A Conversation with Kadir Nelson

Kadir Nelson is the author-illustrator of The Undefeated, winner of the 2020 Randolph Caldecott Medal.

Julie Danielson interviewed him by email for Calling Caldecott.


Calling Caldecott: What have been some of the highlights of your Caldecott year? 

Kadir Nelson: I’ve been blessed with a wonderful year thus far. The news of winning the Caldecott and Coretta Scott King Awards was outstanding and completely surprising in itself, but as the year continued to evolve it got even more interesting.

My work was featured on several magazine covers, such as National Geographic, the Horn Book, and the New YorkerI was also recognized by the Art Director’s Club and Working Not Working with Gold and Silver Cube Awards, as well being recognized as Freelancer of the Year.





Around the same time, I was poised to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Negro League Baseball and launch a national tour and exhibition of original paintings for The Undefeated. But then COVID-19 changed everything. 

Along with just about everything else, the ALA Annual conference was cancelled, and we all were forced to celebrate this year’s books and award winners via virtual ceremonies. Given the cancellation of the award ceremony, my wife and agent arranged for friends, fans, and professional acquaintances to send videos expressing their well-wishes and congratulatory messages. They were all quite sweet. My wife also produced two stellar award acceptance videos for the virtual ceremony.

While quarantined at home, I was inspired to create original paintings that documented what was going on in the world, namely social injustices and unrest due to the very public killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others. The works that resulted were Say Their Names for the New Yorker and American Uprising for Rolling Stone, both widely circulated.





Although it’s been a rollercoaster of a year, 2020 has also been a very memorable year! 

Calling Caldecott: We know that normally Caldecott Medalists get more invitations to speak at school, festivals, etc. But given the pandemic, have you been doing more virtual talks?

Kadir Nelson: I haven’t actually done any virtual talks, but as the world opens up again, I hope I’ll be able to do more talks in person.

Calling Caldecott: What is a way that winning the Caldecott Award changed you or your work or the way you approach work that might surprise people?

Kadir Nelson: My work, process, and approach has not changed one bit since winning the Caldecott. I approach each work the same way: make sure the story is sound, connect with the story or subject, do plenty of research, sketch, and paint. I put my heart into each and every painting.

Calling Caldecott: Do you think the (most recent) Black Lives Matter protests across the country and the national conversation about racial injustices in America will change children’s book publishing for the better?

Kadir Nelson: I think the Black Lives Matter movement will inspire more books about empathy, truth, history, and pride. All these books are necessary components to continuing the conversation about social justice and motivating young people to take action.

Calling Caldecott: Is there anything post-Caldecott you would like to tell pre-Caldecott you?

Kadir Nelson: I’d probably tell my younger self to "keep doing what you’re doing." Do your best work. The reward is in the work. Everything else is gravy.

[Photo of Kadir Nelson taken by David Walter Banks.]

Julie Danielson
Julie Danielson
Julie Danielson writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She also writes for Kirkus Reviews and BookPage and is a lecturer for the School of Information Sciences graduate program at the University of Tennessee. Her book Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, written with Betsy Bird and Peter D. Sieruta, was published in 2014.

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