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An Interview with George and Bernette Ford

George and Bernette Ford are two icons of African American children’s literature. George is the winner of the first Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, in 1974, for Ray Charles (written by Sharon Bell Mathis) and a past president of the Council on Interracial Books for Children. He and Bernette were also active members of the organization Black Creators for Children. Bernette’s long career in children’s publishing began at Random House in the 1970s. At Grosset & Dunlap, she became the first African American vice president of a major children’s publishing house. She is the founder of the Cartwheel Books imprint at Scholastic, where she also served as a VP, and in 2003 founded Color-Bridge Books, a book packager specializing in multicultural books for children. In February 2018, Horn Book editor in chief Roger Sutton spoke with the Fords by phone about the fiftieth anniversary of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards and the history and future of Black children’s books.

George and Bernette Ford. Photo: Dianne Johnson-Feelings.

Roger Sutton: What was publishing like before the Coretta Scott King Book Awards were founded?

George Ford: It’s a lot to think about. And I have been thinking about it. It’s important to remember that the reason the Coretta Scott King Book Awards were started in the first place was because Black authors and illustrators were not being considered for prizes. The racist attitudes of the time just naturally influenced publishers. Publishers did not even think Black people did any reading, so the notion of winning prizes was not on the radar. Black artists in art schools were not encouraged to go into the children’s book field. Black writers were not encouraged. It’s hard to imagine now, but there was never any possibility that we might win a Caldecott. Let’s just say this: when Tom Feelings walked into a publisher’s office to show his portfolio, the art director said, “These are all Black subjects, Black children. We already have someone drawing Black children. Tracy Sugarman is very good at that.”

RS: And you only need one.

GF: You didn’t even need the person to be Black.

RS: Oh, this person wasn’t Black?

GF: No. White illustrator. You’re beginning to get the picture. Black was a subject to be portrayed, not a phenomenon to be reckoned with. The nature of the subject, the nature of Blackness, was not one of their considerations. At that time, when you discussed minorities, it was a sociological subject. No one was interested in what their lives were really like.

RS: Right. The assumption was that books about Black children were for a white audience.

GF: That’s right. Black children read the books, but they were not considered. The books were always intended to be for whites. Black children were seen as peripheral.

RS: What were you doing to change this?

From the first issue of the CIBC Bulletin. Image courtesy of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center.

GF: Bernette and I both belonged to an organization called Black Creators for Children. And I was in the Council on Interracial Books for Children (CIBC). It was a hugely important organization; it had a big impact. For instance, when the group conceived of a writers’ contest to bring forth Black talent, the first contest winner was Walter Dean Myers. Then Eloise Greenfield. And I don’t have to tell you what happened to them!

The Council was created in 1965. Brad Chambers joined in 1967 — he was white. He wrote an article in Publishers Weekly calling the publishing industry “a racist club” and saying it should be using Black talent. He was roundly criticized for the article. I became president of the Council in 1972 when Brad Chambers said, “Here I am, the head of an organization for integration and assimilation of Black culture into publishing, and I’m white.” He was embarrassed by it. Not many people would be, especially then. He didn’t feel or act like a savior — what he did was do missionary work among his own people. That is a big difference.

I hope I’m getting across strongly enough that before the CSK was founded it was not even conceivable for Black creators to win awards. Why would they give us a prize? We didn’t count.

Bernette Ford: In my memory, even the American Library Association did not really welcome the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Task Force in the early days. It was rather controversial, and they had to do their own thing at their own breakfast. It wasn’t until some years into the awards that the ALA officially absorbed the CSK [in 1982]. And even then, in those early years — the Coretta Scott King Book Awards did not get a lot of attention.

RS: How was the CSK established?

Glyndon Greer, circa 1980. Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives.

GF: It started in 1969 with Glyndon Greer and Mabel McKissick, two important people. My sister was a librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library, so I knew Glyndon Greer. She was fierce. For years, she complained to the American Library Association that there wasn’t enough outreach to Black talent and that we would never win any of the awards. Publisher John Carroll overheard and said to her, “If you don’t think African Americans will ever win an ALA award, why don’t you create your own?” He wasn’t kidding. He was sympathetic, and he understood: “Start your own award.” In the same way that later, in 1988, Cheryl and Wade Hudson [co-creators of Just Us Books] could not get their books published and decided to publish on their own. Glyndon Greer took the challenge seriously and started her own award.

RS: If you look at the criteria for the CSK Book Awards, it’s not just for who’s the best Black artist or writer of the year; it’s explicitly for a book that celebrates the African American community, which is something missing from the Newbery or Caldecott, which are supposed to be purely aesthetic.

GF: What you’re saying is important, because in the beginning, when Glyndon Greer conceived of the award, she didn’t have all these high-flown ideas. It was in the DNA to know why this award was needed. Greer was a good friend of Coretta Scott King and wanted to name the award after her, but Coretta Scott King was very careful about what she lent her name to. Glyndon Greer said, “You’d better…” — that’s how she talked — “You’d better give your name to this, because that’s how important it is, and you will be known for this more than anything else you may ever do.” And now it’s Coretta Scott King’s legacy.

RS: What do early CSK choices say about the zeitgeist?

GF: The very first Coretta Scott King Author Award was given in 1970. The first winner was a biography of Martin Luther King [Martin Luther King, Jr.: Man of Peace by Lillie Patterson]. The second was a biography of Langston Hughes [Black Troubadour by Charlemae Rollins]. The third was a biography, 17 Black Artists, by Elton C. Fax, who was himself a neglected artist. The fourth was Jackie Robinson’s autobiography, co-written by Alfred Duckett [I Never Had It Made]. These are all catch-up books — books about people who needed more attention but already had some attention. In 1974 Sharon Bell Mathis was recognized for our picture-book biography Ray Charles. There was no CSK Illustrator Award yet, but Sharon said, “The pictures are the best part of the book. I urge you to give George an award also.” I remember them calling me and saying, “We have decided to award your picture book, Ray Charles, the Coretta Scott King Book Award.” I was flabbergasted. But I saw immediately the importance of it; I saw what it meant. The book was part of a series that Thomas Y. Crowell was doing of contemporary heroes, not historic heroes. There was one about Cesar Chavez, one about Malcolm X. Elizabeth Riley was editor in chief at Crowell — she was a white person doing missionary work among her peers — and she created this series of biographies. The trend for celebrating modern heroes, especially Black ones, began with those biographies for young people.

RS: What do you remember about accepting the award?

GF: It was a very emotional day, a very emotional speech, and it was delivered before a huge crowd. Everyone who was anyone was in that ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel in 1974. In front of Glyndon Greer, Augusta Baker, all the bigwigs of ALA, I said: “I would rather have this than a Caldecott, because I know why I’m getting this. The Caldecott, you’re getting it because you’re artistically talented, or because they’re ready for you, or whatever, but here I know that I’m creating something that is of inspirational value to Black children, and that’s why I appreciate this award.” They got it. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

It was the first time the award went to a picture book, but that was incidental. Giving the award — an award honoring a book’s inspirational quality — to a book about a contemporary figure was their way of moving the inspiration along from the past to the present. It just happened to be a picture book.

RS: And it was almost another thirty years before a Black person won the Caldecott Medal.

GF: No, it was 1976, when Leo and Diane Dillon won it.

RS: Oh, I was thinking an African American alone.

BF: Neither one did the work alone. They’re an interracial couple. We think of them as “a Black artist.”

Diane and Leo Dillon. Photo courtesy of Zetta Elliott. From Zettaelliott.com

GF: In 2010, someone at the CSK Breakfast said, “For the first time a Black person [Jerry Pinkney] has won the Caldecott Medal,” and I responded, “This is a travesty. Are you going to penalize Leo Dillon because he’s married to a white woman?” They had to calm me down. Arnold Adoff thought I was going to blow a gasket. I didn’t want to be the one to tell Leo that he didn’t win the Caldecott in 1976. And he won it twice.

RS: Twice in a row, right?

GF: Yes. The two of them created art that was Black art. She happened to be white. Leo and Diane is Leo and Diane. Together they did utterly magical work.

RS: Bernette, you began working in children’s book publishing around the time of the CSK’s founding, is that right?

BF: Yes, 1972.

RS: Andrea Davis Pinkney wrote an article for us about twenty years ago [“Awards That Stand on Solid Ground,” September/October 2001] in which she said she could count the number of African American children’s book editors on “fewer than my ten black fingers.”

GF: In 1969 there was a single Black editor in children’s book publishing. Her name was Barbara Walker, and she worked for Franklin Watts. There were no Black editors, period, in 1965, when the Council on Interracial Books for Children was formed. I remember when — 1970, I think — one young man was hired by Morrow. The next year there were about three or four. By that time there was such a hue and cry from people besides librarians — Black parents were beginning to demand that there be more books for their children. The only book that anyone remembered was Two Is a Team, illustrated by Black artist Ernie Crichlow in 1945. It was really a big issue. Today you feel as if somehow we’ve forgotten just how extreme the situation was.

RS: What was that like for you, Bernette?

BF: It wasn’t easy. Right out of college, I was hired at Random House as an editorial-assistant-in-training under their efforts to bring more multicultural people into the business. But I’m very fair-skinned, Roger. My father was Jewish. My mother was Black. And I think they forgot after the first six months that I was Black. I didn’t forget it, because I exist as a Black woman. The first two years, I was just a lowly editorial assistant, reading the slush pile. But I was paying attention to what was going on. In 1974 or 1975 I met Valerie Flournoy, who was an editorial assistant at Dial. She was working with Phyllis Fogelman on some books with Tom Feelings. Tom had the idea that there were so few of us in the business, we should try to get together. He talked to everybody he knew. We got together — I think it was in someone’s apartment, probably, in New York. There were maybe eight or ten people in the room. Pat Cummings was there. Toni Morrison was at Random House — she started in the school division, but eventually moved into trade books and began publishing luminary African American authors.

RS: How did you negotiate the whiteness of children’s publishing in those early years?

BF: If I brought in something that was about African Americans or Black culture I would hear, “Oh, we already have that.” If there was one book on the list or on the backlist, “Well, we don’t really need another one, because Black people don’t read.” I said, “I’m here, and I read.” That was really hard. I remember later in my career — I’d thought we were done with this — I was an editorial director at Grosset & Dunlap, which had been purchased by Putnam. I was in mass market publishing — I always worked on books that sold a lot of copies. I was working on a book about horses that included photographs, and the most beautiful photograph, which I chose for the cover, was a picture of a Black girl who was a horsewoman. In one of the pre-publication meetings, somebody said, “Why do you have a Black girl on the cover? That’s going to keep the book from selling.” That’s the way it was for me all the time in the early years. I satisfied myself by giving as much work as I could — even if it was about bunnies and bears and chicks and ducks — to African American authors and illustrators. And there were certainly plenty of them who didn’t mind getting an advance and a royalty by writing about ducks.

When I left corporate publishing to start my own book packaging business, Color-Bridge Books, the first call I got was from the Scholastic school division. They wanted me to do a new series of easy readers — twenty-four books, all written and illustrated by people of color. That was my dream. The first two years of Color-Bridge Books were spent working from home and doing these twenty-four books. Probably working eighteen hours a day, and I loved every minute of it. I got to work with a lot of great people. I helped a lot of good people get started in their careers.

RS: How would each of you assess progress, since the establishment of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards to today, when it comes to African American people in children’s books?

BF: I’m going to speak first, because George can go on. I will say that there has been a great expansion of publishing books for African American children, about African American children. Also by African American authors and illustrators. I think the Coretta Scott King Book Awards influenced that a great deal, because publishers began to see that winning the CSK would bring those titles to people’s attention. Libraries started to buy them regularly, the way they do for the Caldecott and Newbery. I think, too, that the CSK really influenced the fact that there is now much more attention paid to Latino children’s literature and American Indian children’s literature and all kinds of multicultural subjects. I watched the ALA Youth Media Awards announcement online last Monday morning, and there are a lot of awards, and I do think that awards help. I have heard people say lately, “Maybe we don’t need the CSK anymore,” and I say: Not so. We have to have this award to bring attention to the creators of these works. And these works are not just for African American children. White children need to see people of color in the books they read. Things in this country are never going to change until white children begin to see that Black children and Brown children are just as important as they are. They’re important enough to be shown in a book.

GF: The public in general needs to know that when you are doing something that expresses your ethnic values, it means something to you. Society at large needs to know that every Black artist regards Black pride as their greatest motivation, period. I find it true in my life today, and I’m ninety-two years old. We have progress today, but what we don’t have is enough vociferous white people who are able to see whatever it is, who cannot stand the prejudice, and who make their voices known. We had that with Elizabeth Riley at Crowell, Velma Varner at Viking, Brad Chambers at the Council.

BF: I do think there are people now who are bucking the tide. And I do think that there are a lot more books published by and about African Americans.

GF: I don’t look at the amount. I look at the opposition. Who is opposing change; is the opposition growing? In terms of African American creators, of course the talent is being recognized, because the talent is good.

BF: And there’s a lot of it.

GF: Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying there’s not a lot. I’m saying that you can almost have a tidal wave, a Black president for example — but until people are willing to work continually at wiping out prejudice, you will not have permanent change. That’s all I’m saying.

From the May/June 2019 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: CSK Book Awards at 50. Find more information about ordering copies of the special issue.

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.

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