Coretta Scott King Awards 2009

The Newbery and Caldecott Medals may be better known, but the Coretta Scott King Awards, now in their fortieth year, have become a highlight of the American Library Association's awards ceremony.  Given to African American authors and illustrators for outstanding inspirational and educational contributions, these books are among the most distinguished of the year.

Kadir Nelson's gorgeous "We Are the Ship, the Story of Negro League Baseball" won the Sibert Medal for nonfiction as well as the Coretta Scott King author award.   Readers ten and up, whether baseball fans or not, will be drawn in immediately by the cover painting of Josh Gibson holding a bat, his sleeves rolled up and muscles bulging, staring directly at the reader.

Readers who, like me, know only the general outlines of the story will be fascinated to discover the personalities and events of the era.  In the early days, black players were banned from teams by white owners in a "gentleman's agreement" that lasted for sixty years.  All-black ball clubs didn't succeed until the advent of Andre "Rube" Foster, who ran the first successful black ball club in the 1920s.  He was quite a character: demanding, highly organized, and driven to make black baseball teams successful.  Nelson's portrait of Rube shows him towering over his players, toothpick in his mouth, squinting through the sun at the reader, clearly in charge.

Nelson's stories about black teams traveling around the country during segregation will be eye-opening for young readers.  From the Depression, to the introduction of night baseball ("it meant now we could play three, even four games a day instead of two"), and the arrival of Branch Rickey and the integration of the major leagues, Nelson tells the story in the voice of an "everyman" player who remembers every detail.  The oil portraits that punctuate the book honor each player and evoke a time that, for better and for worse, will never come again.

Kids may not know who John Coltrane is, but that won't stop them from picking up Carole Boston Weatherford's picture book biography, "Before John was a Jazz Giant," a King honor book. As Weatherford says, "Before John was a jazz giant, he heard steam engines whistling past...he heard Grandpa's Sunday sermons...he heard big bands on the radio..."  All these influences converged the first time he picked up a horn "and breathed every sound he'd ever known into a bold new song."

Sean Qualls' angular shapes and decorative circles in muted shades illustrate not just the facts of Coltrane's story but the feelings as well.  His figures are small and solemn in a funeral scene, energetic and happy doing the jitterbug.  As he did in his art for "Dizzy," a picture book biography of Dizzy Gillespie, Qualls manages to echo on the page the improvisational style that makes jazz a unique art form.

In the small town of Star, everyone is eagerly anticipating the very first moon landing, especially Mae, the eight-year-old narrator of Dianna Hutts Aston's King honor book, "The Moon over Star."  Though her hardworking grandfather doubts the worth of such an expensive venture, Mae discovers on the night of the moon landing that they both share a dream for the future.

Jerry Pinkney's watercolors are equally at home with the dramatic scenes in outer space as well as the warm family groups on the farm in Star.

First published in the 2/17/09 Free Lance-Star newspaper.