Honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: The Coretta Scott King Book Awards

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By Steve Zalusky

On Monday, Jan. 19, we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. That day, our nation reflects on his life and legacy.

Dr. King’s life and work will also be commemorated two weeks later during the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting, when the ALA honors books, videos, and other outstanding materials for children and teens during its Youth Media Awards (YMA) ceremony on Monday, Feb. 2.

Sponsored by the ALA's Ethnic and Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table (EMIERT), the Coretta Scott King Book 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 award commemorates the life and work of Dr. King and honors Mrs. King for her courage and determination to continue the work for peace and world brotherhood.

The award was founded in 1969 by two school librarians, Mabel McKissick and Glyndon Greer at the ALA Annual Conference in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Over the years, the two not only served as a driving force behind its foundation, but also played a huge role in nurturing its development.

During the conference, John Carroll, a publisher and conference exhibitor, suggested to McKissick and Greer the need to recognize African American authors and illustrators of books for children and youth.

According to The Coretta Scott King Awards: 1970-2004, edited by H. M. Smith and published by the ALA in 2004, They expressed concern that no African American authors or illustrations up to that point in time had received the ALA’s renowned Newbery or Caldecott medals.

Pursuing their idea, Greer and McKissick talked to Coretta Scott King and received approval to use her name on the award.

In a 2006 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Fran Ware, former chair of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee, noted that, “Glyndon Greer had great admiration for Coretta Scott King and wanted to name the awards for her.” Ware said it was Greer’s persistence that led to King’s granting permission to use her name, noting that in 2002, the last time that Mrs. King attended the ceremony, “(S)he told us how glad she is that she did that.”

McKissick and Greer presented the first Coretta Scott King Award to Lillie Patterson for her biography, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Man of Peace (Garrard) in 1970 at the New Jersey Library Association conference. The two librarians also negotiated the first honorarium with Johnson Publishing Company and initiated the first illustrator award in 1974 to George Ford for Ray Charles, written by Sharon Bell Mathis, (Crowell).

In 1979, the Coretta Scott King Task Force was formed and became part of ALA’s Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT) the next year.  In 1982, the Coretta Scott King Book Awards became an officially recognized ALA award.  The Coretta Scott King Task Force joined ALA’s Ethnic and Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table (EMIERT) in 2003 and became the Coretta Scott Book Awards Committee. 

The Coretta Scott King Book Awards have grown to include several categories.  The John Steptoe Award for New Talent (originally the Genesis Award) was established in 1995 to recognize exceptional work from new African American authors and illustrators.  The first Steptoe Award was given to Sharon Draper for Tears of a Tiger (Simon & Schuster).  In 2010, the committee established the Coretta Scott King – Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement to be given alternately to an author or illustrator and a practitioner.  The first Hamilton Award recipients were Walter Dean Myers (2010) and Henrietta M. Smith (2011). 

Since 1972, the recipients of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards have been honored at a celebratory breakfast during the ALA Annual Conference.  In 2009, ALA published the fourth edition of The Coretta Scott King Awards, a complete history of the awards edited by Henrietta M. Smith.  

Over the years, the award has served as an incubator for such exciting new talents such as Bryan Collier, Kadir Nelson, and Christopher Paul Curtis, whose novel “Bud, Not Buddy,” became the first book to receive both the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Author Award.

And, as author Andrea Davis Pinkney, who founded the first African American imprint, Jump at the Sun, at Hyperion Books, noted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article by Karen MacPherson, “Publishers are seeing the power of the African-American consumer.” She continued, “The Coretta Scott King Awards have distinguished themselves by selecting the best of the best of African-American literature for children, and consumers look for that. These books are very popular with parents and teachers and librarians.”

The 2014 winners are reflective of the broad landscape of author and illustrator offerings recognized.

The Coretta Scott King (Author) Book Award went to P.S. Be Eleven, written by Rita Williams-Garcia.

The Coretta Scott King (Illustrator) Book Award was given to Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me, illustrated by Bryan Collier. The book was written by Daniel Beaty and published by Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group.

The Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award went to When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop,” illustrated by Theodore Taylor III. The book is published by Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership.

The Coretta Scott King - Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement, which is presented in even years to an African American author, illustrator or author/illustrator for a body of his or her published books for children and/or young adults, and who has made a significant and lasting literary contribution, was presented to authors Patricia and Fredrick McKissack.

Being chair of the awards committee has been an enriching experience for Dr. Jonda C. McNair, a former elementary school teacher who received her doctorate in Language, Literacy, and Culture from The Ohio State University. She is now an associate professor of literacy education at Clemson University in the Eugene T. Moore School of Education and serves as chair of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee. She had been following the Coretta Scott King Awards for quite some time while and later began writing a newsletter about African American children’s literature. She sent the newsletter to the Coretta Scott King Awards listserv where it was seen by former Chair Fran Ware, who nominated her to serve on the awards jury. Eventually, she chaired the jury, before being elected to serve as chair of the overall committee.

“It was a dream of mine to become involved with the award and serve on the jury,” she said.

“I consider serving on children's book award committees to be really stimulating intellectual work, because it is not enough to just say you like or dislike a book. You have to really be thoughtful and read closely to either advocate for a book or to express concerns or criticisms about it. I think that makes you look at books in a very thoughtful way,” she said.

She said she also appreciates the opportunity to interact with some of her favorite authors and illustrators.

“I'm a big fan of Kadir Nelson,” she said. “It has been a privilege over the last several years to meet him at awards ceremonies and talk to him about his books and ask questions.”

“I see the award as a way to spotlight the work of African American authors and illustrators,” noting the need for more diverse books and pointing out that statistics from the Cooperative Children's Book Center. http://ccblogc.blogspot.com/2013/07/i-see-white-people.html

She said she likes to see the influence of the awards on the publishing market.

“I like the fact, for example, that their books - on the day that the awards are announced – sell out. That makes me feel good. Actually what I do is sometimes I go to Amazon and, if I've served on the jury, for example, and I know which books are going to win before it's announced, I’ll look to see how the books are ranked that day, maybe that Sunday, and then I'll look that Monday after the awards have been announced, and you'll see rankings increase and the books may be out of stock. So that makes me feel good when I know that these books are being sold.”

McNair said the many of the books up for consideration tend to concentrate on black history.

“You do see a major focus on black history, but I also think that's probably typical in terms of the field of African American children's literature, because, I think, that's a common theme among many black writers. They want people to know about the history and contributions of African Americans,” she said, noting the examples of Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans and We Are the Ship. But McNair said, “I would like to see more fantasy. The Moon Ring won several years ago for the Steptoe, and it is one of the few fantasy books that has won. I'd like to see more fantasy as a whole in African American children’s literature.”

She would also like to see the awards fit in more with technological trends like apps.

“I would love to see a Coretta Scott King award-winning title made into a picture book app, one that children can interact with,” she said, “(considering) how technology is changing the way people read.”

She mentioned some of her favorites, including The Blacker the Berry, a collection of poems by Joyce Carol Thomas, saying she likes it because it focuses on an issue she feels is pervasive within the black community, that of colorism.

She also likes We Are the Ship, because she is a fan of Kadir Nelson and also has an interest in the history of Negro League baseball.

“I just like immersing myself in black history,” she said. For the same reason, she likes the work of Tonya Bolden.

For anyone interested in learning more about the Coretta Scott King Book Awards, one can read the fifth edition of “The Coretta Scott King Awards,” published by ALA Editions, an excellent tool for collection development, readers’ advisory, and classroom use.

This resource, which marked the 45th anniversary of the awards, edited by Carole J. McCollough and Adelaide Poniatowski Phelps, includes a selection of biographical profiles introducing the creative artists and illustrators behind the award-winning books, excerpts and color plates from many of the titles and a subject index, ideal for curriculum planning.

See a list of 2014 winners of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards.

The 2015 Youth Media Award announcements, including the  Coretta Scott King Book Awards, will take place during the ALA Midwinter Meeting & Exhibition on Monday, Feb. 2, 2015, from McCormick Place in Chicago. Be among the first to know the winners, watch the live webcast of the event or follow I Love Libraries on Twitter and Facebook.