2021 CSK Illustrator Award Acceptance by Frank Morrison

Man, it was hot that day. One of those summer days when you don’t go outside unless you can find a good spot of shade. The days when the ice-cream man doesn’t come out until the sun sets. The days when if you’re fortunate enough to be in the house, you have to sit still because it’s too hot to move or talk. The only noise was from the fans and the air conditioner that sat too far away from the living room floor that I was lying on to feel it.

So I broke the silence and went outside. That backyard heat felt different. It didn’t just wave at you, it stuck, clenched, and stung the back of my legs when I sat in the aluminum-framed chair. The woven fiber seats were worn out and left my behind almost hitting the ground. “That boy could never sit still,” said my aunt.

I got up with the chair still stuck on me and laughed with my mother, grandma, and aunt as they looked at me through the kitchen window.

I drifted over to my stepdad, James. He had told my brother and me to call him James. We liked that. When my brother and I tried to call my mother by her first name, it didn’t end well at all. On the weekends, James stayed under the hood of the car. I decided to offer my services in exchange for some of that shade they had over there. “Grab the adjustable wrench,” James yelled out to me. I complied. Back then a child couldn’t be in grown folks’ business.

As I stuck my head beneath that cool, shaded car hood, I heard the sounds coming from the top of the engine. The old grease-stained, one-speaker radio with the Memorex in the tape deck, slowly spinning, would mesmerize me. I would place my fingertips on the faceless speaker and watch my fingers vibrate, and listen.

Daydreaming and I’m thinking of you. Pink Cadillac. R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

“Young blood, you don’t know nothing about that,” my uncle would say. He would be lying in the most comfortable seat in the backyard driveway. The back seat that he lay on was salvaged from the blue ’69 Thunderbird. They had two: one was lightning silver-blue, and the other was vanilla ice-cream white. The blue one was for parts.

I’d answer, “Can you do this?” My break-dancing and pop-locking skills meant very little in this cool time zone I found myself in. See, the trees were tall and full of shade. The leaves seemed to dance and break down whatever the hot wind blew against them. By the time that piping-hot air reached us, it had been broken down into a gentle cool breeze. So when my dad and uncle stood before them and me, breaking down the moves from the Temptations to the Hustle, it looked like those trees were their background dancers. I couldn’t compete with that.

The only thing that could stop this soul train was the light taps of a piano that pierced through the summer air like a big knife cutting through a watermelon. The piano keys made me feel like I needed to find my seat before the usher pinched me for laughing and standing in the back of the church with my buddies.

There is some kind of singing and preaching going on inside that radio. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me, wow.

I couldn’t drink what was in James’s and my uncle’s brown bag that was twisted at the top. Luckily they kept a gallon of ice that had melted just enough for me to get a couple of swigs of ice-cold water so we could swig together. That made me feel like a man.

The song didn’t just make me feel like the doors of the church were open, as I looked at James and my uncle leaning against the vanilla-white T-Bird, listening. My uncle turned it up just a little bit more. I saw two men that started working for themselves when they couldn’t find work or got tired of the work they found. They had their own construction business together, making driveways and sidewalks.

James used to work at a printing press. He’d come home from back-breaking days that turned into him having to teach the new white guys how to do his jobs, to them now becoming his supervisors, managers, bosses. I’d look at my uncle’s worn-down boots and think about how we marched. Then I started missing my grandfather who had passed away. My grandfather had to run from the South because the KKK was after him. I imagine he was one of the uppity Negroes that marched home from serving in the war and had the audacity to think he was a man. I can see him marching with his chest sticking out, a proud soldier as he built his new home in New Jersey with the earnings from his own construction business. Big Ben Heavy Equipment Company, named after my brother Ben. I was a little jealous, but I was named after my grandfather.

I come from a family of entrepreneurs. I paint for them, I dance for them, I graffiti for them, I illustrate for them. I’m a husband, father, and now grandfather for them that came before me, that suffered and died so that I can be here today and truly say with amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.

Thank you, Aretha, for making our hard times, bad times, and struggles sound so good.

In the studio: Aretha painting in progress. (Photo by Frank Morrison.)

I’d like to thank the Coretta Scott King Book Awards community for blessing R-E-S-P-E-C-T with the honor. Next I’d like to say TTG. Those that follow me know that it means Thanks to God. I want to thank my beautiful, gifted wife, Connie, and my amazingly talented children for putting up with the days and weeks of me saying “I’m almost done” and “Give me ten minutes.” Thank you, poetic genius Carole Boston Weatherford, for writing such masterpieces — my bad, a masterpiece. I’d like to thank my super agents, Lori Nowicki and Claire Easton, for kicking me in the butt to stay on deadline and teaching me how to say “No” and “I’ll pass.” My spectacular editor, Reka Simonsen, for giving me the freedom to paint it the way I feel it. I’d like to finally thank Simon & Schuster for giving me the opportunity to work on projects that matter.

These projects allow me to reminisce, learn, acknowledge, build, and dance on the roots in the cool shade beneath the history of the African American in America’s family tree.

Frank Morrison is the winner of the 2021 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, written by Carole Boston Weatherford and published by Atheneum, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. His acceptance speech was delivered at the virtual American Library Association Book Award Celebration, on June 27, 2021. From the July/August 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2021.

Single copies of this special issue are available for $15.00 including postage and may be ordered from:

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Frank Morrison

Frank Morrison is the winner of the 2023 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award and received a 2023 Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Award for Picture Book for Standing in the Need of Prayer: A Modern Retelling of the Classic Spiritual, written by Carole Boston Weatherford and published by Crown. He is also the winner of the 2021 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, written by Carole Boston Weatherford and published by Atheneum. He recently illustrated Harlem at Four (Random House Studio/Random, 2023).

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