Kadir Nelson is the illustrator of both my favorite children’s picture books for 2005. My original choice for best illustrated book was HEWITT ANDERSON’S GREAT BIG LIFE written by Jerdine Nolen, and illustrated by Kadir. As soon as I sat down to write the post, I discovered Kadir’s second book to publish in 2005, HE'S GOT THE WHOLE WORLD IN HIS HANDS. After receiving it in the mail, I couldn’t choose which one I liked best, they are both outstanding works of art. It’s my prediction that either of these books will be Caldecott and Coretta Scott King Award contenders, if not winners.
The other day, my son walks into my studio. He picks up the picture book that I had just received in the mail. "Daddy!" he says. "This little boy looks just like me!" His face was lit up bright as an Olympian torch as he displayed the book for me to see. HE'S GOT THE WHOLE WORLD IN HIS HANDS is a beautifully illustrated version of a timeless spiritual. I cracked up laughing at my son because character on the book cover — a young African American little boy with a squinty-eyed wide grin — does, in fact, look just like my son. My son makes that face a thousand times a week. It’s a confident expression of a child with high esteem, one that has been praised and has received the gift of a blessing by his parents. I am so pleased that African American kids have books like this, books with characters that look like them.
When I was my son’s age, we had Dick and Jane, Dot and Spot. Nothing wrong with Dick and Jane, or Dot and spot, but black folk didn’t exist in their world*. Actually, as a child, I don't even remember questioning it. I mean, that’s just the way it was.
Sometimes I allow myself to get frustrated, feeling like I've somehow been pigeon-holed into illustrating one kind of children’s book. But the expression on my son’s face was a reminder why I need to focus on books specifically for African American kids.
In an email exchange between Kadir and I, he made these comments about the technique in creating the art for Hewitt Anderson:
"I don't use live models for my children's book work. I pretty much know my way around the figure to get by without models. My color choices usually have to do with mood and setting. I'm very logical about this. Time of day, environment, what have you. For the visual style of the book, I figured I would use a blend of Africa and Europe. You can see this by the rolling hills and the Afro/Euro costumes and architecture. The story is about the dynamic between big and small, and I tried to emphasize this in each illustration. It was challenging but made it a lot of fun. As far as my process, I am not very different from other illustrators. I do thumbnail sketches, more finished sketches followed by plenty of research. And then onto the finished illustrations."
Now, all that said, my wife gave me the biggest compliment I’ve received in awhile. After my raving all over the house about HE’S GOT THE WHOLE WORLD IN HIS HANDS, she says to me: " I love the book, but, I think you could do just as well." That made my day. But, I know I’m not batting in the same league as Kadir, though I’m gonna keep working at it.
*I was wrong, while doing a quick internet search of Dick and Jane, I discovered that black folk did exist in Dick and Jane's world, introduced in the 1960s. Though, my school didn't have these, that I remember.