Profile of 2020 Coretta Scott King Book Award Illustrator and Caldecott Medal winner Kadir Nelson

Kadir Nelson is the winner of the 2020 Caldecott Medal and the 2020 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for The Undefeated, written by Kwame Alexander, who also won a Newbery Honor for the book’s text. Here, Alexander pays tribute to his creative collaborator.

 

I gave my father, a children’s literature scholar, the Newbery Honor plaque for The Undefeated…he hung it on his living room wall, and gives everyone who visits a lecture on the book and the history of the award…He is the smartest man I know…personally…When he talks, you listen…and always learn…I find him sometimes enigmatic…His words, artfully measured…each sentence lingering on the edge of a cliff…and you just hang on…ready to soar…waiting to hear…what he has to say…which is always interesting and enlightening

The second smartest man I know is Kadir Nelson…his words, too, are measured…the first time I heard him speak was in the desert…at a conference of booksellers and other bookish professionals…I thought him shy…reticent, even…during the course of his hour-long conversation he maybe uttered a thousand words…less than one word every four seconds…which is not a lot…but I, like every other attendee, hung on…waiting to hear…what he had to say…which was always interesting and enlightening

On the flip side…Kadir can’t stop talking…on canvas…each stroke, a thousand words…each painting, a scopious soliloquy full of color and culture…The first time I was captivated by his work was in He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands…the second time, Just the Two of Us by Will Smith…the third, in Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford…the images in these books centering Black children and families and history were familial and ebullient…there was nothing hesitant about his art…nothing shy…it boldly dove off the edge of the cliff and soared

I started writing The Undefeated in 2008…I finished it in 2016…Eight years to get it right…three hundred words…that’s less than one word every four days…I am my father’s child…So, when Margaret Raymo decided this measured poem should be a children’s book, we both knew who had to illustrate it…By this time, Kadir Nelson was a household name…among child and adult readers of Black history…among children’s literature fans and professionals…among librarians…among portrait art aficionados…among postal stamp collectors…among The New Yorker subscribers…among Black people…among lovers of Black people…so he was busy…which meant it was highly unlikely he would have the time to take on another project…especially since he’d recently decided to focus on illustrating his own work

There is an African proverb that says No matter how full the river, it still wants to grow…When I got the call that Kadir wanted to illustrate The Undefeated I felt like Serena Williams…on the biggest stage…Wimbledon…and my partner, Venus, was about to serve for match point…When I commented that one of his early sketches for my manuscript needed to be “fixed” and he sent back an unabashed note that simply read Tell Kwame I didn’t give him any notes on his poem, I realized that he was, in fact, the Serena, on this doubles team…and that he was right

These days, Kadir and I talk a lot…we reminisce over our entente…he lets me peek at his works-in-progress…we talk about the Caldecott…and the Newbery…and the Coretta Scott King Award…and Versify…and our hopes and dreams for America…and our undying commitment to the children…and to Black history…and our families…and the Lakers…and in between the remembrances…and the laughter…and the writing…and the painting…there is always talk of the next river…of another book together…which I would happily dive into…again…and again…and again…which my father says would be a very smart thing to do…I agree.


(Photo: MXBloomFilms.)

From the September/October 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Kwame Alexander

Kwame Alexander is the Innovator in Residence at the American School of London and the founding editor of Versify, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which published The Undefeated. He won the Newbery Medal for The Crossover (Houghton).

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