African American author and book resources

February 20, 2010

This post was originally published in the February 2010 issue of LibrarySparks.

I met Sharon Draper in a utility closet. Maya Angelou, Angela Johnson, and Jacqueline Woodson were there, too. I talked to Kadir Nelson, Ashley Bryan, and Walter Dean Myers. Yes, and even Christopher Paul Curtis. Can you guess the common thread that led to my encounters with these talented authors and illustrators?

I’m a librarian, but I don’t work in a library. In fact, for the last few months I’ve spent many hours working (quite happily) in a utility closet. There’s even a ladder for roof access and building maintenance affixed to the wall. Using an ancient telephone rescued from a thrift store and some special recording equipment, I call authors and illustrators of young adult and children’s books. Recently, I’ve called nearly all of the authors and illustrators whose books have been recognized with a Coretta Scott King Book Award, in celebration of the 40th anniversary of this award given to African American authors and illustrators who have created books that “promote understanding and appreciation of the culture of all peoples and their contribution to the realization of the American dream of a pluralistic society.”

And, although there aren’t any actual windows in my little closet sound studio, my telephone calls with authors and illustrators have created openings into other worlds. I get little glimpses into authors’ and illustrators’ home lives and thoughts. I hear about the inspiration behind the books they create. I hear their cats meow, their allergies kick in, car horns honking outside, and what the weather is like from coast to coast, and even in South Africa. My utility closet phone calls with authors and illustrators have given me a whole new kind of intimacy and connection with their books.

After hours and hours of speaking to authors and illustrators, I’ve learned something very simple—but important. Meeting authors and illustrators of the books you’re reading enhances your connection to those books, and to reading in general. And for me, meeting the authors and illustrators honored with a Coretta Scott King Book Award supported new connections to history, art, and a whole bunch of incredible books for children and young adults.

The recordings I make with authors and illustrators are part of the new Coretta Scott King Book Awards Online Curriculum Resource Center, a free, online collection with resources about books and authors. The Center may be freely accessed and/or linked at

The recordings available there are typically three-minute clips that begin with an author sharing the backstory behind a book and then reading a brief excerpt. Audio clips with illustrators (a new type of clip we developed for the Coretta Scott King Book Awards project) feature an illustrator discussing a spread from their picture book. When possible, an image of the material being discussed is displayed directly below the audio player. These online audio clips give teachers, librarians, students, and parents the opportunity to meet and learn from authors and illustrators.

I love that the Internet and technology allow teachers and students to peek through the same window that I get to when I call authors to make recordings. I also feel glad that this technology and online collection of audio can help build awareness for the books, authors, and illustrators who have been recognized by the Coretta Scott King Book Awards.

Whether you’re teaching an art lesson, a writing lesson, a history unit, or working on a social studies project, you can bring these authors and illustrators in as experts. Imagine telling your students, “Every day this week, we’ll have an author or illustrator visit us virtually. We’ll get to hear the actual, famous authors and illustrators tell us about what inspired them.”

The Coretta Scott King Book Awards Curriculum Resource Center, which includes audio clips, as well as videos, book readings, and lesson plans, allows you to search for resources by grade level, curricular area, and award type in addition to author/illustrator name and book title. Below, I’ll touch on some particularly noteworthy audio clips as examples for just a few curricular areas.

The Coretta Scott King Book Awards Resource Center for Art

When I was young I remember my mother showing me Faith Ringgold’s story quilts. I also remember how my mom said Faith Ringold’s name in this special tone, this respectful soft and reverent tone reserved for important things. I was delighted when I got to meet Faith through the phone lines to record her speaking about her book, Tar Beach (Crown Books, 1991).

Your students will also enjoy meeting Faith Ringgold and listening to her speak about her personal inspiration for writing and illustrating the vivid and lyrical Tar Beach. It’s powerful to hear about how her childhood and memories were the kindling for her work. Be sure to enjoy a read-aloud of Tar Beach with your students after listening to the audio clip.

Another excellent illustrator audio clip is Christopher Myers speaking about his illustrations in Black Cat (Scholastic, 1999). There’s just something so relatable and conversational about Christopher that is captured in this clip. Every time I hear it, I feel like I’m hanging out, chatting with Christopher and learning about his approach to his craft. He would be an exciting illustrator to invite into your classroom, via the Internet and, for a virtual illustrator visit.

You also won’t want to miss the 2009 Coretta Scott King Book Award Illustrator Winner, Floyd Cooper, discussing his illustrations and the eraser technique he used for The Blacker the Berry (HarperCollins, 2008). When you play the audio, you’ll notice that the spread Floyd is speaking about is displayed below the audio player.

There are many, many more incredible illustrators speaking about their books as part of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Curriculum Resource Center, including Jerry Pinkney, Pat Cummings, and Bryan Collier, just to name a few.

The Coretta Scott King Book Awards Resource Center for History

I’ve long been an avid reader, but I can’t say I’ve ever had the same passion for history. It has seemed remote to me, distant and dusty and only experienced by people long, long before my time. Working with authors and illustrators to create audio clips about their books turned my long-held feelings about history on their head. Hearing from book creators who passionately researched and conducted interviews to unearth and shed light on figures and events in African American history, well, I was suddenly bursting with curiosity. Somehow speaking with authors and illustrators made history come alive and seem much less distant.

The Coretta Scott King Book Awards Online Curriculum Resource Center is a great tool for incorporating picture books and literature into history lessons. The audio clips are powerful tools to build interest in and expose students to important African American historic events and people.

Invite authors to be a part of history lessons by playing audio clips from the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Online Curriculum Resource Center.

For example, Joyce Hanson speaks about researching the history of the 18th century African burial ground discovered in New York City’s financial district in her introduction to and reading from Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York’s African Burial Ground (Henry Holt, 1998).

Julius Lester introduces and reads from Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue (Hyperion, 2005), his book about the largest auction of slaves in American history.

Patricia and Fredrick McKissack talk about their book, Days of Jubilee: The End of Slavery in the United States (Scholastic, 2003), which explores the end of slavery in the United States. The McKissacks researched and recorded what jubilee felt like from the slaves’ point of view, based on interviews of slaves collected by writers in the 1930s.

Other important people discussed in the Coretta Scott King Curriculum Resource Center’s audio clips include Lena Horne, Malcolm XMary McLeod Bethune, Harriet Tubman, Portia Washington Pitman, Ray Charles, Muhammed AliSojourner Truth, Stevie Wonder, aviator Elizabeth Coleman, Paul Robeson, and Emmett Till.

In addition to the examples I’ve highlighted, you can also utilize the CSK Curriculum Resource Center to find audio resources to enrich the following curricular areas: math, music, physical education, social studies, Spanish, health, English language arts, and cultural studies.

I’m really pleased to have been able to participate in the organization of so many online, multimedia resources for so many curricular areas in one place. The information, emotions, and history I gleaned from listening in on my dusty old telephone as authors and illustrators discussed their books re-shaped me. The Coretta Scott King project phone calls were often laden with emotion: with grief, with joy, with passion, and with pride. I have a new and lasting connection to the very special books, and the incredibly talented authors and illustrators whose dedication and hard work have been recognized by the Coretta Scott King Book Award.

I hope this online collection can offer similar benefits to you, to students, and to families. I hope it is a useful tool that supports your work, and I encourage you to explore it and imagine the ways you might use the resources you discover.


Posted by Danika Brubaker, MLS, Web 2.0 Content Producer


Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.

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