Youth Literature and Its Library Advocates Promote Black History

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by Steve Zalusky

Perhaps no audience is more important during Black History Month than our nation’s youth, who will tend the flame of that history for future generations.

An encouraging sign for the perpetuation of that legacy was the plaudits recently earned by civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis for “March: Book Three,” written by Lewis and Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell. The book captured an unprecedented four Youth Media Awards, including one of the prestigious Coretta Scott King Book Awards, at the annual ceremony held by the American Library Association in January in Atlanta.

The Youth Media Awards, held each year at the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting, illustrate the important role librarians play in promoting the top books, video and audio books for children and young adults. Committees of librarians choose the winners and honor recipients of 19 major awards, including the Caldecott, Coretta Scott King, Newbery and Printz awards.

Lewis’ graphic novel trilogy could serve as an encyclopedia of the civil rights movement, commemorating such important events as the voting-rights march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama that took place on Sunday, March 7, 1965. “Bloody Sunday” culminated in a clash between Alabama state troopers and nonviolent demonstrators. The trilogy carries authority and authenticity as it depicts the personal experiences of Lewis, including his early years in Troy, Alabama, his experiences organizing sit-ins to protest segregation, his participation in the freedom rides and the March on Washington and Bloody Sunday, when a 25-year-old Lewis inhaled tear gas and absorbed the blows of billy-clubs.

Booklist called it "A stirring call to action that’s particularly timely in this election year, and one that will resonate and empower young readers in particular. Essential reading."

“’March: Book Three’ is a riveting and multilayered graphic personal history of the civil rights movement and a window into the mind and experiences of a living legend,” said Coretta Scott King Book Awards Jury Chair Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop.

Other examples of books richly reflecting the black experience can be found among other books honored this year at the Youth Media Awards.

Book cover: Freedom over meAmong the Newbery Honor Books was “Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dream Brought to Life" by Ashley Bryan. Inspired by an 1828 estate appraisement, author Ashley Bryan honors the lives of eleven slaves in poetry and collage. In the book’s pages, Bryan calls attention to the slave patrols known as patterrollers (paddy rollers), organized groups of white men who enforced discipline on the slaves.

The Caldecott Honor Books included “Freedom in Congo Square,” illustrated by R. Gregory Christie and written by Carole Boston Weatherford. The book also focuses on the lives of slaves, this time within the setting of New Orleans’ Congo Square. As they work throughout the week, slaves look forward to their afternoon of music, hope, and community in Congo Square, an area, now part of Louis Armstrong Park, where city leaders allowed the slaves to gather and revive their African musical traditions, capturing them in the sounds of bells and drums and expressing them in song and dance. The book includes paint and collage images inspired by folk art.

Each year, the Youth Media Awards present the Coretta Scott King Book Awards. They are presented annually by the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee of the ALA’s Ethnic and Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table (EMIERT) to encourage the artistic expression of the African-American experience via literature and the graphic arts; to promote an understanding and appreciation of the black culture and experience and to commemorate the life and legacy of Mrs. Coretta Scott King for her courage and determination in supporting the work of her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for peace and world brotherhood.

Book cover: Freedom in COngo SquareThis year, in addition to honoring Lewis, the committee also selected “Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat,” written and illustrated by Javaka Steptoe, a picture book that incorporates motifs from Basquiat’s work. Basquiat’s art pieces in the 1970s and 1980s, included graffiti art on the buildings of New York City, as well as “crown” drawings that featured such heroes as jazz musicians wearing crowns. His work brought attention not only to the history of blacks in America, but blacks in Egyptian civilization.

“Steptoe’s illustrations for ‘Radiant Child’ are striking. Painted on found wood, they echo the ‘sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird, but somehow still beautiful’ quality of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s art, while relating the story of his difficult life,” said Bishop.

Steptoe is an artist, designer and children’s book illustrator. His debut work, “In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers,” an anthology featuring poetry from notable poets, including Folami Abiade, Dinah Johnson and Carole Boston Weatherford, Angela Johnson and Sonia Sanchez, earned him his first Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, in 1998; “Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow” (written by Gary Golio), received a CSK Illustrator Honor in 2011.

This year, the Youth Media Awards also honored the work of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita at The Ohio State University, who received the the 2017 Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Book cover: Radient ChildA winner of numerous awards, Bishop has served as a respected member of many book awards committees over the course of her long and distinguished career. Her influential writing, speaking, and teaching articulates the history and cultural significance of African American children’s literature. Her globally cited work, ‘Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors’, has inspired movements for increased diversity in books for young people, and provides the basis for the best multicultural practice and inquiry for students, teachers, writers and publishing houses.

“Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s critical assessment and cultural optic has had a profound influence on the ways in which generations of librarians, teachers, and scholars present books to children and young adults,” said Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement Chair Dr. Darwin Henderson. “Her research, knowledge and compassion for readers has broadened the development of African American Children’s Literature.”

This year’s Youth Media Awards provided encouraging signs that youth literature will continue to enrich and enlighten our nation’s youth, preparing them to serve as a beacon of knowledge that will benefit tomorrow’s youth.

It also showed the importance of librarians in providing guidance along that path.

Learn more about the American Library Association Youth Media Awards.

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