
The founders had to struggle for submissions in the beginning, because there were not many African-American books in publication.
Orange: A couple of years later, Mrs. King came and spoke at the awards breakfast, and afterward she stayed for about an hour and shook hands and talked to individuals. The best part was, she called it “my award.”
Each year, ALA announces the winners of the top books for children and young adults, including the Coretta Scott King Book Awards, at its Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits, while the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Breakfast is held at the ALA Annual Conference and Exhibition.
What do you remember about either winning your first Coretta Scott King Book Award, or making the call to tell others that they’d won?
Greenfield: “Oh my goodness, I received the call!”
Javaka Steptoe: Whenever Midwinter comes around, there’s always a thought in the back of your head: “Am I gonna get a phone call or not?” They always call you at the crack of dawn. [laughs]
Garnes: People have asked me, “Why is the Coretta Scott King breakfast held so early in the morning?” Well, ALA’s Annual Conference schedule was already established. We planned the breakfast for 7:30 in the morning so it wouldn’t interfere with other activities. And you know, the committee doesn’t want to change.
Collier: I didn’t know anything about the Coretta Scott King Book Awards, and I got this call at six in the morning the day of the award, librarians screaming on the phone. They told me I’d won, and I said, “Okay,” and then I hung the phone up and went back to sleep. They [called back and] said, “No, no, no, this is bigger than you think this is.” I was pleased and excited in some regard, but I didn’t know exactly what I was excited about until later. When I fully understood what the award meant, it was a great feeling.
Taylor: I was jury chair in 2000, when Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis won both the Coretta Scott King Book Award and the Newbery Medal. That was really special. It must have been Dr. King’s birthday when we were making the call, because [Curtis] kept saying, “And all on Dr. King’s birthday! All on Dr. King’s birthday!” I’ll never forget it.
Hartfield: I was at the gym on the elliptical, listening to music through my phone, and the phone rang, and I looked at the caller ID, and it was something from Seattle. So I just clicked it off, and the music came back on. Then it rang again, same number. So I picked up, and there was this voice that said, “Hello, is this Claire Hartfield? We just want to tell you you’ve won the Coretta Scott King Book Award.” It felt surreal. We talked for a few minutes, and then I went back to chugging away on the elliptical, trying to process it.
Garnes: They’re excited, and they know the CSK award is a stamp of approval for that book, it’s going to pretty much stay in print, and libraries all over the country are going to purchase it.
What influence have the CSK awards had on your career?
Collier: It took me seven years to get my first book deal. I went door to door to every publisher once a week with a portfolio. Over and over again. But once I got the award, I got 10 offers the next year.
Hartfield: Of course, I’m happy for myself, but what makes me happiest is that I’ve been trying to get people to know the history of what has come before. I was driven by a desire to contribute not just any old story that I was interested in, but to fill a chunk of history that no one had written about and that I felt was valuable for little kids to see. Through this award, I’m realizing that goal. I’m getting so many more inquiries. I feel like it’s getting out there to the public, and that’s really what I wanted.
Claudette McLinn: The Coretta Scott King awards have launched the careers of many major authors and illustrators, and if it wasn’t for the award, we wouldn’t have this great body of work that is a part of children’s literature now.
From 1992 to 2011, I had a multicultural children’s bookstore in Los Angeles called Bright Lights. The majority of the books were African American. I recall a lady in her 90s coming in, and she started crying. She said, “I have never seen any book that looked like me.” A lot of parents were overwhelmed. They said, “I just never knew there were so many books about us.”
Steptoe: People like shiny things, so when they see a book with a medal on it, they say, “Oh, this must be a good book.” So where a book might be overlooked, someone might then take a second look. When they become familiar with the CSK awards, they come to expect excellence. They say history is written by the victors. I am very happy and excited that I can have agency in how the story is being told.
Garnes: When my branch [at Atlanta–Fulton Public Library System] came up on its 35th anniversary, I knew I wanted to do something special, so I wrote a grant to develop my African-American children’s collection. I actually got to order the [Coretta Scott King Book Award–winning] books. It was a rewarding experience. I had that collection in a special place, so when patrons walked in, they couldn’t miss it. Some of the parents just went straight there.
How has the landscape of children’s publishing changed in the last 50 years vis-à-vis African Americans?
Bryan: A librarian can help a family now by directing them to books about black children and black people. There’s much to refer to now.
McLinn: It’s better than what it was. But it’s still not enough for me. It’s not enough at all.
Hartfield: There are strides being made, for sure, and I definitely applaud that. But if we did not have the CSK awards, I think that a lot of really important children’s literature by African Americans would fly under the radar. The reality is that getting an honor means something to the public, it just does. It’s hard enough to get literature out into the world in any meaningful way, period, no matter what your race is.
By highlighting and spotlighting African-American literature specifically, it fills a hole in people’s knowledge. You want African-American kids to grow up with lots of stories that represent them, the ones I didn’t have when I was a kid. It gives you a different sense of self. I also think it’s important for kids who are not of color, to incorporate into their world kids who are not like them in terms of how they look and what their experiences are.
Steptoe: Whenever I go to ALA Annual, I see the same people most of the time. I love them, but there’s enough of us to have a lot more fresh blood, you know? That has to do not just with having [black] authors and illustrators but having people of color within the infrastructure of children’s books—the sellers, the marketers, the editors. I haven’t really seen that much change in those aspects. It would be good for younger generations to think about jobs in the publishing industry and library science.
Garnes: I am really proud of the African-American children’s literature that exists today. There is a rich body of books available for children to enjoy, for adults to share with children. It’s still not where we would like it in terms of the number of books published.
African-American authors and illustrators still need that recognition of the CSK award to recognize their talent. Let’s take Walter Dean Myers, for instance. He has won more Coretta Scott King awards than any other author: six awards and six honors. Myers was one of the authors who got young black boys reading. I don’t think he would have achieved the level of literary success if he had not been recognized by the Coretta Scott King Book Awards.
Collier: If you look at books published and written about African Americans made by African Americans, it’s [still] astonishingly low, like 1%–2% of the business. If the award disappeared, oftentimes writers and illustrators would never get recognized, even if they made the same book. The Coretta Scott King Book Awards were designed to level the playing field. The world would be empty without it. Continue reading and supporting the books, please. All hands on deck.