Coretta Scott King Awards Breakfast: 'Reflecting the Reality of Black Life'

This past weekend at ALA Annual, the Coretta Scott King Book Awards breakfast celebrated the authors, illustrators and photographers whose 2021 titles were chosen as book award winners and honorees. The CSK Awards are given annually to "outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values." The 53rd Coretta Scott King Awards Breakfast was dedicated to Floyd Cooper, who died of cancer in July 2021 and was posthumously awarded the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for his art in Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre (written by Carole Boston Weatherford; Carolrhoda Books).

Dr. Brenda Pruitt Annisette, the chair of the CSK Awards Committee, presided over the event. "The CSK book award titles enjoy recognition as well-written, superbly illustrated books that reflect universal human values," she said. "Honorees are the artists whose hard work, dedication and creativity make this wonderful event possible." The celebration began with the traditional singing of the African American National Anthem, "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," and a passionate, entertaining and sincere invocation that included lines like, "We pray that those who uphold the constitution will also read it."

Jason Miles Driver, Sr., the awards jury chair, presented the awards. Amber McBride, winner of the John Steptoe Author Award for New Talent for Me (Moth) (Macmillan) spoke first. "There isn't an exact science for why we all get goosebumps at the exact same time in the song," she said. But this honor is like that--it "feels like community, oneness, family."

Regis and Kahran Bethencourt

Next up were photographers Regis and Kahran Bethencourt, who won the Steptoe Illustrator Award for their photographs in The Me I Choose to Be (written by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley; Little, Brown). The two took turns speaking, ultimately ending with their dreams for the book: "When we think of all the Black and brown children out there who are trying to navigate chronic stress and generations of trauma... we hope our book reminds them to never give up."

The CSK author and illustrator honoree speeches followed. Raissa Figueroa was unable to attend to receive her honor for her illustrations in We Wait for the Sun (written by Dovey Johnson Roundtree and Katie McCabe, Roaring Brook) and the award was accepted on her behalf. Safia Elhillo, who received an author honor for Home Is Not a Country (Make Me a World), accepted the honor through a recorded video. "I wanted to make this book as a thank you and as a record," she said, specifically thanking the "global Sudanese diaspora."

Christian Robinson, honored for his work in Nina: A Story of Nina Simone (written by Traci N. Todd, Putnam), stepped up to the mic and began singing a truly lovely version of "Feeling Good." As he reached the end of the chorus, he gestured to the audience to finish with him: "And I'm feeling... good." "I was illustrating this book during the summer of 2020," Robinson said. "There was a lot going on that summer, I don't know if y'all remember." Robinson said that, through all the trials of that year, he kept thinking of Simone and her dedication to raising up Black people. At the time, he and his family were trying to find their mother, who was struggling with addiction and was unhoused. "We did find our mother. It was a mixed feeling of excitement--she was still with us--and hurt. We realized she didn't even have the capacity to reach out to us during a pandemic. And I reached out to the spirit of Nina." "I can't imagine," Robinson mused, "what my mother's life would have been like if she had received enough stories that made her feel good" when she was a child--if she had been given the chance to see herself in books.

Kekla Magoon

Kekla Magoon emotionally rocked the crowd by beginning her speech for her CSK Author Honor for Revolution in Our Time (Candlewick) with an homage to the late Ashley Bryan, who died this year at the age of 98. Bryan was a regular fixture of the CSK awards and would begin every speech with a call-and-response recitation of "My People" by Langston Hughes. (You can listen to Bryan recite the poem here.) Magoon stood at the podium and told the crowd they knew what to do: "The night is beautiful,/ So the faces of my people." Her intonation, movements and energy mimicked Bryan's, and it was a beautiful, vibrant, emotional tribute to the talented, much-missed creator. "There will never be another voice quite like Ashley's," Magoon said, "but that's okay because we still have his stories. And the ability to tell our own." Revolution in Our Time is, Magoon said, the first mainstream book written for teens about the Black Panther Party. The struggle in which the Panthers engaged "continues, and as such it means so much to me to be recognized by this committee for this book.... In this landscape of book challenges and overt white supremacy," Magoon said, "it is our charge... our responsibility to make sure this history is known." If there is revolution in our time, she declared, "it will start in the pages of a book."

C.G. Esperanza received his honor for his illustrations in Soul Food Sunday (Abrams) and thanked author Winsome Bingham: her "words made me use colors I had never used before. They also made me reflect on the amazing things my grandmothers passed on to me." Ibi Zoboi, who received an Author Honor for The People Remember (illus. by Loveis Wise, Balzer + Bray) spoke of the importance of telling and "embodying the stories that already live in our ancestral DNA."

Dayton Cooper

Before the speeches by the Coretta Scott King Award winners, Driver checked in with those assembled: "How y'all doing? Holding up?" This gentle check-in led directly into the bittersweet speech given by Dayton Cooper, Floyd's son, who accepted the Illustrator Award on his father's behalf. Cooper opened by noting that, as an adult, he had grown to be quite a bit larger than his father. However, "I will forever find it challenging to come even remotely close to filling his shoes." His family knew, he said, that "if there was any book that had a shot of taking home the W, it would be Unspeakable." Floyd Cooper was born in Tulsa, Okla., and everything he "knew about the tragedy came from his grandpa and grandpa alone," showing how this horrendous historical event had been completely erased from cultural memory. "They say a picture is worth a thousand words," Cooper said, "but on this day, the word 'unspeakable' should be worth a thousand pictures. He entreated the audience: "May we continue to bring history's dark truths to light" and finished by saying, "It fills my heart with joy that, because of these awards, my dad's final work will truly be cherished.... I love you dad, to the moon and back."

Carole Boston Weatherford

Carole Boston Weatherford, the author of Unspeakable and winner of the CSK Author Award, opened by saying, "You made me last, and I have to follow Dayton. Not only was I a bundle of nerves, now I'm all choked up as well." Weatherford told the audience that she had originally wanted to write something a bit more personal: "There is a lynching in my own family lore." When editors didn't respond, she expanded the story, broadened it, made it a "lamentation... and a testament to those killed and left homeless." Today, she pointed out, "books like Unspeakable are at the center of the culture wars over whose stories are told and who gets to tell them. Children are not "too tender for tough topics," she argued, saying they "deserve to be told the tough truths.... If children of the past can be victimized, then children today can at least empathize." It is our job--authors, illustrators, librarians, publishers, booksellers, and on and on--to "pour every good thing and every true thing that we can into our children." In times like this, Weatherford said, "we must be the books and pass on the knowledge whenever and wherever we can." She, like Robinson, finished with a song, hers in tribute to her illustrator and friend Floyd Cooper: Billie Holiday's "I'll Be Seeing You."

The final award of the morning was the Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement, to Nikki Grimes, who was unable to attend and asked jury member Chrystal Carr Jeter to read her remarks. "I'm not hot on pre-dawn gatherings," Jeter read, "and yet I surely wish I could be with you this morning." Grimes's remarks were primarily focused on the role Virginia Hamilton (her "literary kinswoman") played in her life as a creative and as a person: "When I got the news, one of the people I most wanted to tell was Virginia." It is Virginia's books, Grimes wrote, that "showed me the way." Like many of the morning's speakers, Grimes expressed that it is "imperative that authors and illustrators be honest in our work for young readers." And she said that "to receive this award at such a time is especially significant because it is fuel to me. I will continue to hold the line, to create new works... that reflect the reality of Black life in America, past and present." --Siân Gaetano, children's/YA editor, Shelf Awareness

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