Susie Wilde: Kadir Nelson brings history to life

Jan. 26, 2013 @ 01:00 PM

“I didn’t care much for history while I was in school,” began Kadir Nelson in a recent interview. This is a curious statement from an illustrator-writer who is known to make history shine and has some pretty shiny awards to note his contributions. In terms of illustration, he’s won two Caldecott Honors. One is for his rendition of Carole Boston Weatherford’s “Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom” and the other for Ellen Levine’s “Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad.” Nelson has also written and illustrated two longer books: “We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball” won the 2008 Siebert Medal for nonfiction and in 2011 he won a Coretta Scott King Honor award for “Heart and Soul: The Story America and African Americans.” The latter, told by an unnamed elderly black heroine, blends poignant personal memories and family tales with famous people and known events.
Since 1999 Nelson has brought out more than 20 picture books and a majority of them zoom in on history. So what happened to transform Nelson’s childhood feelings? “As a kid,” Nelson said, “I wasn’t a big reader, but because I was always a big fan of hearing stories, I began to like history when I made the connection of it being a string of compelling stories.” Nelson’s connection grew stronger in high school after reading the autobiography of Malcolm X. “Then I became a big lover of reading and history, particularly biographies.” His own work reflects this passion – his illustrations and words have traversed continents and decades in picture book biographies about Wangari Maathai, Abe Lincoln, Joe Louis, Coretta Scott King and Jackie Robinson.
Nelson will appear at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill Sunday at 5 p.m. to speak about and sign copies of his newest picture book, a dramatic portrayal of Martin Luther King’s speech, “I Have A Dream” (Random House, ages 5 and up).
Nelson was not yet born when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on Aug. 28, 1963, to 200,000 civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington. Nelson was introduced to this speech in the fifth grade. “One of my assignments was to memorize the speech and deliver it. The speech gave me a sense of peace. I think it did the same for hundreds of thousands of people on the Freedom March and millions around the world.”
Fifty years after the speech was delivered, Nelson ponders its historical significance. The speech “represents Dr. King’s role in Civil Rights. He really gave people a sense of security knowing that there would be some changes coming ahead, that there would be difficulties in getting there, but he also gave them a sense of calm and peace and let them know that it was OK to embrace the change rather than fight it.”
It seemed right to both Nelson and his editor that in this, the 50th anniversary of King’s speech, introduce that speech to a new generation of readers. Together they went over the entire speech (both it and a recording are included with the book) and chose to illustrate the most often quoted, most familiar portion, which they also believed “would speak most to children. The whole speech is very important, but this is the most powerful part. It’s when the speech reaches its crescendo.”
Nelson is the perfect person to unite words and illustration. Maybe he wasn’t an early reader, but he began drawing at the age of 3 and knows how illustrations can serve as a powerful introduction. The cover of “I Have a Dream” pictures MLK against a background of blue sky and clouds. “I saw the clouds as symbolically describing his dream. And throughout the book I used a very cool white background as if the reader were inside the clouds sharing Dr. King’s dream.”
Nelson’s stirring paintings cover a range of emotional and visual views that make his book work for people of all ages. Perspectives and focus change and are layered with meaning. On one page, readers see the multitude of people at the actual event and quickly page turns show portraits of children who play without prejudice. One can almost hear the power of King delivering the speech in one picture and in another a page is divided into landscapes that represent the diversity of America.
The book captures the essence that moved Nelson when he was young. “One of the marchers,” Nelson recounts, “said that when Dr. King spoke it’s as if his words were still in the air. They’ve stayed in the air for 50 years.”
Read more at Susie Wilde’s website, ignitingwriting.com.