Reviews of the 2020 CSK Illustrator Award winners


The Undefeated
by Kwame Alexander; illus. by Kadir Nelson
Primary, Intermediate, Middle School     Versify/Houghton     40 pp.    g
4/19     978-1-328-78096-6     $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-358-05761-1     $12.99

Alexander and Nelson honor the achievements, courage, and perseverance of ordinary black people as well as prominent black artists, athletes, and activists. The free-verse poem begins: “This is for the unforgettable. / The swift and sweet ones / who hurdled history / and opened a world / of possible. The ones who survived / America / by any means necessary. / And the ones who didn’t.” While some events (e.g., the transatlantic slave trade) are “unspeakable,” Alexander’s words convey a sense of pride at what his “unflappable” and “unafraid” ancestors have accomplished and continue to do despite racial oppression. He incorporates the words of black icons (such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) and movements (Black Lives Matter), creating a through-line from past to present. Nelson’s paintings effectively use white space to extend the text and amplify its meaning. For example, the image of enslaved people on ships shows the figures in cramped quarters — a double-page spread compact with black bodies; while what accompanies the text for “the ones who didn’t [survive]” is simply two blank pages. The realistic oil paintings convey racial oppression in the past (black-and-white images of the four little girls who were killed during the church bombing in Birmingham) and present (full-color paintings of African Americans killed recently by police) — demonstrating that racism remains deeply entrenched in America today. Nelson depicts numerous famous people whom adults and children may recognize, from Billie Holiday to LeBron James, as well as others (Sarah Vaughan, Romare Bearden) whose faces and stories they may not know. The book concludes with an afterword by Alexander and an annotated list of historical figures and events featured in The Undefeated. JONDA C. MCNAIR

From the March/April 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. More by and about Kadir Nelson.


Honor Books

Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace
by Ashley Bryan; illus. by the author
Middle School, High School    Dlouhy/Atheneum    107 pp.
10/19    978-1-5344-0490-8    $21.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5344-0491-5    $10.99

Ashley Bryan was a nineteen-year-old art student when he was drafted into a segregated army unit of stevedores, where he used every opportunity to sketch and record his experiences, from training to D-Day and its aftermath. Bryan’s present-day text serves as a kind of voice-over to the scores of images included: original paintings and drawings, letters, journal passages, photos, maps, and army posters. This wealth of overlapping visual elements could have resulted in a cluttered presentation; instead, the dynamic book design and lavish production choices make this a fully immersive experience. The ultimate gift book for Ashley Bryan fans. (Some of this material can be seen in “Ashley Bryan’s WWII Drawings” by H. Nichols B. Clark in our May/June 2018 issue.) LOLLY ROBINSON

From the November/December 2019 Horn Book Magazine. More by and about Ashley Bryan.


by Lupita Nyong’o; illus. by Vashti Harrison
Preschool, Primary    Simon    48 pp.
10/19    978-1-5344-2536-1    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5344-2537-8    $10.99

In a story partially based on the author’s childhood in Kenya, “Sulwe was born the color of midnight.” So begins a journey to self-love for a little girl whose name means “star” and who, because of her dark skin, does not feel beautiful. At school she is treated differently from her lighter-complexioned sister, who is given nicknames such as “Sunshine,” “Ray,” and “Beauty,” while Sulwe is hurtfully called “Blackie,” “Darky,” and “Night.” Desperately attempting to make herself lighter, the despondent girl tries to remove “a layer or two of her darkness” with an eraser, eats only light-colored foods, and offers fervent prayers to God, but nothing works. Then one night a visit from a shooting star changes everything. Swooped up into the cosmos, Sulwe learns about two sisters, Night and Day, from “the beginning of Time.” Through the allegorical tale the star tells her (unfolding over much of the book), Sulwe comes to understand that her ebony skin is beautiful and that darkness and light are equally necessary to the universe. Glowing illustrations capture the beauty of both light and dark; Nyong’o’s text is clear and engaging. An author’s note expresses the hope that “more and more children begin their lives knowing that they are beautiful.” MONIQUE HARRIS

From the January/February 2020 Horn Book Magazine.


The Bell Rang
by James E. Ransome; illus. by the author
Primary, Intermediate     Dlouhy/Atheneum     40 pp.
1/19     978-1-4424-2113-4     $17.99
e-book ed. 978-1-4814-7671-3     $10.99

“The bell rings, / and no sun in the sky. / Daddy gathers wood. / Mama cooks. / We eat.” Ransome paints a heartbreaking picture of an enslaved family existing within the confines of an inhumane institution. Using deceptively simple, repetitive verse, a young enslaved girl narrates her family’s daily activities over the course of a week, beginning on Monday. Every morning, the bell rings, signaling the start of a long, arduous day of labor for her mother, father, and older brother, Ben. Every day, the bell rings; every day, Ben tells her goodbye. Until Thursday — when her family discovers that Ben has run away, leaving them simultaneously grieving Ben’s absence, praying for his safety, and hoping for his freedom. When the two boys Ben fled with are apprehended, returned to the plantation, and whipped, the question of what happened to Ben hangs in the balance. The author succeeds in communicating the myriad and complex emotions of individuals choosing to flee chattel enslavement and the aftermath for those left behind. Through lush watercolors that expertly frame and highlight the characters, the reader is drawn equally into scenes of tenderness, joy, terror, and despair. Without sugarcoating or minimizing the complexity of human emotion, the illustrations communicate what words cannot: the tender love of family, the cruelty of enslavement, the emptiness left after the loss of a loved one, and the ever-present dilemma of self-emancipation for those who lived in bondage. The book’s open-ended final page will leave the reader with more questions than answers. MONIQUE HARRIS

From the January/February 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


Read reviews of the 2020 CSK Author Awards here. For more, click on the tag ALA Midwinter 2020.

Horn Book
Horn Book

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.


Community matters. Stay up to date on breaking news, trends, reviews, and more.

Get access to reviews of books, ebooks, and more


We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing