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Profile of 2018 CSK Illustrator Award winner Ekua Holmes

Ekua Holmes. Photo: Clennon King.

In late 2011, I acquired a collection of poems from Carole Boston Weatherford about civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer. I was overwhelmed by Hamer’s courage and persistence, and I loved Weatherford’s forthright, muscular poems about her. After a round of editing, I began the customary conversation with the art department about what the eventual book would look like. We settled on a large trim size — bold, like Fannie Lou — and started a list of illustrators to consider.

Around that time, Anne Armstrong Moore of our art department shared a postcard from an exhibition at J. P. Licks, a Boston ice-cream shop that shows local artists’ work. Anne was planning on talking to the artist, a certain Ekua Holmes, later that week about possibly doing a book with us, and might she share Carole’s manuscript if we all agreed? We did, and Carole did, too.

Ekua was intrigued — the subject is dear to her heart, and she took it as a good omen that the first poem, “Sunflower County, Mississippi,” referenced her favorite flower — but she seemed also a little skeptical. She came into the office to meet us and discuss how it all might work, and, at the end, said quizzically, “Are you sure you want me to do this?”

Ekua had many questions about the illustration process, and with each my excitement about the book grew — here was another bold woman, signing on to risk something new and giving it her full creative attention. When, in August 2013, Ekua brought in the first two sample color pieces for the book, art director Amy Berniker and I were speechless — such sheer power emanated from the richly layered surfaces. Ekua might have been worried by our silence until she noticed the tears in my eyes. Sometimes, something is so beautiful, so true, that we have no words ready. I was pretty sure at that moment that Ekua was destined for greatness in our field — and looking back through my emails, I see I started obsessively sharing art samples with staff in the marketing and publicity department from then on.

Fast-forward two years, and after excellent reviews and positive media coverage, Voice of Freedom won three awards at ALA 2016 — a John Steptoe New Talent Illustrator Award, a Sibert Honor, and a Caldecott Honor. Ekua was amazed and justly proud of such an incredible achievement.

Before that happened, though, Candlewick Editorial Director Mary Lee Donovan had already offered Ekua a second contract — to illustrate another collection of poetry, Out of Wonder, a tribute to twenty famous poets by Kwame Alexander with Chris Colderley and Marjory Wentworth. A collection that spans continents and centuries is a visual challenge; Ekua would need to evoke the different worlds of Bashō, Rumi, Mary Oliver, and others and yet somehow unify them within the covers of a single book.

A strong color sense and the ability to sympathetically portray the human form through shape are two of the many tools that Ekua brought to this challenge. A poem celebrating Robert Frost is characterized by soft blues and grays. There is snow, a field, stone walls: winter in New England. The poet is depicted in a brown overcoat, walking away from the reader. There is something unknowable and melancholy about him. Contrast that image with the rich reds and oranges of the piece celebrating Gwendolyn Brooks. Gwendolyn is bare-armed, at a piano. Her fingers are long and her nails painted; you can hear the notes those hands just played, and they are soulful. They linger in the air. With a large red flower in her hair, Gwendolyn is strong, triumphant, and gorgeous.

Whenever finished artwork arrives at Candlewick, the designer lays it out on a large table in the art department and invites everyone in the company to come and see it. I wish we had a videotape of the hundred or so staffers gathered around to look at Out of Wonder.

And we all felt so proud when, to our utter delight, Out of Wonder was awarded the 2018 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, confirming Ekua’s place in children’s literature history.

As editors and designers, we so often operate on instinct. Nobody ever said aloud in those early meetings: collage is the perfect match for poetry. But the layering of paper, fabric, color, and texture reflects the layering of words, lines, phrases, and stanzas. Each medium informs the reader, but at an angle. And more than mere information is conveyed — emotions, moods, a sense of time and place are all there, too. When poem and illustration are brought together on the page, there’s further alchemy.

And there’s alchemy in the collaborative process that happens while making a book. The author, the editor, the illustrator, and the designer function as best they can as four parts of the same brain, a brain that is writing and illustrating, editing and designing this one picture book.

The personal connections also intensify. One night, after a book event in southern Massachusetts, I drove Ekua home to Roxbury. We talked for the hour-long journey about our families, how we each approached a project, how the evening’s discussion had gone — and how we both hated driving at night. (This discussion was punctuated by Ekua frequently grabbing the passenger door handle and gasping. Apparently that second career at Uber is not to be mine.)

If we at Candlewick gave Ekua any true assistance, though, it was to demonstrate our full confidence in her so that she might trust her own vision. In her studio are boxes and boxes of paper organized by color — tissue, card, magazines, musical scores, photographs, chunky handmade paper, dust jackets, record sleeves, bookmarks. She takes these humble pieces of everyday life, assembles, disassembles, and reassembles them until the physical artwork satisfies the image in her head.

Creating soaring images from humble materials is the recipe for Ekua’s art and, I think she would say, for her life. Ekua is down-to-earth, unfailingly modest, and a true collaborator. We are now working on a third book, this time a love song to children, The Stuff of Stars. The book opens with a celestial nothingness. How do you depict nothingness? Ekua would not sign her contract until she was sure she could do it. But I was sure that she could.

And she did.

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.

Liz Bicknell About Liz Bicknell

Liz Bicknell is executive vice president, executive editorial director, and associate publisher of Candlewick Press.

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