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Black History Just A Sidebar In History Books?


Now we'll talk prizes for a different type of storytelling: children's books. And you might remember those special books in your school library, the ones with the shiny gold, silver or bronze seals. Those books were winners of the John Newbery Medal or Randolph Caldecott Medal for excellent writing and illustrations in children's books. The awards are given out each year by the American Library Association.

That group also gives out prizes for children's books aimed at telling stories that reveal the diversity of the American experience, including the Coretta Scott King Awards, recognizing African-American writers and illustrators. And we are very pleased to be joined now by Kadir Nelson. He is the author and illustrator of "Heart and Soul: The Story of American and African Americans." It won this year's King Award for writing.

Also with us, Chrystal Carr Jeter. She is the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee Chair.

Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us. And, of course, Mr. Nelson, congratulations.

KADIR NELSON: Oh, thank you. Thank you for having me.

CHRYSTAL CARR JETER: Thank you for asking.

MARTIN: So, Mr. Nelson, this is your second King honor. You won the 2008 prize for "We are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball." And I just wanted to ask: Where were you when you found out? What happened? Do you get a call, a letter? How does it work?

NELSON: Well, the calls are made very early in the morning, so I was sleeping. And I was wondering who was calling me so early from Dallas, because I don't really know anyone from Dallas. But, to my surprise and delight, it was the Coretta Scott King Committee informing me that my book had been given the prize. So it was a really pleasant awakening.

MARTIN: Now, Chrystal Carr Jeter, you spent your career as a children's librarian, and you consult with Cleveland's Public Library, so presumably, you see a lot of books. What does your committee look for in deciding whom to bestow these awards upon?

JETER: Well, first of all, the Coretta Scott King Book Awards honors African-American authors and illustrators of outstanding books for children and young adults. They are looking for titles that promote understanding and appreciation of all people, but particularly affect the lives of African-Americans.

And we want to commemorate - based on the title, we commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, and it also honors Mrs. King in continuing her work. We're looking for books that are distinguished.

MARTIN: Now, they're not all about history. This year, the books tended to - if I have this right, from just looking at the list of award winners - tended to have a strong black history theme. They covered issues like slavery and the Northern migration, and things of that sort.

Do you generally prefer historical books, or are there other types of books that have won?

JETER: No, no. We do cover the gamut. We look at the African-American experience past, present and future, but we don't always look at historical events. Sometimes, we look at arts and cultural events, family, music. Those kinds of things are all important.

MARTIN: You know, Mr. Nelson, you know, your book covers a very difficult period, including slavery. I mean, some very difficult subjects, if you're going to tell the truth about it. And I - and you've also - I should mention that you worked on the feature film, "Amistad," which dealt with this in a, also, a fairly graphic way. And I'm wondering how you decided or what choices you made in thinking about how to talk about this with children, because this is usually the kind of thing that could give children nightmares. I mean, don't you agree?

NELSON: Certainly. I mean, parts of our history is very scary. But when I look at American history and I look at what history means to me, I look at it as if it were a string of stories. And if it's told well enough and in a way that's charming and warm and with wit and humor, then it takes a bit of the edge off of it. You can still tell the truth, but if you tell it very sweetly and very warmly, it makes it go down a bit easier.

MARTIN: We're talking with author Kadir Nelson. He's the winner of this year's Coretta Scott King Writing Prize for Children's Literature. Also with us is Chrystal Carr Jeter. She's the chair of the Coretta Scott King Awards Committee.

Ms. Chrystal Carr Jeter, tell me what made this book an award-winner.

JETER: The book covers all the criteria that we look at. We look at an original work. We look at established standards of well-drawn characters. We look at the writing style. We look at the mesh of the art and the text together. We look at authenticity of the African-American experience. And all of these things were embodied in "Heart and Soul."

MARTIN: And, of course, Mr. Nelson, you're known just for your amazing illustrations, just kind of lush, distinctive. Would you agree with me, Ms. Carr Jeter, that you could...

JETER: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: ...pick a Kadir Nelson book? If it was, you know, 10 feet away, you could pick it out?

JETER: Absolutely. I'm a true fan, and he knows that.


MARTIN: But what do you think? Can I get your take on this whole question, though, of the difficulty of these topics? You know, as we are getting more and more removed - at least for some people - from experiencing, you know, the harshness, the hardest edges of the black experience. You know, I can imagine that there are some people saying, well, does my child really need to be exposed to this, especially as a child? I mean, couldn't this wait till high school or something like that? I mean, what is your take on that?

JETER: No, no, no. Even at a young age, I think it's important to try to open up their lives to American history and, particularly because of our book award, the lives of African-American history. We want to give them a full focus, a full viewpoint.

And I think one of the things that we enjoyed so much about "Heart and Soul" is that it's told from a familial position, from an elderly viewpoint, looking back over their life. It had a very storytelling point of view. This is the way he focused the point. And it wasn't told in a scary point of view that you were bringing up. It was sort of - this is what has happened to us, and this is how we have built, not only our own culture, but the whole American culture, how we have been a part of it.

MARTIN: Going back to the question I asked you earlier about the fact that this year's books or award winners tend to focus on history and themes out of African-American history, is it your sense that these stories are not yet fully integrated into the historical curriculum of all students?

JETER: Actually, I think that's exactly right. In fact, I think that's one of the growing trends we're going to see in children's literature, that some of the beautiful titles and books that are coming out now about the American experience are correcting some of the misinterpretations or the mistakes that have been in history before, and that we are being able, right now, with titles like "Heart and Soul" and the other ones that we have been giving awards to, to show exactly authentic and accurate portrayals of our history.

MARTIN: Kadir Nelson, who do you hope will pick up one of your books?

NELSON: I write books like "Heart and Soul" and "We are the Ship" for all age groups. I'm certainly cognizant of the fact that children are going to be reading it, and I hope that, again, librarians and teachers who are sharing history with the children, that they'll be able to use books like these to help supplement their curriculum because, often, African-American history has been treated in our history textbooks as a sidebar. And, hopefully, books like these will be used by teachers and parents in homes to help share these really powerful stories.

MARTIN: Ms. Carr Jeter, I wanted to ask you that. The Coretta Scott King Awards is only one of the awards given out by the American Library Association. The Pura Belpre Awards recognize Latino authors or Latina authors who've written about the Latino experience, and the Schneider Family Awards recognizes excellence in highlighting the experience of being disabled, and others.

And I'm asking you, and I'm wondering: Do you foresee a time when there will not be a need for these various, distinct categories? Or do you think that they have their own merit regardless?

JETER: No. I think that they all have a place. I think that it is important, though, to be able to see the titles that we are honoring in our various cultural awards also get the other awards, like the Caldecott or the Newbery, those kind of things. I like to see the crossing of titles, because literature for children shouldn't be limited. It should be across all categories.

But I do think awards like the Coretta Scott King book awards should still be there. It should always have a place. I think it's important to be able to single out and be able to focus on a particular area.

MARTIN: Well, Kadir Nelson, let me just thank you once again. Thank you both for coming in. Also, congratulate you once again on your second Coretta Scott King Award.

Can we persuade you to give us a hint about your next project?

NELSON: I'll give you a little hint. It's - well it's actually a big hint. It's a book on Nelson Mandela. It's a picture book biography of his life. It'll be due next fall.

MARTIN: Oh, well, we will look forward to that. All right.

NELSON: Me, too.

MARTIN: Kadir Nelson is this year's winner of the Coretta Scott King Author's Award for Children's Books. He was kind enough to join us by phone from his home office in Los Angeles.

Chrystal Carr Jeter is the chair of the King Awards Committee for the American Library Association, and she was kind enough to join us from Dallas, Texas.

Thanks to you both so much for joining us, and congratulations once again, Kadir Nelson.

JETER: Thank you.

NELSON: Thank you very much. Thanks for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.