From African-American history to folktales to album covers, Kadir Nelson has added his glowing and inspired paintings to dozens of projects and gone on to become an award-winning author himself.
Born in Washington, D.C. on May 15, 1974, Kadir was encouraged by his family to pursue his interest in art. There were no art or music classes at his school.* His uncle, an artist and art instructor, apprenticed his nephew when he was 10. He gave him his foundation studies and taught him how to use watercolors, though later on Kadir would learn to use many other mediums, including oils. During part of his childhood, Kadir lived in Atlantic City, New Jersey where he became close to his grandma, a sharp, strong-armed grocery store owner. She eventually provided inspiration for Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom and became the basis for his narrator for Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans.
Kadir received an art scholarship and attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, graduating with honors. He then held an internship at the Society of Illustrators and began taking commissions. His work caught the attention of a new company called DreamWorks that was producing a film about the slave revolt aboard the ship, the Amistad. According to Kadir, “I was hired as a conceptual artist for the film to illustrate key moments throughout the story to give the director, Steven Spielberg, an idea of what the film could look and feel like."* Also working on Amistad was Debbie Allen, the Emmy Award-winning choreographer. She commissioned Kadir to illustrate two of her children’s books, Brothers of the Knight and Dancing in the Wings. He then collaborated with movie star Will Smith on Just the Two of Us, a picture book celebrating the love between a father and his son. Kadir also illustrated Please, Baby, Please, the story of new parents and their baby from Spike Lee and his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee.
As his fame grew, his art became collectible, and he received many commissions. His paintings of singer Marvin Gaye caught the eye of Michael Jackson who wanted Kadir to do his portrait. Eventually the work, “The King of Pop: the Life of Michael Jackson,” was commissioned by the late singer’s estate and a portion of it appeared on his posthumous album, Michael. In August 2013, it was announced that he did the cover for rapper Drake's album Nothing Was the Same.
Kadir’s art for Amistad led him to eventually illustrating then writing children’s books on African American history:
"My focus is to create images of people who demonstrate a sense of hope and nobility. I want to show the strength and integrity of the human being and the human spirit."***
His illustrations for Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom and Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story of the Underground Railroad won the Caldecott Honor in 2007 and 2008. His own book, We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball won the Coretta Scott King awards for writing and illustration. In 2012, Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans received the same honors. Kadir Nelson has had a wonderful career, but he is still quite young and has many more works ahead of him. In an interview some years ago with Sharon Taylor-Hupfert, he revealed that becoming a father has allowed him to take those new experiences and put them into books. “Before kids, my work was monochromatic. Now it’s more colorful.”
He has also remarked on what he hopes his books for children can achieve:
"I think it is important for us to see positive images of ourselves. And if you look at contemporary images of African-Americans, particularly African-American males, it's not always positive. But it's important to have heroes. I hope a kid can look in my books and see him - or herself in a positive way."***
Born: May 15, 1974, in Washington, D.C. to Emily-Diane Gunter (a motivational speaker and author)
Education: Pratt Institute of Art in Brooklyn, New York
First job: “Visual Development Artist” for DreamWorks on its Amistad film.
Selected Awards: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Image Award, 2001, for Just the Two of Us; Silver Medal for original art, Society of Illustrators, 2002, for Under the Christmas Tree; Coretta Scott King Honor Book designation, American Library Association, 2004, for Thunder Rose by Jerdine Nolen; Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration, 2004, and Once Upon a World Children's Book Award, Simon Wiesenthal Center, 2005, both for Ellington Was Not a Street by Ntozake Shange; Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford won the Caldecott Honor in 2007 and Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story of the Underground Railroad, by Ellen Levine, won the same award in 2008. We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball won the Coretta Scott King Award for authors in 2009 and was honored by the same group for its illustration as did Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans in 2012.
Fun to Know! His favorite children's books:
- Where the Wild Things Are
- Muhammad Ali: Champion of the World
- John Henry (Pinkney Illus.)
- Snow White (Barrett Illus.)
Not only is Nelson Kadir a brilliant children's author, but he also illustrates. Check out these popular picks Nelson Kadir has either written, illustrated or both.
A stirring poetic tribute to the beauty and wonder of America's symbols, history, landscape.
A simple introduction to African-American history, from Revolutionary-era slavery up to the election of President Obama.
A fictionalized account of how in 1849 a Virginia slave, Henry "Box" Brown, escapes to freedom by shipping himself in a wooden crate from Richmond to Philadelphia.
While planting seeds in their garden, two animals learn the value of kindness.
Describes Tubman's spiritual journey as she hears the voice of God guiding her north to freedom on that very first trip to escape the brutal practice of forced servitude. Tubman would make nineteen subsequent trips back south, never being caught, but none as profound as this first one.
Using an "Everyman" player as his narrator, Kadir Nelson tells the story of Negro League baseball from its beginnings in the 1920s through the decline after Jackie Robinson crossed over to the majors in 1947. Illustrations from oil paintings by Kadir Nelson.
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These articles come from the CRRL’s Research sources. You will need your CRRL card to read them. Don’t have a card? Get one here.
Margolis, Rick. "Going, going, gone! Kadir Nelson on 'We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball'." School Library Journal Aug. 2008: 23. Biography in Context.
"Nelson's Art is America's 'Heart'." USA Today 27 Oct. 2011: 04D. Biography in Context.
Corbett, Sue. "Kadir Nelson: the accidental historian." Publishers Weekly 18 July 2011: 26+. Biography in Context.
"Q&A." Instructor  Winter 2014: 55. Biography in Context.
***"In His Own words: Kadir Nelson." Instructor  Nov.-Dec. 2009: 17. Biography in Context.
Kadir Nelson Interview from Reading Rockets
Kadir Nelson: Scholastic Biography
"Nelson, Kadir." Something About the Author. 2008. Encyclopedia.com.
Henry’s Freedom Box Lesson Plan
National Book Festival: Kadir Nelson (includes Webcasts from his appearances there)
**Who Wrote That? Kadir Nelson
Seven Impossible Interviews before Breakfast: Kadir Nelson
On Twitter: https://twitter.com/KadirNelson