Profile of 2022 CSK Illustrator Award winner Floyd Cooper

Is there a specific point in a person’s life when they go from mentee to mentor? At what stage does someone become the elder statesperson? It seems to follow that age-old adage that to become an overnight success, you just need to spend years and years working away at it. In the time I knew Floyd ­Cooper, he seemed to magically transition from that young artist just getting his start into one of the most well-known and well-regarded illustrators in recent ­history.

Floyd was a respected mentor. With over 110 books and a career in children’s publishing that spanned thirty-plus years, Floyd was not only celebrated for his work but was generous enough to celebrate and support so many other creatives. I think of our friend Don Tate, who loves to show a photo of himself and Floyd at a Highlights Foundation workshop where Floyd was the mentor Don looked up to. And now Don is a mentor to up-and-coming authors and illustrators. It says a lot about Floyd Cooper that he was a mentor of mentors.

Like everyone who met Floyd, I thought I was special because of the attention he would pay me when the two of us visited. I was. His special power was being everyone’s friend. He had a way of keeping up with friends — sending a note of encouragement, a Facebook comment, a short email, just to keep in touch. Sometimes just a hello to let someone know he was thinking of them. He did it with grace and kindness that helped us know he was genuine and thoughtful.

I know Floyd from his work at the Highlights Foundation. I was just a teenager when I helped my father (the Foundation’s founder) by washing dishes during the Highlights Foundation writers’ workshop at Chautauqua. In 1993, Floyd was a young illustrator just getting his start in picture books. Floyd brought Velma and their two children, Dayton and Kai, to the Chautauqua event. For a number of years our families spent a magical week together at this conference, seven days of working and living side by side. Today, we know Dayton and Kai as young men with a deep respect for the legacy their father left behind. One year, Floyd came to our family reunion and did his famous art erasure demonstration (the subtractive process) for the young cousins in our family. After the demo, Floyd and Kai joined in our family Olympics. (Floyd did exceptionally well in the hippity-hop event.)

* * *

On January 7, 2022, a day before what would have been Floyd’s sixty-sixth birthday, the Highlights Foundation and The Brown Bookshelf partnered to host a virtual celebration in commemoration of his life (1956–2021). The chat was filled with comments from teachers, librarians, authors, illustrators, and publishing professionals, all sharing stories about how Floyd had made them feel special. Some said they’d met him only once, others had met him many times. But each spoke of his kindness and humility.

There have been so many wonderful tributes to Floyd and remembrances of him since his passing on July 16 at the age of sixty-five. For those of you who knew Floyd, I hope this serves as one more reminder of our friend. And for those of you who only knew his art, or are just getting to know him here, I hope it provides some appreciation of this giant of the children’s publishing world. Although maybe giant isn’t the right term. That often seems larger than life — like a superhero. Another one of Floyd’s superpowers was being truly human. His humility and humor carried him through. He was not showy, but he was stylish. Always well-dressed for the occasion. His humility made him human. That humanity is what makes Floyd Cooper’s art unique. His style brings so much emotion to each of the characters in his illustrations. In a good picture book, the illustrations not only enhance the story but often tell a deeper part of the story. The reader feels the emotion on every page.

His success lay in his artistic skill, and his human skill. He could walk into any room — whether of kids or adults — and build a trustful relationship through his art, his conversation, and his authenticity. There is a great video of Floyd reading his picture book Max and the Tag-Along Moon where he greets children directly at the very beginning: “Hello, my friends, how are you? You know, today is a friendly day.” Then he goes on to read the story of a boy’s visit to his grandpa and of coming home with the moon following him. The way Floyd reads the story in the video is reminiscent of the calming, relatable tone of Mister Rogers (and in fact, Floyd once appeared on Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood). He had a way of drawing children into his stories and into the world.

At the Highlights Foundation, we have a tradition of gathering on Zoom for a virtual watch party of the ALA Youth Media Awards ceremony each year. When the 2022 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award was announced for Floyd for Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre, we shouted a collective “hooray!” And for Carole Boston Weatherford to win the Coretta Scott King Author Award for Unspeakable speaks to what a powerful work of both art and text the book is—one that will reach children’s hands for years to come. Unspeakable also received a Sibert Honor and a Caldecott Honor. All recognitions so well earned and deserved!

Carole has said that this book is Floyd’s story. His grandfather lived through this tragic time in history and spoke to Floyd about the massacre. You can feel the personal connection in the artwork. In the back matter of Unspeakable, Floyd wrote, “Now, the same way my grandpa told the story to us, I share it here with you. My grandpa passed away many years ago, but I hope that my art and Carole Boston Weatherford’s words can speak for Grandpa.”

Unspeakable was Floyd’s fifth CSK Award. Throughout his career, Floyd received numerous awards and accolades, including a dozen ALA Notable Children’s Books, three NAACP Image Award nominations, and numerous others.

* * *

It was editor Patricia Lee Gauch who first encouraged us to invite Floyd to teach at the Highlights Foundation. Over the years, she and Floyd had become very close friends. Over that same time period, my father became a big fan of Floyd’s and would purchase his artwork whenever he could. Today, we’re grateful to have Floyd’s artwork in a number of our writing cottages at our retreat center, including the Floyd Cooper Cottage. Before Floyd passed, my son and I visited him at his home in Easton, Pennsylvania, where he gave us some of his personal collection of books for the cottage.

Twenty-five years after I first met Floyd and his family at Chautauqua, I am still at the Highlights Foundation, and for many of those years, I was able to connect with Floyd through his teaching, mentoring, and creativity. Most recently, Floyd was mentor to Daria Peoples-Riley through our Highlights Foundation Diversity Fellowship in Children’s Literature. Daria and Floyd became close friends. A few weeks ago, we received a note from Daria telling us how thrilled she was to have been asked to finish one of the illustration projects Floyd was working on. Talk about mentorship and “passing it on.” Now Daria herself is teaching and mentoring others.

Friends of Floyd Cooper have contributed to the Floyd Cooper Scholarship, which will continue to honor his legacy in a way befitting him — in mentoring new illustrators in their pursuit of meaningful stories for children. The Floyd Cooper Scholarship provides support for an illustrator of color or an Indigenous illustrator to attend a Highlights Foundation workshop of their choice.

As well, the Children’s Book Council designated May 6, 2022, as Floyd Cooper Day, to celebrate Floyd in schools and libraries across the country. As part of Children’s Book Week in early May, Floyd Cooper Day inspired teachers to share their favorite Floyd Cooper books with students.

I know we’ll feel the impact of Floyd Cooper for years to come — both through the legacy of his work and through the many storytellers who have benefited from his mentorship. Here’s to you, Floyd Cooper.

From the July/August 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. Photo: Velma Cooper. Courtesy of the Cooper family. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2022.

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

George Brown

George Brown is the executive director of the Highlights Foundation, whose mission is to positively affect the lives of children by amplifying the voices of storytellers.

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