Read Kadir Nelson's 2020 Caldecott Medal Acceptance Speech at ALA's Virtual Book Award Celebration

The year was 1999, and my very first picture book, Brothers of the Knight, was slated to be published by Dial Books for Young Readers. It was written by the actress and dancer Debbie Allen and based on a stage production of the same name that she had both written and directed, with music composed by vocalist James Ingram, for the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. The play was a hip and lively adaptation of the classic fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” and featured Ms. Allen and Mr. Ingram in the lead roles. Shortly before the play began its run in the spring, Debbie mentioned to me that she was looking for an artist to illustrate a picture book version of the play. She hinted that the publisher had shown her some other artists’ work, but in her words, “Chile, I want someone I know to illustrate it.” I eagerly volunteered. We traveled together to New York City to secure a publisher for the book. After settling on Dial Books, I scurried home to begin creating the artwork over the following six weeks. Brothers of the Knight was published in the fall. Shortly after its release, the director of the Kennedy Center, Derrick Cartwright, shared with me just how proud he was of the book, and that he had very high hopes for it. He complimented me on the illustrations, saying, “You never know, you just might get one of those little gold stickers on the front cover.” I thought to myself, “Hmmm. You never know.”

Just three years earlier, I was a senior at Pratt Institute about to graduate with a degree in communications design. Although my focus was on illustration, I had always felt, deep inside, that I was a painter at heart, not unlike one of my art heroes, Thomas Blackshear, a well-known illustrator who had enjoyed a very successful career. In an article I’d read about him, Blackshear emphasized that he considered himself a fine artist who also did illustration. Fine art was at the essence of his work, and he applied his skills as a fine painter to his illustrative works. This was exactly what I aspired to do, and I adopted his mantra as my own as I continued my studies. While most of my college peers were painting small-sized works on illustration board and the like, I stretched and painted large canvases and walked across campus carrying them to class amidst the curious and perhaps envious gazes of my classmates. You see, most illustration students were discouraged from painting at a large scale because it could potentially hinder their ability to deliver quality work in a timely manner. But my professors didn’t complain about my oversized paintings because I was able to do them well and on time. My idea was that once the artwork had served its purpose in a magazine, on an album cover, or in a book, that it should be fit to adorn the walls of galleries, museums, and the homes of collectors.

I fell in love with the idea of becoming an artist at the age of ten. Over the course of two summers, I studied art with my uncle, Michael Morris, an artist and an art teacher. Uncle Mike gave me a strong foundation in art, teaching me about color, lighting, perspective, etc. Perhaps his most enduring lessons were that I should always do my research to make my work as accurate as possible, and that I shouldn’t simply make pretty pictures. I should make artwork that is meaningful to me, because if it’s meaningful to me, it will be meaningful to someone else. For me, it meant that my art should tell a story.

When I began my career, although I loved telling stories with my work, I didn’t set out to become a children’s book illustrator. My very first jobs were illustrating magazine articles and creating conceptual art for motion pictures. For the feature films Amistad and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, I was tasked with creating the look and feel of characters, environments, and key scenes in the stories. As exciting as it was to work in this field, I was discouraged to learn that the vast majority of the work we were creating as visual development artists would never see the light of day. I longed for the opportunity to create narrative artwork that made it to the finished product. As I neared completing work on both films, the opportunity would fall into my lap. That opportunity was Brothers of the Knight.

It was the beginning of a twenty-plus-year career of illustrating over thirty picture books. And along the way, I even learned to write and illustrate a few of my own. I’m very proud and very fortunate that many of them have even been handsomely celebrated with positive reviews and lovely awards. But if I’m being honest, all the while I’d still had my eye on that little gold sticker Mr. Cartwright had so pointedly mentioned. But, as I approached the tail end of a decades-long picture book tenure, I’d begun to lose hope of ever having the pleasure and privilege of earning the top prize. I’ll admit that perhaps early on I was a tad naive to think it would be so easy. After all, the stars have to align at just the right time and place for a thing like that to materialize, and after twenty years, it still hadn’t happened for me. I figured, “Well, maybe it’s just not meant to be.” Drawing on Eastern spiritual philosophies, I let go of the idea and I began to focus on other types of work: commissions, sculpture, magazine covers, portraits, etc…but in the fall of 2016, I received an email from my agent Steven Malk and soon-to-be editor Margaret Raymo, about a poem by Kwame Alexander that he’d written and performed for ESPN’s The Undefeated, a website focused on the intersection of sports, race, and culture.

Kadir Nelson and Kwame Alexander. Photo: MXBloomFilms.

The poem was striking, powerful, reverent, rhythmic, and elegant. There was just the right amount of text — not too much, not too little. The word count allowed for just the right amount of space on each spread for art, which to most artists translates to “most of the space on the page.” I loved the poem immediately. Unfortunately, I had just signed up a couple of lengthy book projects and I didn’t really have the time to take on a new book — but sometimes you have to make room when something special comes your way. So, I cleared a space for The Undefeated.

In order to save a little time while creating the artwork, I had the idea that I could paint each spread without backgrounds, similar to some of the covers I’d done for The New Yorker. It allowed for striking silhouettes and vignettes throughout the book that could read against stark white backgrounds. Margaret loved the idea, so we forged ahead.

I created a number of sketches and submitted them to the publisher [Houghton’s newly created Versify imprint, helmed by Kwame Alexander]. Once Margaret had a chance to review them, she sent along several comments and suggestions. Some of the comments were from an excited poet by the name of…Kwame Alexander. Just to give you a little background: author comments are usually withheld from the illustrator, especially seasoned illustrators, so that the artist is allowed ample creative space to do his or her work. This space is equally proportionate to the space the author is given to write the text. So, as you might expect, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to see the author comments. I asked my agent to respectfully let the eager poet know that, just as I hadn’t intruded on his creative space while he wrote the poem, I would kindly need the same space to create the artwork, in so many words. Kwame and I joke about it to this day, but I believe he got the message. I didn’t hear another peep from the poet until the art was finished. And all of his feedback was overwhelmingly positive. To be honest, however, I did consider some of his notes. But don’t tell Kwame that. I don’t want it to go to his head. And to be fair, toward the end of the process, Kwame stepped in to save a spread that was causing a bit of reluctance from the publisher — that spread being the one with no art, just the words, “And the ones who didn’t.” Thank you for that, brother. I think that spread in particular is crucial to communicating the impact of the idea behind the words and the overall story.

The very first painting in the book is an image of the decorated Olympian Jesse Owens. My initial sketch for this image was of the Olympian Florence Griffith Joyner. The text reads: “This is for the unforgettable. / The sweet and swift ones, / who hurdled history / and opened a world / of possible.” Joyner seemed to fit the bill perfectly, and I found a beautiful photograph of her sprinting in the 1984 Summer Olympics, with the top half of her body bathed in afternoon light, and the bottom half covered by a soft bluish shadow from the upper ridges of the Los Angeles Coliseum. It was beautiful, but I felt I should open the visual story by going back a bit further in history, so I changed the image to Jesse Owens, but kept the idea of lighting only the top half of the figure. It was a striking metaphor for each historical subject who, with each turn of the page, gradually emerges from the dark shadows of the past into the light of the present, ultimately becoming fully illuminated with light and full color as the story of African Americans evolves.

The second visual device I used to move the story along and diversify the visuals was that of flying creatures: birds and butterflies, ancient symbols of spirit — the spirit of African American people, the spirit of excellence, resistance, beauty, pride, love, and the universe. As each subject emerges through the arts, literature, athletics, and music, the flying creatures carry the eye through each vignette and onto the subsequent spread, reminding the reader that we are not alone in our life experiences.

The last device I used was the use of white backgrounds. I’d met Kwame before we worked on this book together, but I got to know him a little better while we traveled around the country on a national tour to promote the book. It was at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival that I heard Kwame speak about how the poem came to be — as a teachable moment for his daughter, as a love letter to America, a celebration of the election of President Obama, and a reaction to the events that triggered the Black Lives Matter movement. Kwame spoke about why he loved poetry, and that he loved the amount of white space that the carefully chosen selection of words leaves on the page. I discovered, quite serendipitously, that by painting each vignette with an abundance of white space around it, I was echoing precisely what Kwame had created with his words. Although I thought that painting the art without backgrounds would save a bit of time, the irony was that I hadn’t saved any time at all because each spread took just about as long as it would have otherwise; my great fortune was that by removing the backgrounds I created a visual language that gave the book exactly what it needed. It was fine art juxtaposed with masterful poetry. And together, their powerful chemistry told a complete story.

I want to thank Kwame for writing such an incredible work of art. I love this book. I love your work in it, and I’m very glad to know and work with you. If you write nothing else in this world, you wrote The Undefeated, and it’s a masterpiece of literature. I want to thank my editor Margaret Raymo for trusting me with this book and fully supporting it. Thank you to my publisher ­Catherine Onder for publishing this book so magnificently, to Cara Llewelyn for your exquisitely beautiful book design, and to everyone at Versify and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for supporting The Undefeated. You have done wonderful work. I want to thank my super-agent Steven Malk. You are truly a blessing for my career and a great friend whom I treasure. Thank you to my wife Dr. Jungmiwha Bullock. I treasure your love, insight, and encouragement, and your prediction that The Undefeated would receive this wonderful recognition.

And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I want to thank the Caldecott and Newbery committees and the cadre of librarians who took on the monumental task of reading and evaluating thousands of books, and for choosing The ­Undefeated. Thank you for holding up all the artists and authors who do this work. The great work that you do is no small task, and weighted with monumental responsibility. From the very bottom of my heart, I thank you with everything that I have. Thank you for ­acknowledging The Undefeated. Thank you for honoring this story. It’s been a long journey to this stage. And thanks to you, I finally got that little gold sticker. I will treasure it forever. Thank you.

Kadir Nelson is the winner of the 2020 Caldecott Medal for The Undefeated, written by Kwame Alexander and published by Versify, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. His acceptance speech was delivered at the virtual American Library Association Book Award Celebration, on June 28, 2020. From the July/August 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2020. Look for the full electronic issue -- free -- beginning next week.

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