Profile of 2021 CSK Illustrator Award winner Frank Morrison

When I met Frank in person, the first thing I noticed was his warm smile. But long before we exchanged smiles and hugs for the first time at the Society of Illustrators’ Original Art show several years ago, I had met Frank through his incredible artwork.

Many years before, I had picked up a new picture book whose cover character radiated energy, and Jazzy Miz Mozetta danced off the page and into my heart. I opened that book and read the story out loud, even though there was no one else there, because those words just could not sit quiet on the page. Brenda C. Roberts’s words were wonderful, but what captured my attention were Frank’s exuberant paintings of lively Miz Mozetta and her not-quite-so-lively old friends. His paintings were so expressive that even if there hadn’t been a text, anyone looking at the book could tell that Miz Mozetta was young at heart and determined to enjoy life, while Miz Lou Lillie and Mister Willie were tired and timid, their sore toes and cricked necks signs that they felt old age had put them on the sidelines. Frank brought those characters to life in a way I’d never seen an artist do before. No wonder he won the 2005 Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent for that book!

Frank was clearly an artist to watch, and to keep in mind for picture-book texts that needed his special blend of energy and joy, and the beautiful way he celebrates African American life. But I didn’t have a text for him for a long time. Not until Carole Boston Weatherford wrote a manuscript about “Amazing Grace” — a text that was not just about the song itself, or the man who wrote it, but about the way that song has become a touchstone the world over, a universal message of perseverance in times of trouble. What artist could paint a sweeping biography that spans centuries — a biography not of a person, but of a song? Frank, that’s who.

I knew from his art that Frank’s musicality would bring so much to the book that became How Sweet the Sound. But I didn’t realize what a deep personal connection Frank had to that song until he told me that every Sunday he sits with his family in church and hears the words of “Amazing Grace,” and that the song took on a whole new meaning for him the day I approached him about the project. It’s no surprise, then, that his favorite Aretha Franklin song is her breathtaking version of “Amazing Grace.”

Carole had been working on a picture-book text about Aretha ­Franklin for years before she found the right entry point into the story. She used the rhythm and the call-out style of Aretha’s beloved “Respect” as a framework for telling the story of the Queen of Soul, highlighting not only her legendary work as a singer, songwriter, and pianist but also her civil rights activism. The minute the manuscript came in, I thought of Frank and his incredible ability to bring a sense of music into his work. Who else could capture all the facets of this remarkable woman?

Though these two books created by Carole and Frank couldn’t be more different, “Amazing Grace” is at the heart of them both. When I asked Frank about what it felt like to work on them, and wondered if he’d felt any sense of connection between them, he said, “It’s funny that you mention that. I didn’t put the two together until today. How Sweet the Sound came from a whole ­different place. I had to struggle with the feeling of painting a depiction of a slave ship that found redemption. That was tense. I danced the whole time while I illustrated R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”

By now, most people know that before he became a fine artist and an illustrator, Frank was a graffiti artist and a break dancer. That sense of dance and movement runs through all his work. The people he paints, whether young kids like the exuberant little girl in I Got the Rhythm or that lively septuagenarian Miz Mozetta, practically jump off the page. In Jazzy Miz Mozetta, his painting that accompanies the line “the music lifted her up and laid a road full of twinkling notes at her feet” is a ­masterpiece of jazz, in visual form.

It’s rare for an artist to be able to capture not only movement itself in such a vibrant way but also the energy and spirit of that movement. Even more than dance, though, what Frank’s art makes me think of is music. There’s a musicality to his work that runs through every book he does. Sometimes it’s a loud crescendo that makes you sit up and listen with all your might. Sometimes it’s a quiet undercurrent that you almost don’t notice, but it colors and suffuses the story and creates the right mood for each moment.

In R-E-S-P-E-C-T, one of the places this comes across most powerfully is in the two images of the Franklin family. The first time we see the Franklins is when they are putting down roots in Detroit. Frank shows the six of them posed in front of a massive oak, as if for a family portrait. Looking closer, you notice that the family is part of the tree — it is hard to see where the people end and the roots begin. The four children are grouped in front like a choir, their gazes uplifted and their mouths slightly parted as if they are taking in a deep breath that will soon be released in song. And on the next page they are singing with all their hearts, their eyes still lifted heavenward as they sing “hand-clapping gospel,” praising the Lord in “stirring harmony.”

Turn the page, and we see the family tree again. At first glance it is identical to the previous tree, but then you start to see the all-important difference: Mama is no longer there. While the children still look as if they are lined up in a choir, this time the song they’re about to sing seems to be a sad one. When Frank and I talked about these two pages, he told me, “The first image represents spring. The tree at full bloom, showing the entire family together — plush greens and yellows, flowers blooming. The second image takes place in the fall. The mother has left them. The tree has only a few leaves of hope left.”

One of the most powerful moments in the book is the page about Aretha Franklin’s work on behalf of civil rights. Frank portrays her in gold, majestic and powerful against a black-and-white mural of civil rights activists, showing that she was both a part of the fight and a voice that helped amplify it.

Toward the end of the book there’s a stunning scene of Aretha Franklin singing at the inauguration of President Obama. This painting of Barack and Michelle Obama gazing into our future is where Frank felt most inspired by Aretha’s rendition of “Amazing Grace.” When I asked Frank about this spread, he said, “It takes me back to the day Obama was elected. That night was electric. The election parties were everywhere. They would be filled to capacity with family and friends watching the results come in. It felt like church.”

That illustration depicts a moment forever etched into the memory of all who saw it: the importance of this day when the country swore into office our first Black president. How utterly right it felt that the Queen of Soul was the one to sing him on his way to the highest office in the land. Her now-iconic hat.

But if you look closely, the most important thing in that whole scene is one simple word that Frank subtly painted into the collar of the singer’s coat. It captures the feeling that we felt rising up in us that day, a feeling that has been hard to find in these past months that have been filled with heartbreak and injustice. But Frank’s work in this book is a testament to this word, this feeling that is starting to rise in us again: hope.

From the July/August 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2021.

Single copies of this special issue are available for $15.00 including postage and may be ordered from:

Kristy South
Administrative Coordinator, The Horn Book
Phone 888-282-5852 | Fax 614-733-7269

Reka Simonsen

Reka Simonsen is editorial director of Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

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