Subscribe to The Horn Book

Floyd Cooper Talks with Roger

floyd cooper twr

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

Sponsored by
Capstone


floyd cooper

In the midst of a classic Boston snowpocalypse, it was pure pleasure to talk to Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award winner Floyd Cooper [in 2009 for The Blacker the Berry, written by Joyce Carol Thomas; Amistad/HarperCollins] about his new picture book celebrating a jubilant summer’s day: Juneteenth for Mazie, published this month by Capstone.

Roger Sutton: You grew up in Oklahoma, right?

Floyd Cooper: Yes, born and raised. Around Tulsa, Oklahoma. Spent summers in Muskogee, Oklahoma. And Bixby, Mounds, Oklahoma, where my paternal grandfather had some land. He’s one-hundred-percent Creek Indian, and he had this allotment of land that was given to some of the Indians there. We would go and work some of the farms my folks had, to supply produce to the markets and things like that. It was a typical Midwestern kind of a lifestyle.

RS: Do you find that childhood making its way into your books?

FC: Yes. I’m trying to get more and more of it in there. I was just back there last week, actually, and I got to see some sights that awoke in me things I had forgotten about.

RS: Was Juneteenth something you celebrated as a kid?

FC: Well, we didn’t really celebrate it per se, but it was talked about by my older relatives. I never really understood it fully until much later.

RS: But you’d go to a barbecue and enjoy it even if you didn’t completely know what it was for, just like in Juneteenth for Mazie. Her grandfather tells her about the barbecue and that there are going to be treats and soda there, because that’s how kids connect with traditions.

FC: That’s right. They’re just there for the goodies. But those are the ways into their memory bank. Everything is attached to those fun parts. If we’re lucky we have older folks who talk to us and make sure we at least know some of the traditions. There was a lot of that with my family. I knew my great-grandparents.

RS: Wow.

FC: They still lived on the farm they built. They moved up from Texas in a covered wagon, and they built this house of stone there in Haskell, Oklahoma. They were quite old, and they’d share stories. In fact, Uncle Mose, the character in Juneteenth, is my great-great-grandfather. He was from a plantation in Georgia. He was an ex-slave. There was a photograph of him hanging in one of the rooms at the farm that we weren’t allowed to go into. As kids we had our limits. I couldn’t quite make out the features, so it’s always been a mystery to me what he actually looked like. I’m on a search for that picture now. Maybe it’s something that will turn up in one of my books. Those things, they really do come into fine focus as you get older. There’s always that regret that you didn’t know then what you know now.

RS: Right.

FC: As a child, I would have quizzed my great-grandparents a lot more, gotten even more stories.

RS: How do you connect your own children to those stories?

cooper_juneteenth for mazieFC: Telling the stories helps keep them in my memory. It’s funny how that works. The act of giving can also, in a sense, be a gift to you. You gain more insight and awareness as you pass the stories on. One of the beauties of the oral tradition is that it helps both the giver and the listener.

RS: Today if the slaves were freed, the news would be instantaneous. There’s no way the people of Texas wouldn’t hear it.

FC: That’s right. It would be all over Twitter. And that’s probably why it took two years for the news to actually reach Galveston. It traveled slowly, but it was deliberate, as much was in those days. With the culture of the black community, even before social media, there has always been this sort of a connection. It spanned geographic regions. It crossed social borders. I don’t know if you remember, in the days when they actually named dances, like you had the Twist? This was before your time.

RS: Do the Hustle!

FC: The Hustle and those dances. They were known instantaneously across the country by everybody. I don’t know how word got around. That’s just an example. Different things — the way of speaking, the slang, the verbiage, all of that was passed on. I can’t put my finger on how that happened. How would someone in Cincinnati, Ohio, know how someone in Oakland, California, would talk and act and walk, you know? It’s just amazing, that connection. I’m sure it’s like that with all cultures, there’s a sort of thread or a link that runs through, and it persists even with acclimation, with the sort of melting pot in which we all exist. Those ties — those cultural ties — remain true to that particular culture.

RS: To take the example of dances — you’d have DJs on the radio playing songs and saying, “Here’s the new Twist record.” And the DJ would listen to other DJs, so the record spreads, and of course the record company’s going around selling the record to the DJs, but then that doesn’t work unless the kids get into it. So Sally in Philly calls her cousin Sadie in Oklahoma —

FC: That’s right. It’s like a smoke signal, or like a drumbeat. Something very primordial. We find a way. And now we have social media.

RS: How do you think that will change things in terms of helping cultures to flourish?

FC: I think we’ll evolve into the medium, if we aren’t there already. It came on pretty quickly and caught us off-guard. I still know people who do not use Facebook. But I think we will evolve and take better advantage of it, and it will evolve along with us. Hopefully the internet will still be there, cleaned up and with the vision that we want it to be, as opposed to —

RS: The cesspool that it is today?

FC: Yes. I believe it’s going to get to where it’s supposed to be, but that’s just how I am, I guess. I’m a hopeful guy.

RS: And how do you see books surviving?

FC: It was put best by Stephen Roxburgh, an editor friend of mine. He was giving a talk about media, and he said books are just a bucket for words and thoughts and stories. The bucket can change, but the stories and the words, the expressions, the things that are in the bucket — that won’t change. You’ll always need that. So you have an electronic device that supplants a book, it’s just a bucket for these things. In that sense, it’s not that important as far as affecting the actual things that are in the bucket. We still need people to create for the bucket, whatever form it is. If it’s paper, or a bright light and a little flat tablet, we’ll still need content. That need that we have, as humans, to tell our stories and to hear stories will remain a constant through whatever technological change happens. We’ll carry that deep into the universe with us as we expand out further.

RS: Do you find yourself using digital tools more, as an illustrator?

FC: No, I still work traditionally for the most part. I have done some things just to experiment, but I still prefer the light in front of the painting, as opposed to coming from behind.

RS: It’s a big difference, isn’t it?

FC: Oh, it’s huge. Tremendously.

RS: I remember watching you demonstrate how you created a picture many years ago, in Hattiesburg.

FC: Oh, yes. So you saw that?

RS: Uh-huh.

FC: Okay. All right. Are you painting that way now?

RS: Who, me?

FC: Yes, did you go home and try it?

RS: No, I did not.

FC: Are you artistic?

RS: Hell, no.

FC: You’re very convinced. No hesitation there. That’s absolute, huh? Okay.

RS: But I love to look at pictures. You need people like me.

FC: Absolutely. You’re the linchpin of the whole thing. Without you, it’ll all fall apart.

RS: Gotta have readers.

FC: That’s right. And viewers, absolutely.

RS: You’ve had a remarkably consistent style over the years. Ever want to bust out and try something else?

FC: I do, and I have attempted to do that a number of times, but there are constructs in place that help to hold you in place. People who buy the art — they want the comfort, I guess, of knowing what they’re going to get, so they tend to want what they’ve seen you do, as opposed to taking a chance and trying something new. But I am expanding on my own. I’ve been experimenting with a lot of different media. Hopefully I’ll be in the position to just be able to produce that someday, and not have any other issues at hand like paying bills.

RS: Right.

FC: Social media, that will help me to have a platform, to just post something and see what happens. It may be something out of left field. I use melted chalks and some other mediums and a different palette. It’s a lot of fun, to balance what I do for books with what I play with in my down time.

RS: You know, one way you broke out years ago has always struck me — do you remember Laura Charlotte? [written by Kathryn O. Galbraith; Philomel, 1990] A book about a white child, illustrated by an African American illustrator.

FC: Yes, and I remember your statement about that. In fact, I still use it.

RS: What did I say?

FC: You said — I’m paraphrasing here — Ezra Jack Keats had done Snowy Day with Peter, and Floyd Cooper has sort of turned that around with Laura Charlotte.

RS: It really was something that was rare. Do you feel boxed in?

FC: Sometimes you do. Basically what we try to do, as artists and writers, we seek humanity first. That has no pigeonhole.

RS: Right.

FC: Publishers tend to hesitate when it comes to experimentation. But there are people who do allow it to happen. I’ve done some interesting books with Stephen Roxburgh. He’s quite a visionary. He told us maybe seven, eight years ago that the cell phone was going to be the center of the electronic universe. Everything was coming down to the cell phone and a cloud. And we didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. But it certainly has come to pass.

RS: I just walked by someone in the hall who was asking a security guard if he’d seen her wallet, and I thought, “Which would bother me more, to lose my wallet, or to lose my cell phone?” You’d think wallet, but I don’t know.

FC: I misplaced my cell phone in Nebraska once, and I couldn’t sleep a wink. I found it later, but it scared me to death, and I began to realize just how connected we are to that device. It’s like another hand. It’s scary, at the same time, to be so dependent on something.

RS: Do you read books on yours?

FC: I don’t read entire books. I’ll read the blurbs, and then I’ll get the book. I still like the book. I’d rather have the actual book and a little lamp.

RS: You know, your publisher wanted to make sure I saw the latest edition of Juneteenth for Mazie, because I only had the ARC and there were changes made to the finished book.

FC: They should ban ARCs. I’m setting a bonfire to my copies. Have you written any books yourself? I’m going to turn the interview on you.

RS: I wrote a nonfiction book for teenagers a long time ago. And then I’ve written mostly books for adults about children’s books.

FC: Is that first book still out? I’d like to see it.

RS: It’s out of print. It’s called Hearing Us Out: Voices from the Gay and Lesbian Community, and it was published by Little, Brown.

FC: What year was that?

RS: It was 1994, before I worked at The Horn Book.

FC: Wow. That’s ahead of the curve. Everything is so different now in the gay and lesbian community.

RS: Yes. The book would be completely dated. A kid would read it today and think I was talking about Martians. Because the world for gay people is completely different. Do you think that our latest diversity push — #WeNeedDiverseBooks — is going to open things up for you?

FC: I am not sure. I think there will definitely be ancillary benefits from anything in that arena, because it’s just coming down to having an impact, even secondhand, on what I do. But as far as affecting me personally, I’ll just continue to do what I do. I try to get involved in some of those things — We Need Diverse Books. But I haven’t had time to be as attentive to it as I should. I probably need to get a little bit more involved, pushing for that.

RS: Isn’t that more my job than your job, though?

FC: There you go. That’s it.

RS: Your job is to make the books.


More on Floyd Cooper from The Horn Book

Sponsored by
Capstone

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

Share
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

*