I’d like to give a huge thanks to everyone who has come to take part in the Coretta Scott King Awards Breakfast, a celebration of African American stories and images created by many of today’s best authors and illustrators. I give a special thanks to my publisher Little, Brown and its amazing staff of editors, designers, and more, including Alvina Ling, Patti Ann Harris, Connie Hsu, Victoria Stapleton, and Liza Baker. Thank you also to my agent, Marcia Wernick.
I’d particularly like to thank the CSK committee and ALA for their hard work, tireless efforts, and dedication to ensuring that the world will always have great words at its disposal. Great words lead to a good story, which in turn can become a great book.
But for me, it only takes one or two words to transform a good story into a great one. I’ll give you an example later, but it feels like a door opens up to a new world of possibilities, and maybe a great book.
In all the books I illustrate, research is very important to my creative process. I need to know for myself all the Who, What, When, and How. When I first read Laban Carrick Hill’s words and story, the journey for me began with the question “Who was Dave the Potter?” So I gathered resource materials, such as Leonard Todd’s Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave and Jill Beute Koverman’s I Made This Jar: The Life and Works of the Enslaved African-American Potter, Dave as well as other references that I found online. At this point, I knew that Dave was an enslaved potter born around 1800 who lived in South Carolina and who died sometime in the 1870s. He lived and worked under harsh and oppressive conditions on a plantation in an area then called Pottersville, located about a mile outside Edgefield, South Carolina. Dave made functional pottery and sometimes wrote a verse on the shoulder of the pot or jar and signed his name: Dave. This was a good story, but I wanted to know more.
I began to wonder what the color of the sky looked like for Dave, what the ground felt like that he walked on. So I made my way down to Edgefield. After asking a few questions around town, I was directed to a studio called the Old Edgefield Pottery run by master potter Stephen Ferrell. Mr. Ferrell enlightened me with a wealth of knowledge about Dave, the rich tradition of Carolina pottery techniques, and the artistry of his craft. This is where I finally got a chance to touch an authentic pot made by Dave.
OK, let’s get back to the journey from a good story to something great.
Dave was owned by a handful of different people, one of whom owned a newspaper press where Dave worked as a typesetter. We believe that’s where he was taught to read and write. To appreciate this, remember that it was illegal for slaves to read or write and dangerous for them if those abilities were discovered. Yet Dave had the audacity to write in verse on the pots he made and boldly sign his name. So I wonder.
History is alive and well and in plain view all around us. So I wonder.
One of Dave’s pots was found under someone’s house next to the lawnmower. So I wonder…
The story about Dave the Potter was never meant to be told, yet it showed up two hundred years later hollering like a newborn child. So I wonder.
Dave lost a leg in a train accident and survived it without a hospital or health insurance, only to continue to make pots. So I wonder.
Dave made approximately forty thousand pots in his lifetime. So I wonder.
In Dave the Potter readers witness a step-by-step depiction of a noble jar being created by an artist, poet, and slave named Dave who only knew the ground and the sky of this part of South Carolina. Yet before the jar hardens, he picks up a stick and writes to let us know that he was there:
I wonder where
is all my relation
friendship to all—
and, every nation
I froze when I read the phrase I wonder because it was never about just the jars or slavery. When he wrote those words, Dave had never been out of South Carolina, yet he is wondering about other relations and other nations. Those two words, I wonder, opened a door that said that artistry and literacy combined means that the human spirit cannot be bound.