Subscribe to The Horn Book

A Profile of Kadir Nelson

Donna Bray and Kadir Nelson

Donna Bray and Kadir Nelson. Photo: Alessandra Balzer.

By Donna Bray

It was May 2008, and I had just started my first new job in twelve years, as co-publisher of a new imprint at HarperCollins. I was energized, excited — and, frankly, a bit terrified. Being an editor without any books in the pipeline is, I imagine, like being a librarian with empty shelves. Luckily, before I had even unpacked my boxes, Steve Malk from Writers House sent me a proposal from Kadir.

The proposal was just a couple of pages long, but it was eloquent, powerful, and incredibly ambitious. Kadir wanted to create nothing less than a history of America and African Americans. While he had, of course, illustrated many books on African American subjects and had recently published his first work as an author, here he was synthesizing the material for children in a way that showed that American history is African American history — that this country could not have realized the promise of its founding documents without the contributions of African Americans. I knew right away that it was the book Kadir’s whole career had been building to — and that I had to publish it. Kadir and I had worked together successfully on the first book he wrote and illustrated — We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, a book of similar size and ambition — so I knew we could do it again. HarperCollins Publisher Susan Katz and editor in chief Kate Jackson were just as enthusiastic and ready to take the leap with me. I had acquired my first Balzer + Bray title. (Thanks, Kadir!)

Over the next several months, Kadir and I talked occasionally, and he’d tell me about the books he was reading and the documentaries he was watching. It was so fascinating that I wished I had the time to research with him. But as we talked about the scope of the project (and the closer the deadlines loomed), I confess, I started to get a little nervous. This was one massive subject, to say the least. (Kadir later said that he’d been nervous about wrangling the material, too. Apparently we were each too worried to tell the other!) Over the course of a few months I gently suggested narrowing the range a bit, creating a framework for the narrative that would allow Kadir to focus the story and selectively include — and necessarily, leave out — information. Although we didn’t have a concrete plan for the book for a while, I always had faith in Kadir’s amazing vision. And the more anecdotes he told me about the books he’d read, the places he’d visited, and the family members he’d interviewed, the more excited I became.

Then Kadir delivered the first draft of Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans, and the fun began. As with We Are the Ship, the narrative was made accessible and intimate by the voice of an elder — that of a centenarian recalling her family’s history and her own history. Knowing how close Kadir is to his mother and grandmother, I felt certain their voices infused the story with their love and honesty. In the early drafts, the challenge was to make that voice consistent throughout, while conveying the historical moments just as convincingly as the family stories. This was no easy task, but luckily Kadir is not only a natural storyteller, whose turns of phrase and carefully chosen details can still, dozens of readings later, give me chills, but he is also an inspired and willing reviser. Working with Kadir ups my game, the way a match with a talented tennis player might — it’s exhilarating and I learn a lot!

Sometime after the first draft, Kadir sent in his thumbnail sketches for the art he had planned. The art director, Martha Rago, and I marveled at how just a few deft lines could suggest so much emotion and majesty — really, it was extraordinary. We made some suggestions here and there, but for the most part the best thing we could do was stay out of his way. We wanted him to paint what moved him, and it was clear that these were truly inspired pieces. Anyone who has seen Kadir’s work can attest to the power of his paintings, especially his portraits. The subjects often stare frankly and directly at the viewer, conveying so much while hinting at mysteries below the surface. The subjects are living, breathing people. The fierce determination of the girl at the center of “Brave children, Little Rock, Arkansas” is so palpable it’s almost shocking. Then there’s the gentle love in “A young woman teaches her father how to read”; the defiance in the eyes of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass; the pride of the buffalo soldier; the defeat in the postures of the men in “Out of work”; and the camaraderie of the women in “Bus boycott, Montgomery, Alabama, 1956.” Even the trees Kadir painted in this book all have different moods and tell different facets of the story.

It is no wonder that Kadir’s art is so accomplished; he started drawing at the tender age of three and hasn’t stopped since. His whole family supported his obvious talent, buying him art supplies and saving his childhood efforts. He later attended Pratt Institute, where his talent is so legendary that even now illustration teachers are (jokingly?) advised to grade on a curve, with Kadir being an A. I was fortunate enough to hear Kadir give a talk to students at his alma mater, where he revealed the painstaking hard work that led to his seemingly “lucky” breaks. At Pratt he had been a tireless and dedicated builder of his portfolio and a standout worker at the Society of Illustrators, where he had landed an internship. The impressions he made there and elsewhere led to his being recommended to create concept art for the movie Amistad. Working on the film, he met producer Debbie Allen, who was so impressed by his work that she tapped him to illustrate her first picture book. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Kadir’s achievements in books alone are impressive: his titles have been named New York Times Best Illustrated Books of the Year and have won many awards, including Caldecott Honors, a Sibert Medal, Coretta Scott King Awards and Honors, and a Jane Addams Children’s Book Award Honor. He also has a thriving fine art career (his paintings have been exhibited in museums and galleries around the world) and is becoming an important national portraitist: he was commissioned by Congress to paint the official portrait of Shirley Chisholm, the first African American congresswoman, and by the U.S. Postal Service to create stamps featuring the Negro Leagues, activist Anna Julia Cooper, and author Richard Wright. He was even chosen to create the art for Michael Jackson’s posthumous album, Michael. This kind of success takes uncommon determination, hard work, and rare talent, for sure. But it also requires extraordinary vision. It’s this vision that I trust absolutely when Kadir comes to me with an idea for a new project.

Speaking of which: last fall Kadir and I were taking a cab across town after celebrating his Society of Illustrators Original Art Show Silver Medal for Heart and Soul when I asked him what he was thinking about for our next project. It’s much too early to share here, of course, but I can tell you that it will be totally different from anything Kadir has ever done. Whatever it is, I’m in.

Donna Bray is vice president and co-publisher of Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books. From the July/August 2012 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind