2024 CSK Illustrator Award Acceptance by Dare Coulter

I just want to start by saying the real award for me is to be honored by all of you. To be in a room full of people who have fought the fight and have done the work that ­embodies what the Coretta Scott King Book Awards represent is humbling. I’m grateful for every closed door that might have led me anywhere but right here. To this moment.

I’d like to acknowledge the collective hundreds of years of work from all of you; the shared history of intentional change is absolutely mind-blowing. The responsibility of disseminating to the world the knowledge, insight, and wisdom that will touch people who don’t even exist yet is a torch that I’m so proud to carry. And I’ll tell y’all, that’s daunting! It is my fervent ambition that this young woman standing in front of y’all today will be dedicated to telling stories that will do justice to our forebears, spread joy to new generations, and be worthy of your praise. Today’s CSK acknowledgment is much more than a sticker on a book; it’s a lifetime commitment and obligation; it’s a North Star.

I am proud that I get to stand on the shoulders of y’all who have come before me, that I am standing on the platform that y’all have built. I am so humbled and grateful and thankful to be here.

We are in control of the work we give to the world. The authors, illustrators, and educators who are in my ancestral lineage of this award have traversed the diaspora of our joy and pain in one way or another. Sometimes simultaneously. This is the calling of the work that we do. Because books matter. Black books matter. Books that enable us to see ourselves and reaffirm our humanity matter. These stories serve to reflect the truths we know to be self-evident, that Black people are out here living, ­laughing, and loving, and that our experiences are to be celebrated.

Coulter in front of her "two-hundred-foot mural honoring Black cowboys (including her grandfather)" in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Photo: Shawma Williams and Pegg Brutcher for Kotis Street Art.

In our books we need to see our Howard and our hood, our hype, and our hallelujah. It’s important to control the narrative that we were written into and to declare that we survived while acknowledging that we were hurt. Seeing bans thrust onto books that highlight our stories, especially the joyful ones, never stops stinging, but we’ve gotta keep fighting that fight; our children deserve that representation. They deserve to be blessed by beautiful Black books, like those ­celebrated here today.

When I received this manuscript, I was stunned by its brilliance. I needed to figure out how to tell a story about the ever-present, ever-lurking reality that is oppression as the common Black experience. I had a single gripe with the text: I thought it was odd that the teacher would be so upset that she had to tell the story of slavery to the students. I talked with Rubin Pfeffer, my agent, about it, and he said to sit with it and move forward. A few weeks later I started having nightmares from being immersed in this imagery and subject matter. I called Rubin to talk through it, and he said, “You’ve now become the teacher from the manuscript.”

When I was a kid, slavery was a part of the curriculum in school, so it wasn’t anything conceptually new. That being the case, why was it haunting me now? In trying to figure out how to make art that appropriately summarizes the weight of this thing that’s always there, I finally understood that the difficulty is that I — we — had become numb to the scale of the travesty of slavery, and that at some point we had boiled it down to numbers and factoids because that way it didn’t hurt so much.

I was so upset to realize that we still have to tell this story, and we have to reiterate that masters and oppressors could never have been an enslaved person’s friend; that a day off in a stolen life is not a gift; that not beating a person while still snuffing out their personhood, their chances to live and love and dream and rest, all for your own financial gain, is not a kindness. These thefts of personhood and possibility didn’t happen in a vacuum, and the same people who perpetrated those crimes raised people that wrote the rules for today’s society, and those people raised people who continue to enforce those same ideologies. The theft continues.

I still think of the moment stolen from Kwame Alexander’s Black daughter when her white friend lightheartedly said, “You can be my slave,” while they worked on a class project together. This moment is directly related to the redlined districts that Black people are still stuck inside of, the rejection of funding for diversity initiatives in places that need it, and the closing of polling places that happen to be where impoverished and predominantly Black voters are. An American Story reveals the things that textbooks don’t.

Kwame and I went on a tour for this book, and an emergency that came up meant that he couldn’t come with me to the annual African American Children’s Book Fair in Philadelphia. He sent me off with a little handwritten note that told me everywhere to go: take this train to Penn Station. From here, take this train to Philly. Call a cab. Go to this address, etc. It was written out step by step so I knew where to go and wouldn’t get lost, and it felt like one of the most loving things he could have done for me in lieu of him being there. Unbeknownst to me, he had also asked Jerry Craft to look out for me. And Jerry called and asked if I was hungry, if I wanted a cheesesteak. In that moment, not only did I know that I was surrounded by love and was where I was supposed to be, but I also understood that one day I would have this same responsibility to someone who will come after me. And that feels right and good.

* * *

I want to extend my deepest gratitude and appreciation to everyone involved in the development, creation, and promotion of this book. I couldn’t do that without thanking greatness himself Kwame Alexander for being the beginning of all of this, and for the way that this project has arguably altered the course of my life. When we went to see Kwame and Mary Rand Hess’s play, a stage adaptation of his Acoustic Rooster books, I kept crying. I cried because this man’s words landed on a page once long ago, and over the course of years those words grew to this thing. This living, breathing, phenomenal thing that got to exist because he was fearless enough to dare it to be here. Thank you for being the embodiment of believing in yourself, Kwame; it makes me know that all I have to do is believe in me.

Thanks to my dear and wonderful agent Rubin Pfeffer who was hip-and-hip with me through this all — any trench I was in during this process, Rubin was right there with me. I’m infinitely grateful for the blessing of your brilliance and love guiding me through this process. And speaking of trenches, thank you again to Antt, Anne, Katina, Devin, Val, and Joose for getting me through that time of my life; and Cy, Deji, and Caitlin for joining my life and getting me through now; and my sisters Shay, Sisi, and Paula; my dad, Ron, and my family for being there for always! I’m blessed to be yours and glad that you’re mine. My forever gratitude to Whitney Leader-Picone, Saho Fujii, and Dave Caplan for making sure the book looked gorgeous! Howard Huang, I could never thank you enough for how your photographs of these sculptures made this book feel real. Thank you so, so much. To the incredible Holly Fischer, thank you for introducing me to sculpture in the first place. I hope you know you changed my world too.

A renewed thank you to Megan ­Tingley, Margaret Raymo, Victoria Stapleton, and Christie Michel for not only caring but caring deeply, and for every countless thing y’all did behind the scenes for this book. And for making sure I didn’t get lost at last year’s ALA!!

To the kind souls of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee, I aim to bring honor to your having selected me for this award for the rest of my life. You have blessed me so, and I will treasure this honor forever. Sending the biggest hugs to you all, thank you!!!!

Alnita Coulter, my mom…I don’t know which previous lifetime I did so good in to be able to be your child in this one, but I credit you solely and exclusively with being the reason DARE exists. Thank you for how you watered me, and loved on me, and for all the space you gave me to grow. I love you endlessly.

Words become worlds; use them wisely, build beautiful things.

Humbly and with love,


Dare Coulter is the winner of the 2024 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for An American Story, written by Kwame Alexander and published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Her acceptance speech was delivered at the annual conference of the American Library Association in San Diego on June 30, 2024. From the July/August 2024 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2024.

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Dare Coulter

Dare Coulter won the 2024 CSK Illustrator Award for An American Story (Little, Brown), written by Kwame Alexander.

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