Let Our Rejoicing Rise: Celebrating Fifty Years of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards

The Coretta Scott King Book Awards originated as a response to the failure of the children’s literature establishment to acknowledge the talents and contributions of African American writers and illustrators. As late as 1969, forty-seven years after the first Newbery Medal had been awarded, and thirty-one years after the awarding of the first Caldecott Medal, no African American writer or illustrator had received either of those prestigious medals. (I note that Arna Bontemps’s Story of the Negro was a Newbery Honor Book in 1949.)

Dr. Henrietta M. Smith

Dr. Henrietta M. Smith, professor emerita at the University of South Florida, edited four editions of a book that recounts the history of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards; she was also very active as a leader in the CSK Book Awards community. According to Dr. Smith, the CSK Book Awards evolved from a discussion at the 1969 American Library Association’s Annual Conference in Atlantic City. Librarians Mabel McKissick and Glyndon Greer were overheard at the booth of publisher John Carroll bemoaning the lack of recognition of minority writers and artists by the Newbery and Caldecott committees. Carroll suggested that they establish an award to honor those unsung literary artists. McKissick and Greer decided to follow up on the suggestion. Thus was born the Coretta Scott King Book Award.

The stated purpose of the award is to commemorate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to honor his widow for her “courage and determination to continue the work for peace and world brotherhood.” The first Coretta Scott King Book Award was presented in 1970 to author Lillie Patterson for her biography Martin Luther King, Jr.: Man of Peace. Published in 1969, the year following Dr. King’s assassination, the Patterson book was part of Garrard’s “Americans All” series, aimed at upper-elementary-grade children.

The first CSK Illustrator Award was presented in 1974 to George Ford, illustrator of Sharon Bell Mathis’s biography Ray Charles, which chronicles Charles’s life from his childhood to stardom. Illustrated in pencil with blocks of orange, the book stresses the musician’s self-sufficiency and his determination. Two other awards have since been added to the CSK roster. The John Steptoe New Talent Award, first given in 1995, helped launch the careers of Sharon G. Flake, Hope Anita Smith, Shadra Strickland, and Jason Reynolds, among many others. The Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement is given, in alternate years, to an author or illustrator for the body of his or her work and to a practitioner for substantial contributions through active engagement with youth using award-winning African American books. First awarded in 2010, the Virginia Hamilton Award has recognized such luminaries as Walter Dean Myers and Dr. Henrietta Smith.

The Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee is currently part of the ALA Ethnic and Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table (EMIERT). The CSK Book Awards Committee includes an executive board, comprised of officers and chairs of standing committees. Currently the chair of the CSK Executive Board is Dr. Claudette S. McLinn. Among the standing committees is the seven-person Coretta Scott King Book Awards Jury, which actually selects the winning books.

The fiftieth anniversary of the CSK Book Awards overlaps with the centennial of the October 1919 announcement in the NAACP’s journal The Crisis of the upcoming publication of The Brownies’ Book, a magazine published from January 1920 to December 1921 by Crisis editor W. E. B. Du Bois for “all children, but especially for ours, the children of the sun.” Like Mabel McKissick and Glyndon Greer, Du Bois saw a void in children’s books that needed to be filled. In stating his objectives and endeavoring to fulfill them, Du Bois and his colleagues challenged the impression, perpetuated by the available “white texts,” that “Negro” children could not possibly be “great, heroic or beautiful.” In so doing he laid the thematic foundations for a body of African American children’s literature.

Du Bois’s goals focused on building positive self-images in his readers, informing them about the history and achievements of African Americans, inspiring them to a life of service, exposing them to the “worth-while things of life,” and equipping them to cope with issues they would encounter as members of a marginalized community. Perusing the list of winners of the CSK Awards suggests that African American children’s literature has not strayed far from Du Bois’s thematic emphases. A century later, the stated purpose of the CSK is to “encourage the artistic expression of the Black experience through literary and graphic arts, including biographical, social, historical, and social history treatments by African American authors and illustrators.” The CSK jury handbook further declares that the awards are “given to an African American author and an African American illustrator for outstanding contributions that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values.”

My own examination of the development of African American children’s literature (Free Within Ourselves: The Development of African American Children’s Literature, 2007) led me to conclude that, as a body of work, the literature: celebrates the Black family; bears witness to the Black struggle for freedom, equality, and dignity; reflects back to Black children the beauty and competencies we as adults see in them; situates itself in Black literary and cultural contexts; and honors story as both a way of knowing and a way of teaching. The books that have received CSK recognition exemplify those characteristics. The award has called national attention to African American youth literature and to the writers and artists who have created it. It has recognized and nurtured new talent and celebrated the excellent creations of experienced writers and artists.

The awards are presented each year at the CSK Breakfast, a warm, welcoming celebration, held at ALA’s Annual Conference. Attendance has grown to somewhere between five- and eight hundred diverse participants, and that number is likely to be even larger as we celebrate fifty years in 2019. At the beginning of the event, we stand together and sing the anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” written by poet James Weldon Johnson in 1900, a reminder of the historical struggles of African Americans, a celebration of past progress, and a prayer for continued progress as Americans. The first verse urges us to “sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us. / Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.” As we celebrate fifty years of excellence, “let our rejoicing rise”; let us look forward to a future full of the hope that those first fifty years have brought us.

From the May/June 2019 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: CSK Book Awards at 50. Find more information about ordering copies of the special issue.

Rudine Sims Bishop
Rudine Sims Bishop
Rudine Sims Bishop, Professor Emerita of Education at Ohio State University, is the winner of the 2017 Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement (practitioner category).

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