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Best of the National Book Festival: Kadir Nelson, 2011

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Welcome to our ongoing celebration of the Library of Congress National Book Festival. Each weekday, we will feature a video presentation from among the thousands of authors who have appeared at the National Book Festival and as part of our new year-long series, National Book Festival Presents. Mondays will feature topical nonfiction; Tuesday: poetry or literary fiction; Wednesday: history, biography, memoir; Thursday: popular fiction; and Friday: authors who write for children and teens. Please enjoy, and make sure to explore our full National Book Festival video collection!

The following post was written by Paige Collins, a Junior Fellow in the Center for Learning, Literacy and Engagement at the Library of Congress and a 2020 graduate of the University of Georgia.

This event from the National Book Festival is especially for children and teens, and this blog post includes prompts for writing and thinking that teens, families and teachers can use to explore the author and the author’s work. Recommended for ages 8-12.

Writer and illustrator Kadir Nelson, who began drawing at age 3 and painting at age 10, says, “I have always been an artist. It’s part of my DNA.” His books include “We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball,” “Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom” and “Henry’s Freedom Box.” Nelson’s books have won several national awards, including three Coretta Scott King Awards, two Caldecott Medals, an NAACP Image Award and a Sibert Medal. In this presentation from the 2011 Library of Congress National Book Festival, Kadir Nelson talks from the Teens stage about his book “Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans.” Children’s author Mary Quattlebaum, who also reviews young-adult books for The Washington Post, introduces him.

The presentation begins at 2:52 and timestamps for major topics are below:

  • Shirley Chisholm portrait; how a lack of diversity inspired Kadir Nelson’s historical curiosity (see a campaign poster of Chisholm from the Library’s collections here) (6:13)
  • “I am an artist by trade, and I became an author by necessity.” (12:19)
  • “Tell the story that you know you can tell. … Just tell the truth.” (18:10)
  • “The project has to start from a loving place.” (18:47)
  • How Kadir Nelson balances themes of hardship and hope in his books (28:37)
  • Q&A begins (34:48)

Writing and Thinking Prompts

  • Have you read any of Kadir Nelson’s books? How has this talk changed the way you think about his work?
  • What surprised you about the talk? What do you wonder about?
  • If you had been at this talk, what would you have asked Kadir Nelson?

4:17, 10:09: At 4:17, Kadir Nelson says, “History can be looked at as if it were a string of stories,” and at 10:09 he discusses some of the stories that his relatives told him from their experiences, including from his aunt who heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak and one of his ancestors who was enslaved.

  • All of our families and communities share stories. Ask your family or community members about big historic moments that they remember. Ask them if they have any newspapers, letters, photos, magazines, video, social media archives or other primary sources from that time or event. How do these materials help you understand the big stories that define your family and community? What questions do these primary sources make you want to ask?

25:59: Kadir Nelson says that he thinks of his book “Heart and Soul” as the “American family album.” He shows how words and pictures together can tell stories more powerfully than either of them can alone.

  • Does your family have a photo album or another way to document memories? If so, have you heard the stories behind the pictures? If you remixed the photo album into an illustrated journal or a timeline of your family with pictures, what captions would you add? How are you reflected in this story?
  • If you don’t have a family photo album handy, explore a photo album in the Library’s collection that belonged to civil rights leader Rosa Parks. Are there people in the photographs that you recognize? What do the images tell you about Rosa Parks’s life? Then, read more of the story behind one of the images in the online exhibition “Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words.”

Visit Kadir Nelson’s website and take a look at his creative work. Make observations about his style: What does he emphasize, and what makes his illustration his? What do you think he is trying to communicate through his art?

  • Ask yourself the same questions about your creative work. Don’t worry about developing your own style yet – it will come if you keep true to what is most important to you when you create.

Explore More

Hear stories from individuals like Kadir Nelson’s aunt who experienced the civil rights movement in the Civil Rights History Project.

At 30:16, Kadir Nelson talks about the research he does for his artwork and text, using the example of looking at images or sketches of a slave ship to inform his work. If you have a research project, check out the Library’s research guides to find recommendations from our librarians or Ask a Librarian directly. Or see examples of research guides and selected images about the Great Migration and Harriet Tubman, which Kadir Nelson discusses in the presentation.

The 2020 Library of Congress National Book Festival will celebrate its 20th birthday this year. You can get up-to-the-minute news, schedule updates and other important festival information by subscribing to this blog. The festival is made possible by the generosity of sponsors. You too can support the festival by making a gift now.