Sometimes one finds books early, before everyone else does. Some-times it takes a little longer. I felt fortunate to find Martin’s Big Words early. I saw it at the ALA annual conference in 2001. I remember reading it. I remember the power of the book, feeling the richness of the text and the complexity of the illustrations; it literally left me speechless. Bryan Collier was at the booth, so after I collected myself, I was able to have him sign a copy of the book. I was as impressed by him as a person as I was by his work. He had a warmth and graciousness that was incredibly kind and welcoming. We talked about children’s books, of course, and he said how excited he was about becoming part of the industry, and all the while his smile grew bigger and bigger. As anyone who has met Bryan knows, he has one of the biggest, most inviting smiles around. When we said good-bye, I learned that Bryan also gives the biggest, best bear hug possible. I was thrilled that we arranged to talk when we were both back in New York, and I’m honored to say that we’ve been working together ever since.
When we met, we talked a bit about Bryan’s journey as an artist. In addition to his children’s books, he was working with kids in Harlem at the time. He had graduated from Pratt Institute with a BFA, and it was while at Pratt that he began volunteering at Harlem Hospital’s Harlem Horizon Art Studio. The program provided working space and materials for self-taught artists in the community, and Bryan went on to become the program director, a position he held for twelve years. Through this program, he was able to give kids an appreciation of art and the ability to use it as a way of self-expression and healing. He also donated his time creating huge murals around Harlem to reinforce for the community at large the message he was teaching in the Studio. Visit Harlem and you can see their power for yourself.
Children’s books offered a way for Bryan to use his art to continue his mission on a larger scale, reaching even more kids, so he began to shift his focus. It took him seven long years before he got his first contract, though. His break came when Laura Godwin decided to publish Uptown, which was both a Coretta Scott King Illustrator award winner and an Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator award winner. While he was writing and working on the art for Uptown, he illustrated two other books, which were published first. They were These Hands by Hope Lynne Price and Freedom River by Doreen Rappaport, which was awarded a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor. So, after nine years, Bryan became an overnight success! Looking back, I’m certainly not surprised by the continued recognition that Bryan receives from the public, from librarians, and from the publishing community. If there’s a single word that encapsulates Bryan’s success, I think it would be connection. As Bryan has written, “Collage is more than just an art style. Collage is all about bringing different elements together. Once you form a sensibility about connection, how different elements relate to each other, you deepen your understanding of yourself and others.”
It is Bryan’s connection to kids that has made helping them learn about the world and themselves his consistent goal. His artistic bond with each of his books is also beautifully articulated in the illustrator’s notes that he always includes and which help us as readers better understand the book. Bryan’s spiritual affinities run very deep as well. In Freedom River, he explained that he believes in “guardians who protect us, just as my African ancestors believed that guardians watched over” the characters in the story. He painted and created collages modeled on the deacon, the deaconess, and the pastor of his church, the individuals who provided him with spiritual guidance. And he explained that “the wavy lines across their faces represent the river, for the river is the key to freedom.”
Bryan’s research for his books brings different personal connections with each of them, too. For Rosa, he went to Alabama, and used a yellow, sometimes dark hue to convey its heat. For Clemente!, the speed and power of a baseball in play is brought home to the reader using multiple repeated layers of watercolor/collage images.
Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave is a culmination of many connections. First, of course, is that of author Laban Carrick Hill to a story he heard about a relatively unknown potter. Laban crafted a lyrical, compelling manuscript that was the story of Dave the Potter and also one of artistic creation. Jennifer Hunt, editorial director at Little, Brown, had the faith and commitment to publish a book with no obvious commercial hook. She then passed the project along to executive editor Alvina Ling, who has been a champion of books that link kids with multicultural stories. And through Alvina, Bryan became linked to the story as well. Bryan, who was already a fan of Laban’s work, immediately and naturally embraced the text. I think that the recognition this book has received—a Caldecott Honor, a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, and a spot on The New York Times Best Seller List—is the result of all these connections that came together, full circle, in this extraordinary book.
I also believe that in the most successful careers, alliances go beyond the actual creation of a book, extending to the relationships established throughout the children’s book field at large, from editors, art directors, booksellers, librarians, and teachers outward to the readers of their books. For some, developing and maintaining these relationships can be an overwhelming job, but for Bryan it seems to come naturally. He’s out on the road, going to schools and events, talking with kids, as he has always loved to do. And his enthusiasm for the work of his author and illustrator colleagues is infectious, too. There are constantly new people and projects that excite him; that he wants to jump in and get involved with. And that enthusiasm is reciprocated by the editors and art directors he works with who tell me, “I would love to come up with another project for him; he’s a joy to work with.” A joy, indeed! And did I mention that Bryan gives the biggest, best bear hug in the industry?
From the July/August 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine