Coretta Scott King Awards 2015

Some of the most eagerly awaited announcements during the ALA Youth Media Awards press conference are the Coretta Scott King Awards. This year, with all the discussion about diversity, anticipation was high about what would captivate the CSK jury. Would previously decorated authors and illustrators receive additional accolades to gild already outstanding bodies of work? Would there be any first-time recipients who would gain boosts for their careers? Would there be a John Steptoe Award for New Talent to provide encouragement for an upcoming star? The answer to all those questions was a resounding yes.

We know from the selection criteria as stated on the committee’s website what the jury seeks each year.
The Coretta Scott King Book Awards are given annually to outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values. The award commemorates the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and honors his wife, Mrs. Coretta Scott King, for her courage and determination to continue the work for peace and world brotherhood.

Each year, the jury explores the eligible titles and selects winners and honor books. Members may also recognize new talent with the John Steptoe Award. The 2015 winners and honor books comprise a group of established creators and some very intriguing newcomers. The recognized titles also reflect the longstanding attention by the Coretta Scott King Award juries to books of poetry and books about the arts.

woodson_brown girl dreamingThis year’s author award winner, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson [read her acceptance speech here], was one of the most highly acclaimed children’s books published in 2014. Woodson was a Coretta Scott King Author Award winner in 2001 for Miracle’s Boys and has been a recipient of four honor recognitions over the years, for Each Kindness (2014), Locomotion (2004), From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun (1996), and I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This (1995). Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson’s memoir in verse, is a literary tour de force, satisfying as a coming-of-age story, a self-discovery memoir, and a culturally specific depiction of particular places and times. “Woodson’s lyrical, free-verse memoir, reflecting her voice, her history and her growth as a storyteller, pulled jurors into her family’s stories,” said Coretta Scott King Book Awards jury chair Kim Patton. The Horn Book Magazine review described it as “so immediate that readers will feel they are experiencing the author’s childhood right along with her.” Woodson’s depiction of her family’s response to the restrictions of Jim Crow America reflects the strengths of many families from that period and their abilities to nurture young people to pursue their dreams. It is not surprising that so many different award committees were also enthralled by the poetry and power of this title. Winner of the 2014 National Book Award as well as honor recognition from the 2015 Sibert, Newbery, and Boston Globe–Horn Book committees, it also appeared on numerous “best” and “notable” lists, including the Horn Book’s Fanfare list.

nelson_how i discovered poetryInterestingly, this year’s honor books also included another poetic memoir and a novel in verse. How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson explores her childhood journey toward becoming a poet. In many ways, this journey is a literal as well as a figurative one, since a great deal of Nelson’s childhood was spent moving around the country with her family due to her father’s service as one of the first African American career officers in the Air Force. While the military was not immune to the racial hostilities that were part of American life in the 1950s and 1960s as depicted, readers also experience a slice of African American middle-class life that contributes much to the mosaic of the period. Nelson was previously recognized by the CSK Awards committee with honors for A Wreath for Emmett Till (2006), Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem (2005), and Carver: A Life in Poems (2002).

alexander_crossoverThis year Kwame Alexander received his first CSK Honor for his verse novel about twin brothers united by their love of family, each other, and basketball. The rhythms of a sport heavily influenced by African American culture add to a nuanced coming-of-age story. The Crossover has exuberant energy that complements the sensitivity of the issues explored in the story. The variety of poetic forms, including free verse and hip-hop, reflects the twists and turns that make this such a readable tale. To quote the Horn Book Magazine review, “Josh’s first-person verse narration is a combination of exciting play-by-play game details, insightful middle-school observations, and poignant meditations on sibling dynamics and familial love.” In addition to its CSK Honor, Alexander’s novel was also the winner of the 2015 Newbery Medal.

magoon_how it went downThe final honor book, How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon, and the CSK’s John Steptoe Award for New Talent recipient, When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds, are prose novels that speak to various aspects of the day-to-day life experience of today’s urban teens. Magoon’s exploration, through multiple perspectives, of the shooting of an unarmed teen is more than a take on today’s headlines. As the story unfolds, its complexities and those of the people affected are on full display for the reader. Magoon’s mastery of the many — sometimes contradictory — narratives contributes to a sophisticated portrayal of an African American community.

reynolds_when i was the greatestMagoon was recognized in 2010 with a Steptoe Award for her novel The Rock and the River. Jason Reynolds, in his debut young adult novel When I Was the Greatest, demonstrates a solid teen voice, in a story told with heart and humor. Ali and his best friend Noodles manage to avoid trouble in the neighborhood until Ali finds himself defending his friend in an unexpected way. In giving him the Steptoe Award, the CSK jury stated, “Reynolds’ lively and engaging portrayal of urban teenage boys is a compelling story about neighborhood, family, friendship, values and the acceptance of difference.” When I Was the Greatest displays confident storytelling with fully realized secondary characters (such as Noodles’s brother, who manages his Tourette’s syndrome by knitting), adding to the texture and tone of the novel.

copeland_firebirdThe Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for Christopher Myers’s [read his acceptance speech here] artistic contribution to Misty Copeland’s Firebird: Ballerina Misty Copeland Shows a Young Girl How to Dance like the Firebird recognized his skill in conveying movement and grace. From the cover to the endpapers, the work delivers a visual feast of expressionistic art. “The vibrant lines and colors mirror the movement of Copeland’s ‘Firebird,’” wrote Patton (CSK Jury Chair). “Balletic poses, leaping and bounding into the air at tremendous heights, spur the imagination and inspire a young girl’s hopes and dreams.” The Horn Book Magazine adds, “Myers’s stunning collages layer strips of thickly painted paper to echo the wings of a firebird…whether they are illustrating the stage curtains or a cloudy sky. His deep, rich colors make even the portraits of the dancers at rest dramatic, and when dancers are on stage, they seem to fly.” This is Myers’s first CSK Illustrator Award, although he previously received four honor recognitions, for H.O.R.S.E. (2013); Jazz, written by his father, Walter Dean Myers (2007); Black Cat (2000); and Harlem (1998), again written by Walter Dean Myers. There is a certain poignancy to this award, the first CSK given since the July 2014 passing of Walter Dean Myers, a multiple winner and honoree of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards and the first recipient of its Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement. A successful children’s book creator in his own right, Christopher Myers continues the legacy of excellence.

russell-brown_little melbaThe two illustrator honor books round out a collection of works featuring achievement in the performing arts. Frank Morrison’s paintings in Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, written by Katheryn Russell-Brown, are bold and sassy and successfully depict the energetic life and times of jazz musician Melba Liston. Morrison was the recipient of the John Steptoe Award in 2005 for his illustrations in Jazzy Miz Mozetta, written by Brenda C. Roberts.

powell_josephineThe art created by Christian Robinson for Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, written by Patricia Hruby Powell, is a perfect pairing with its subject, the incomparable performer Josephine Baker. Even the depictions of challenging times in Baker’s life convey her spirit and determination. In addition to garnering this first-time CSK Illustrator recognition for Robinson, Josephine received a Sibert Honor in appreciation of its success as an informational text, as well as a 2014 Boston Globe–Horn Book Nonfiction Honor Book Award.

As this year’s winners and honorees take their places alongside volumes of decorated works, readers of all ages celebrate their writing and artistic distinction and appreciate the lights they shine on all aspects of African American culture and contributions.

From the July/August 2015 Special Awards issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ala 2015.

Deborah Taylor

Deborah Taylor

Deborah Taylor retired from the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Maryland. She has chaired and served on many ALA committees and on the National Book Awards jury for young people’s literature. She was named the 2015 recipient of the Coretta Scott King/Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement. She currently serves as chair of the Ezra Jack Keats Awards Committee.

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