What the CSK Means to Me

I’m not a children’s librarian. I don’t even work in the children’s book field. But as an African American, an academic librarian, and a library and information science (LIS) administrator/educator, I have always known the importance of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards.

I began my professional career just about the time the award was created. During my LIS education, one of the courses that I took was in children’s literature. It was not that I was thinking about becoming a children’s librarian, more that I wanted to find out what I had missed in my own upbringing.

My parents were raised in the South. They attended segregated schools, and if there had been public libraries in their neighborhoods, those facilities would have been segregated; only for “colored” people. My parents moved to the West Coast before I was born, and during my childhood, my mother made sure that I had a monthly subscription (it may have been through the Junior Literary Guild) to children’s books. I do not remember any of the children in those stories being children of color. Although I had a library card of my own, I never went to the public library as a child, and it may have been due to the experiences that had sharpened my parents’ perceptions: libraries were not for us.

I was thirteen years old when I read my first book about a Black young person — Black Boy by Richard Wright — and it made me want to read more books about children like me, and to learn more about my own roots and culture. It is said that each person can become a library — and I was building my own within me.

Once I made the great discovery that I could actually become a librarian and started library school, I wanted to explore as much as I could. While taking a course on children’s literature, I saw my first book featuring faces of color, Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day. Then came the works of Virginia Hamilton. She was the first African American author my class was exposed to, and I soon learned that she was to be lauded by a rather new (at the time) award: the Coretta Scott King Book Award.

While I continued in my other library and information science classes, became an ethnic studies and education librarian in one of my first positions as an academic librarian, and eventually began working at a predominantly white institution (where I was the person called upon by my colleagues to answer queries related to African Americans), I kept increasing my depth of learning on African American topics for youngsters. I paid particular attention to the CSK Awards, honoring the latest-and-greatest books by Black creators.

* * *

As the focus on diversity has come to the forefront of the library and information science profession in the past twenty to thirty years, the Coretta Scott King Book Awards have steadfastly continued to grow in prominence. With the announcements of the new winners at each ALA Midwinter, when the Caldecott and Newbery award–winning books are rushed into view, the CSK books are now, too — in public libraries, in elementary and secondary institutions, and in university libraries. In addition, I’ve recently begun to see CSK winners used to edify not just young people but also adults about difficult or controversial topics such as race, gender, and sexuality. Laudably, I have seen CSK-winning books sold in museums and used by anti-bias organizations in the Greater Boston area.

In 2010, I became a member of the ALA Legacy Society, a group that “recognizes individuals who provide support for the Association through planned gifts.” One of the benefits was a free ticket to a major event during ALA’s Annual Conference. When I first became a member, the options were few: the ALA President’s inauguration; the Newbery-Caldecott-Wilder (now Legacy) Banquet. The CSK Breakfast was not offered. I decided to request a ticket to the breakfast anyway. (Eventually, this option was added.) Over the years, I began to notice that there were other members of the Legacy Society in attendance at the breakfast, and yet others who were neither children’s librarians nor worked in children’s publishing but who understood the value of the CSK Awards in their mission to support Black book creators, Black families, and the Black community.

The Coretta Scott King Book Awards Breakfast is an event not to be missed! It offers a full presentation of the awards and their recipients. These recipients can range from seasoned children’s book creators to new authors receiving their first notable exposure on their way to successful careers. The breakfast has become my most prized event to attend at ALA Annual. I always find the recipients’ remarks moving, personally enriching, and encouraging; and sometimes their words bring me to tears. One of my favorite things is seeing local youngsters dressed in their Sunday best, who will each receive a bag full of Coretta Scott King Book Award–winning titles. This event never gets old.

For me, the beauty of the CSK Breakfast is the inclusiveness and its broad reach to all types of librarians (school, public, and academic librarians); the rich diversity of age, with children and young adults, parents and grandparents all in attendance; and the array of others devoted to the written word and to African American children’s literature who come together to celebrate notable authors and illustrators of color. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards, and what better place to celebrate than in Washington, DC, home to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and with the first African American Librarian of Congress, Dr. Carla Hayden (herself a former children’s librarian), who has described the Library of Congress as the “People’s Library”? This breakfast should be an extra-special event, enjoyed by those in attendance (and it is hoped that many past winners will attend this year) and, by extension, all book lovers, for what the award represents and what it celebrates: an award that began in order to celebrate the best of Black children’s literature now contributes to the entire body of all children’s literature and all of African American literature.

Happy Birthday, Coretta Scott King Book Awards! Keep going strong!


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.

Em Claire Knowles

Dr. Em Claire Knowles is the assistant dean for academic support, College of Organizational, Computational, and Information Sciences, at Simmons University in Boston.

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