Five questions for Dare Coulter

“How do you tell a story that starts in Africa and ends in horror…How do you tell a story about slavery?” An American Story (Little, Brown, 7–11 years) by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Dare Coulter, is a picture book framed as a classroom lesson inspired by Alexander’s daughter. Coulter’s unforgettable illustrations use different media — clay sculptures, paintings, charcoal sketches, and more — depending on the scene to situate viewers within this imperative narrative. See also our Black History Month and Black History Month 2023 coverage.

1. What motivated you to tell this story? 

Dare Coulter: I want to take the liberty to twist this question a little bit and say that what motivates anyone to tell the stories they tell is because they believe in them. For a story about slavery, it’s about believing in the importance of having this discussion. We have to believe that truth will stand, even in the times when people seek to destroy it. 

2. What were your research processes? 

DC: Research was weird because I went into the project thinking, “Well, of course I know about slavery!” I thought the knowledge I had, as wide and extensive as it was, was mostly comprehensive. It was not. 

I tried to consume as much as I could from all aspects of slavery and of the time period because I wanted to be able to present an accurate representation of the nuances. People say the devil is in the details, and in this case, that’s true. It’s about trying to show that people on rice plantations could have blisters on their ankles, which made it almost impossible to sleep, or that they had no beds in most instances. Frederick Douglass spent most of his time as a child in the nude because the children enslaved on that plantation weren’t given much to wear. Since they had no clothes, they certainly had no shoes, and in his autobiography he talked about having cracks so deep in the soles of his feet from the freezing cold that his writing pen could fit in them. The kids on that plantation ate food out of a trough like pigs. The horrors of the Belgian rubber plantations are so obscene that they can’t be depicted in a book written for children — but that brutality is important, so it’s included in a heavily veiled reference in the book. 

But all of those things, alongside the idea of trying to sort out how houses were lit in early America, whether there would have been lights, the shape of the dresses that white kids wore — and then going back to the idea of whether or not enslaved children had clothes and if the photographs we have of enslaved people were staged to look “better” since clothing was scarce — the back and forth and juxtaposition of it all was so, so much. I paused where I needed to, and I stopped researching before bed because I was having nightmares. I figured out which parts needed to be shown and what could be a feeling. I mapped it all out, and I got to work! 

3. What was it like to work with Kwame Alexander on your first picture book? 

DC: I don’t know how to say that my whole life has changed in any other way than to say exactly that! So, an important background note: I’m answering these questions from the tour for An American Story! This is my first tour and it’s Kwame’s twenty-ninth — there has been so much to learn, and the entire process of working on this book felt like I was just learning so much so fast. When my agent, Rubin Pfeffer, and I had our first conversations about the book, he told me that illustrating it would be like getting a PhD in children’s books, and he was right. It has been amazing and challenging and fantastic. What better story for it to be than for this one? 

4. How did you decide what medium and palette to use for each element of the book? 

DC: I had to really think through what the emotional context of each piece was, and what the medium was trying to say. This is a book that happens in different spaces as well as times. The most important thing was sorting what the clay would mean, since I felt like using clay in this book was going to be something most people hadn’t seen before. Clay being an organic material, because it’s from the earth, called out to the idea of the cradle of civilization being in Africa, the idea of Africa as the origin point of humanity. It didn’t work out for all of the pieces that depicted a part of the story that either was taking place in Africa or dealt with joy or resilience to be in clay, but the thought process started there. The charcoal for the classroom scenes was a black-and-white medium that was going to be used to pull back from the story that Kwame was telling, since they are questions that interject into the main verse. I also wanted to make sure I had a medium that was chock full of color for the largest part of the story, and therefore it became painting, whether digital or acrylic, that was used to depict the historical scenes. 

5. The story takes place partly in a classroom. How do you envision teachers using this in their own classrooms? 

DC: I would hope that teachers host these discussions in a way that allows kids to actually have conversations. I hope they’re able to have a safe space to navigate the topic for the times they get it wrong, too. The incident that sparked this book was pretty rough; Kwame’s daughter had a white friend who suggested that their school project feature a slogan that said something like, “Welcome to the Old Dominion, our slaves are good slaves.” At one of our first school visits, a kid asked Kwame if he liked chicken. It turns out the kid just loves chicken, but comments around chicken have sparked altercations between people, particularly between Black and white people because of racist stereotypes. So, teachers can open these conversations, and they have to know that the conversations could go off the rails. I hope they know there are resources online for explaining all of the difficult things about racism. And that if things get rough they can always say, “I don’t know the answer, but I can find out.” 

From the January 2023 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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