2022 CSK Illustrator Award Acceptance on behalf of the late Floyd Cooper

Floyd Cooper's family. From left: his son Dayton, wife Velma, and son Kai. Photo courtesy of Dayton Cooper.


I’d like to start off by thanking the 2022 Coretta Scott King Book Awards Jury, and of course ALA, for making this possible. But more importantly, I’d like to thank my mother, Velma Cooper, and my father, Floyd Cooper, for bringing me into this world. This world that we should all be thankful for, being blessed with each new day that we get to wake up to.

As Floyd’s firstborn son, I had no hesitation about accepting this beloved award on my father’s behalf. From my teenage years onward, I have always been about two shoe sizes up from him. But now, as I look back on his legacy and the impact he made on the people of this world, I am realizing that I will forever find it challenging to come even remotely close to filling his shoes. I unfortunately did not inherit my father’s innate ability to process literature, nor did I receive any natural talents in illustration. (If anyone needs proof of this, I’ve got it!) My endeavors are aligned with the other side of the brain: consuming music, analyzing information technology, and navigating entrepreneurial business. I haven’t had to write something this extensive since my English final in college. That was in 2009. Sitting down to write this speech isn’t going to be much of a walk in the park. “Two thousand words” is what Lindsay Matvick from Lerner Publishing Group told me. “Roughly two thousand words.” Here we go. Hopefully no one’s counting.

Excited, overjoyed, honored. These are some of the words that come to mind to describe the emotions my family and I experienced the day we got “the call” from the wonderful Coretta Scott King Book Awards Jury. We knew that if there was any book that had a great shot at taking home the win, it would be Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre. Producing a great picture book requires a close connection between the author’s words and the illustrator’s artwork. I could never claim one piece of my dad’s catalog of work as my favorite, but the illustrations of Greenwood that he created for Unspeakable really strike your soul — in terms of both the magnitude of those events and how they were swept under the rug for so long. You couldn’t have picked a better pairing than Carole Boston Weatherford and Floyd Cooper to collaborate on such a powerful story. Each was determined to do justice to the story of this tragedy. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In this case, it may be the opposite. From this day on, the word unspeakable should be worth a thousand pictures. All of which we should use to ensure we never forget this slice of our history.

Our family got “the call” in advance, informing us that Unspeakable had won the CSK Illustrator Award. Ideally, it would have been my dad who was on the other end of that phone call, on his toes, trembling with anticipation, and jumping for joy at the news of his long-awaited and well-deserved recognition. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Our celebration as his win was announced during the Youth Media Awards was quickly followed by tears, frustration, and gazes up to the heavens above.

The year 2021 had been excruciating. Sometimes you get a phone call with news you wish had never come. I got such a call one evening in January of 2021 while at the grocery store. It was my dad on the line, breaking the news about his cancer. Stage 4. As shocking as it was, I am proud to say that my dad had it all figured out by the time he had to sit us down and talk about his diagnosis. He had a plan. He was in more than high spirits, and he continued to work and illustrate. He was fearless about what was headed his way. His plan was to fight by any means necessary until the very end, despite the long odds of success. After months of surgeries, various cancer therapies, and a relentless will to continue, that higher power that we all describe in different ways decided that his time here had come to an end.

My dad left us with a legacy of more than one hundred books, created over the course of thirty-three years. It’s still astounding, to this day, when I write it. The magnitude of his achievements and his impact on our future generations! I still remember all the talks we had about book awards when I was young. At the time I was around six or seven years old and couldn’t even pronounce Caldecott. I didn’t have any idea what nation Coretta Scott was the King of. But not to worry, my silly, childlike thoughts were met swiftly with an entire history lesson from my father on the importance of remembering Black history and everyone who played a part in it. Floyd was the strongest supporter of equality, and he was proud of it. He put so much of his time and effort into working on projects that highlighted these themes. As he said in an interview with Betsy Bird:

Eventually, truth will always out…With such a change comes resistance to that change, an unwillingness to accept the change, to accept the truth. That can lead to uncomfortable times. But there is a ­better day on the other side of change. After the wounds have healed, a much better day awaits! Our young will live in better times together in acceptance of the way things really are if we give them the truth.

The story of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre is almost unbelievable in this day and age. However, that does not make it any less important; it’s vital that we remember just how dark our history and human nature can be. Carole Boston Weatherford did an outstanding job of piecing together the timeline of events that led up to that dreadful day. She created a fluid path for Floyd to express his talents and build those powerful scenes. And although the creation of Unspeakable started in 2018, my father’s connection to the story goes back to his childhood. He was born and initially raised in Tulsa, ­Oklahoma. As a child, he would often visit his grandpa in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Although many people were reluctant to speak about those tragic events in Greenwood, one night Floyd’s grandpa decided to share the story with my dad and his siblings. Everything my dad knew about the tragedy came from his grandpa and his grandpa alone. Those events in Tulsa’s history were completely redacted during the entirety of his schooling!

Floyd had many goals he was reaching for before his passing. He wanted to illustrate a building-sized mural in his home city of Tulsa. He was booked to create the mural at some point in 2020, but it was postponed due to the pandemic. He also aspired to become an art professor and teach his very first course. He was going to be a visiting artist at the University of Hartford in ­Connecticut and was scheduled to teach his first semester in 2020. But again, that was postponed due to the pandemic.

He worked so diligently for so long. While many of his great works were recognized with awards, my dad dreamed of the day he would win either the Caldecott or the Coretta Scott King Award. Lo and behold, for one of the very last books he was able to illustrate, he ends up taking home a Caldecott Honor, a Sibert Honor, and the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award! It fills my heart with joy to realize that because of these awards, one of my dad’s final publications will truly be cherished.

Bittersweet is the word that comes to mind to describe our feelings about this. Although he would have loved to be here to accept this award, and would have given a much better speech than I could, I know he’s up there looking down on all of us and just smiling. We love you, Dad, to the moon and back!

Thank you to everyone I could not name who was involved in the creation of this wonderful book. May we continue to bring history’s dark truths to light. Thank you.

Floyd Cooper is the winner of the 2022 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre, written by Carole Boston Weatherford and published by Carolrhoda, an imprint of Lerner. Floyd's son Dayton Cooper accepted Floyd's award on the late illustrator's behalf at the annual conference of the American Library Association in Washington, DC, on June 26, 2022. From the July/August 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2022.

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

Kristy South
Administrative Coordinator, The Horn Book
Phone 888-282-5852 | Fax 614-733-7269

Dayton Cooper

Dayton Cooper is the son of the late Floyd Cooper, winner of the 2022 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre, written by Carole Boston Weatherford and published by Carolrhoda Books, an imprint of Lerner Publishing Group.

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