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2018 CSK Illustrator Award Acceptance by Ekua Holmes

Ekua Holmes. Photo: Clennon King.

Good morning, and thank you, everyone, for being here to celebrate these awards and honors with us. To all the honorees, I feel like we are at a family gathering. Isn’t it fitting that this event takes place on a Sunday? In my family, Sunday was the day for family and God. Set apart from the other six days of toil and trouble, Sundays were good food; aunts, uncles, and cousins in number; playing in our good clothes, at least until someone told us to put on some play clothes. Sunday was dressing up and wearing a hat and maybe some gloves and for sure some patent-leather shoes. I love that this event happens on a Sunday, and I know it’s no mistake.

Today, I feel a deep well of gratitude to the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Jury. Your dedication to countless hours of reading, looking, analyzing, feeling, and discussing hundreds of books is mind-blowing. I thank you from the absolute bottom of my heart for choosing Out of Wonder as a book to pay attention to, to enjoy, to share, and to collect. When I got the call, I was so out of touch that I wondered why Sam Bloom was calling me, even though I thought, It’s nice to hear from him. The Colorado number didn’t even give me a hint. With cell phones, who knows where calls are coming from? Our telephone numbers no longer give a sense of geography. All he said was, “I’ve got some very good news for you,” and it all clicked in. Cutting him off, I began to scream and dance in my kitchen. I hope I didn’t hurt his ear. It was so loud that my partner, Clennon, ran upstairs to see if I was being attacked. Then the call got disconnected. I didn’t know what the good news was, but I knew it was good and I knew it came from Colorado. That was all I needed to hear. Thank you, CSK jury, for cheering me on and giving me this wonderful recognition.

Every day when I wake up, no matter what problems or stresses I’m dealing with, I know I’m gonna get to do my work. Telling stories out of scraps and pieces, color and form, light and love. It’s the best job I’ve ever had.

Thank you, Kwame Alexander, for creating the perfect second book for me. Thank you for reminding me that I love poetry and reconnecting me with so many of the poets I had lost contact with.

The challenge of this book, as I saw it, was to illustrate twenty different ideas reflecting various styles, times, and personalities. I went from illustrating a single life in Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement to illustrating multiple lives; from concentrating on one part of the world to looking at multiple worlds, multiple viewpoints and styles and colors — but I wanted to do so in a way that still allowed each image to be connected to the others.

An African proverb says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” With this book, I did not go alone. I traveled the road less taken with Robert Frost, danced on a magic love rug with E. E. Cummings, went off to school to blossom with Bashō, and walked into a snowy day with Nikki. I went to church for prayer with Langston and to the basketball courts of Harlem for a jump shot with Walter Dean. Emily and I grew roses of exceptional beauty. I even created some paintings in blues and other hues with Terrance. The only daughter became la luna for a new generation. I stayed at the guesthouse with my friend Rumi; I welcomed a doctor’s house call and meditated on flying with the birds. In this project, the ordinary became extraordinary.

Kwame, Chris, and Marjory’s poems took me around the world and across the ages with bits and pieces, scraps and cuttings of color and form and rhythm and rhyme.

In that spirit, I’d like to accept this award especially in honor of four great women poets who are celebrated in Out of Wonder: Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, and Maya Angelou. I knew these four courageous and audacious women already from my teenage years, when their words were comfort food for my generation, when they crafted pathways to understanding and self-awareness for many young black women.

Lucille Clifton inspired the title of the book. Her work, spun out of brevity, speaks so tenderly of love and loneliness, family and urban life, and women’s lives. She said, “Poems come out of wonder, not out of knowing.” That’s the same place our best work comes from: the colors, lines, and forms of painting and the planes of sculpture and craft — the music and the dance, the poetry and song.

Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry speaks powerfully of black Americans’ everyday lives. She said, “What I’m fighting for now in my work [is] for an expression relevant to all manner of blacks, poems I could take into a tavern, into the street, into the halls of a housing project.” Her work sings with reality and humanity.

Nikki Giovanni described a world I wanted to visit during my summer vacation. With scenes from her childhood in Knoxville, Tennessee, she connected me with scenes from my own summers in Prescott, Arkansas. From snowflakes to backyard barbecues, she reminds us that there is poetry in everything if we are looking and listening. She celebrates our world, and she praises our unique style as black Americans.

“Style,” she wrote, “has a profound meaning to Black Americans. If we can’t drive, we will invent walks and the world will envy the dexterity of our feet. If we can’t have ham, we will boil chitterlings; if we are given rotten peaches, we will make cobblers; if given scraps, we will make quilts; take away our drums, and we will clap our hands.”

And finally Maya Angelou, a Renaissance woman: poet, singer, dancer, actor, memoirist, and civil rights activist. It was fitting that the book end with a celebration of her in “Majestic,” because she helped us to understand that confinement in mind or body cannot suppress our creativity or our desire to be free.

Lucille, Gwendolyn, Nikki, and Maya. Their poems celebrate us in all our radiance and complexity. Each of them wrote books for children, too. To celebrate them is to celebrate ourselves, our humanity, and our thirst for justice and joy.

As artists, we are gatherers of words, thoughts, impressions, and fresh connections. Speaking to new generations through literature and art raises the bar of our responsibility and our creative challenge. I am so proud to be among the visual voices that children today and tomorrow will hear and see. I’m humbled by it, motivated by it.

So thank you to Lucille, Gwendolyn, Nikki, and Maya. Without the power of your beautiful and challenging words, I would not be here speaking today.

Thank you to all who support my work in the world. To everyone at Candlewick Press. To my agent, Rubin Pfeffer. To my Roxbury hometown friends and family. I thank you for years of encouragement and care. To the team that supports me at home: my son, Kai; my granddaughter, Song; and my love, Clennon King. I don’t do this work just for you, but I could not do it without you.

Ekua Holmes is the winner of the 2018 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets, written by Kwame Alexander with Chris Colderley and Marjory Wentworth and published by Candlewick Press. Her acceptance speech was delivered at the annual conference of the American Library Association in New Orleans on June 24, 2018. From the July/August 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2018.

Ekua Holmes About Ekua Holmes

Ekua Holmes is the winner of the 2018 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets, written by Kwame Alexander with Chris Colderley and Marjory Wentworth and published by Candlewick Press. Her acceptance speech was delivered at the annual conference of the American Library Association in New Orleans on June 24, 2018. She is also the winner of a 2016 Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction Illustrator Honor Award for Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement (Candlewick).

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