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Honoring Heroes in History: Illustrations from the Coretta Scott King Book Awards, 2001-2005
November 12, 2005 - August 6, 2006
To celebrate Black History Month, an extraordinary grouping of original artworks from 15 Coretta Scott King Award-winning children's books are now on view at the Art Institute of Chicago until August 6, 2006. The exhibition Honoring Heroes in History (displayed in Galleries 10 and 142) features a selection of original illustrations from books that have received either winner or honor awards during the past five years. Each illustration is accompanied by the book for which it was created, demonstrating the transformation from the original work of art into the final, published form.
The Coretta Scott King Award was established in 1970 by librarians who shared a concern that too few African Americans were being recognized for their contributions to the field of children's literature. The American Library Association now oversees this distinguished award that dozens of authors and illustrators have received for their poetry, fiction, historical narratives, or illustrations. The award commemorates Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life and work and honors his wife, Coretta Scott King, for her "courage and determination in continuing the work for peace and brotherhood." It recognizes African American writers and artists who create books for children of all backgrounds, acknowledging the struggles and celebrating the successes of African American people.
Indeed, the theme of the exhibition is "heroes in history," and the books here honored celebrate the lives of historically significant African Americans -- from aviator Elizabeth Coleman to Sojourner Truth to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Langston Hughes. But the books also celebrate the lives of those of quieter accomplishments, from an upper middle class family at the epicenter of the Harlem Renaissance to a child swept up in the tide of the Great Migration.
Demonstrating a full range of African American achievement, the books are also evidence of a wide variety of styles and approaches to illustrations. Ashley Bryan's Beautiful Blackbird, a 2004 Winner, uses vibrant and bright cutouts to bring the world of birds to life. His sharp lines and color blocks are an arresting, energetic means to communicate the liveliness of the animal kingdom to young readers. E. B. Lewis, in two award-winning books (Talkin' About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman and Virgie Goes to School with Us Boys), uses gentle, impressionist-style watercolor illustrations to tell the stories of Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman and Virgie, a little girl who insists on going to school-and even walks seven miles to do so.
In describing the life of ex-slave John Parker, who helped hundreds of African-Americans escape to freedom, Bryan Collier offers a sophisticated combination of collages of patterned paper with watercolor to graphically recreate the tension of Parker's dangerous life in Freedom River, a 2001 Honor Award. And Kadir Nelson fashions nothing less than a portrait of the intellectual, political, and cultural leaders -- all through the eyes of a young girl who sees these men not as history in the making but as genial visitors to her family's house in Ellington Was Not a Street.
While all of the books treat widely different subjects in a full range of styles and media, they share a fundamental commitment to making the lives of African Americans accessible and visually compelling to young readers. The subtlety, generosity, and creativity on view in Honoring Heroes in History: Illustrations from Coretta Scott King Award Books 2001-2005 is a fitting tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his life's mission to raise awareness of civil rights through the word and the pen.
Honoring Heroes in History: Illustrations from Coretta Scott King Award Books 2001-2005 has been organized by the Interpretive Exhibitions and Family Programs division in the Department of Museum Education. Programs are free with suggested museum admission unless otherwise noted.
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