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I Have a Dream

Robin and I have been figuring out how to finish things up here with some last-minute posts before the vote. Weirdly, we find that the three books we MOST want to discuss in the next two days are all about real people and have the word “Dream” in the title. I know this sounds like some kind of gimmick, but I swear we didn’t plan it that way!

I Have a Dream I’ve been a fan of Kadir Nelson’s work ever since I saw Big Jabe in 2000. I loved his combination of sketchy outline and painterly, atmospheric light. Clearly, this guy knew his figure drawing, but he was also willing to distort his characters in the interest of moving the story forward and conveying emotion.

When his subsequent books moved toward a more realistic style, I worried he would lose me. I’m not very tolerant of illustration that looks as if it’s heavily based on photos. Too often the result is accuracy at any cost, sacrificing a sense of immediacy. When photos are used as reference for a scene showing two characters interacting, the emotional connection between them on the page tends to be blurred or even severed.

To my eye, Kadir Nelson has never fallen into this trap. Each face he draws manages to show someone at a precise moment in time with hidden but almost-revealed thoughts behind the eyes.  I have learned to relax and trust him, no matter how realistic his paintings get.

I SO want Kadir Nelson to win a Caldecott Medal, but I want it to be for a book that truly shows why he is so great. I Have a Dream has stunning paintings, but it’s so monumental and necessarily hagiographic that it doesn’t allow him show off his ability to play with character and have some fun.

Am I being stingy here? I think this book will live a long life with or without an award, as it should. But I want Nelson’s Caldecott, which I firmly believe WILL happen one of these days, to be for something a little different.

Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.



  1. Coreen Blau says:

    I hear what you are saying, but if an illustrator is good, he is good. He should get the award, he has basically already earned it repeatedly no matter what the title. I don’t think you can judge that. You have to call a spade a spade. His work is phenomenal no matter what the title. Thank you.

  2. Sam Bloom says:

    Yes, Lolly, you’re being stingy! But as the President of Kadir’s fan club (I’m also a member, btw) I may be the wrong one to chew you out on this. So, I’ll just leave it at this: this is my favorite picture book of the year, but it isn’t my favorite of Kadir’s work.

  3. This is my least favorite offering from Kadir Nelson in recent years. I imagine the committee must try to not give an award for the body of work, but instead look carefully at each year’s offering. I think his two honors were well deserved, but I’m not sure this one makes the cut.

  4. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    The committee can only look at the book in front of them, not make any comparisons to any other work from any other year. So, Sam’s statement is fair enough. If it is the best book of the year, according to him or the committee, it is in comparison to the rest of the books of the year, not how it stacks up to other books Nelson has written. I know that people don’t believe that the committee does not compare to other years, but it does not. The chair squelches ANY mention of ANY book that is not from the current year. Period.

  5. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Those of you who have a copy in front of you: do you think the illustrations extend the (very familiar) text?

  6. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    Thanks, Robin. Yes, I was approaching this post from a purely personal level and neglected to mention the committee perspective. While what I said above is the kind of thing that’s sure to go through your mind when you are on a committee, everyone knows better than to talk this way aloud.

    On the other hand, when there’s more than one book by the same illustrator — like Erin Stead and Jon Klassen this year — you can bet they are comparing those.

  7. Well, I have MLK Storytime in less than two hours, so I do in fact have it right here in front of me. Overall, I think Kadir does a good job almost creating a movie accompaniment to the speech – the images he uses are really cinematic, and the flow of the story really gives a sense of the cut-aways you see in films. On the title page we start with an aerial long view of the Lincoln Memorial with the huge crowd gathered, followed by a shot of MLK at the podium with Abe’s statue in the background, followed by another long shot of the speech (from the perspective of the far end of the Reflecting Pool). Then we cut to a profile shot of a black man and white man standing face-to-face (text: “…table of brotherhood”), a shot of MLK’s children (“I have a dream that my four little children…”), and a truly stunning shot of MLK’s profile, super close up, with the simple text facing (“I have a dream today.”) The next spread is, in my opinion, the weakest in the book – a ring of children hand-in-hand (text: “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls…”) There’s something about the facial features on this spread that seems slightly artificial to me. The next spread is a doozy, though – “every valley shall be exalted…” text overlaid above a gorgeous shot of the sun shining down through the clouds across a green valley. The next spread returns to the Mall, looking over MLK’s shoulder out at the crowd along the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument in the distance. The next spread is a personal favorite, a close up of a white hand and black hand clasped together (“With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together…”), followed by a spread with children’s faces – the children are of a variety of ethnicities/colors (“…all of God’s children will be able to sing… My country, ’tis of thee…” so why aren’t all the children shown singing?). The next two spreads are the highlight of the book: “Let freedom ring…” with the different land masses and regions of the country melding together into a seamless whole. Another page turn takes you to yet another gorgeous close-up of MLK speaking, on a black background, with a simple text accompaniment (“From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”) And then another spread of what Kadir does best – capturing the humanity in the faces of a wide range of people, with a close-up shot of the multi-ethnic crowd watching MLK deliver the speech, leading to the final spread – white doves flying off the page to the right with the famous final words, “Free at last…” So, Robin, my answer to your question – yes, I think the illustrations extend the text. What’s that you say – TMI?!

  8. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Never TMI!
    Thanks for the great description, Sam.

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