Five questions for Frank Morrison

In Above the Rim: How Elgin Baylor Changed Basketball (Abrams, 6–10 years), written by Jen Bryant, artist Frank Morrison (the 2021 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award winner for R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, written by Carole Boston Weatherford) depicts the life of the NBA great and civil rights figure. From his joy in childhood play to taking a stand by sitting on the bench, Baylor’s essence radiates from Morrison’s light-splashed, motion-filled, and frequently breathtaking illustrations. See also our Black History Month 2021 coverage, including “Black History, American History” and “Middle grade sci-fi/fantasy for Black History Month.”

1. What did you know about Elgin Baylor before starting this project?

Frank Morrison: One of the wonderful surprises in the picture-book world is discovery. I receive a lot of manuscripts on all sorts of subject matters. Every once in a while I’ll receive one that intrigues me like Above the Rim. The marvelous Mr. Baylor, whom I had no prior knowledge of, had a slamming life story.

2. Did basketball provide particular challenges for rendering figures in motion?

FM: Illustrating this story felt like I was finally able to go to the rim without being blocked. Mannerism and basketball blend perfectly. I was able to twist and turn and float the figures across the page without double dribbling the text. The only challenge was walking away from the game, I mean, canvas.

3. The portraits of Baylor mid-flight, with the sun behind him, and of Rosa Parks tell their own stories, even without words. As both a fine artist and illustrator, how do your processes differ?

FM: I entered the picture-book world from the Black Arts Movement established in 1965. Although it unofficially ended in 1975, a whole new generation of artists still carry the BAM torch. This beacon is meant to shine a positive light on our community through the arts. Those who could sing, sang; writers wrote; artists painted; actors portrayed and reflected positive images of dignity, in juxtaposition to the negative images constantly being portrayed of and to the community. As an illustrator, the only difference is that I have to leave room for text. [This Beyond the Book video shows more about Morrison’s art and process.]

4. There’s such personality behind your characters, whether celebrities or not. Is everyone based on someone you know or have seen, and how do you capture their essences?

FM: I like to think I’m funny sometimes, even though my kids don’t. The page before the high-flying sun-lit dunk, I painted what I would title “The Great Debate.” We have our young sports broadcasters in quite an argument; today’s subject is the never-ending school-yard debate about who is the best. My thought process is all about what is the big picture, and then I layer in the characters. I used to be a break dancer, and sometimes I’d be hired to dance in the background of videos and movies. I’d dance, stop, wait, then dance again. I learned fast that “from the top” meant from the beginning of the scene. As the director of the page, I want my characters’ emotions to stop, smile, pose, give the reader some attitude, and dance off the page.

5. Above the Rim is set during the mid-twentieth century, with very clear resonances for today. What do you think this book at this moment can do for readers?

FM: Keep! Hope! Alive!

From the February 2021 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc. She holds an MA from the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons University and a BA from Oberlin College.

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