At the 2013 National Book Festival
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." He began collaborating with writers in 1999, including choreographer Debbie Allen ("Dancing in the Wings") and Ntozake Shange ("Ellington Was Not a Street"). Nelson debuted as an author with "We Are the Ship." His current work is "Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans" (HarperCollins).
Previous National Book Festival Appearances
- 2011 Book Festival Webcast
- 2009 Book Festival Webcast
- 2008 Book Festival Webcast
- 2006 Book Festival Webcast
What sparked your imagination for your newest book - Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans?
Throughout my career I have told the African-American story through my work. I’ve painted images from the slave trade, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, the great migration, and the civil rights movement. Heart and Soul presented an opportunity for me to learn and appreciate the greater American story and share it with readers in a single volume. Through working on Heart and Soul, I gained an appreciation of the role that families like mine played in the formation of our country.
Can you suggest a fun writing or drawing topic to get them started?
Draw a picture of yourself doing what you love to do most!
From the 2009 National Book Festival
Kadir, you spent quite a bit of time studying Jackie Robinson for your award-winning book, We are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball. Did that make it easier – or more challenging – when you began paintings for Testing the Ice?
My research of Jackie Robinson was helpful when it came to learning hard facts about his life in baseball, but I found the most useful information from my conversations with Sharon. It was a real treat to learn about her family life and precious time she shared with her father. Her family was very solid.
Sharon gave you access to personal family photographs when you created the artwork for this book. What did you learn from this very personal side of the baseball great?
I learned that her father had as much integrity off the field as he did on it. He was active in the lives of his children and his and his wife’s sense of integrity and independence rubbed off on their children.
Many of your previous picture books – such as Henry’s Freedom Box – are written by authors who have distance from their subject. How is it different to work with someone who experienced the very incident you’re painting?
In regard to research and method, my approach to the subject is the same. The real test was showing the final artwork to the very people whose lives I was interpreting. Fortunately, they loved the artwork. (Phew!)
Kadir, what do you hope readers will take away from this story?
I think readers will enjoy seeing a side of Jackie Robinson that they haven’t really seen before. It’s a great story with a surprise at the end. I hope they will love the story as much as I do.
Do you have a website where young people can learn more about you and your work?
From the 2008 National Book Festival
What sparked your imagination for your newest book We are the Ship: The Story of the Negro League?
I got hooked on the history of the Negro Leagues while I was a student at Pratt Institute in the mid 1990s. I was commissioned to do a painting on the NL but didn’t know much about it. So in doing my research I stumbled upon the Ken Burns documentary –
Baseball - which aired on PBS. Through watching the documentary I was introduced to the former player and manager Buck O’Neil who told the story of the Negro Leagues in such a charming way that I fell in love with the history (and Buck) and was inspired to learn more. I began creating several paintings and it grew exponentially from there. As I continued to paint I would realize that I had to tell this story in a book and I knew I had to write it myself.
You worked with Doreen Rappaport on your new book, Abe’s Honest Words: The Life of Abraham Lincoln. As an illustrator, how do you go about collaborating with an author?
In most cases, the author and illustrator work in solitude without any intrusion by the other. My work on Abe’s Honest Words was mostly a collaboration with the wonderful words Doreen had written, and the multitude of reference I found in the library and online. I read a couple of biographies about Lincoln and also traveled to Springfield, Illinois to see firsthand where Lincoln lived and came into his own before he became president. Camera in hand, I visited New Salem, a replica of a village just outside of Springfield, where Lincoln lived a short while after he left home. I walked through Lincoln’s Springfield home, the Old State Capitol where Lincoln gave his famous “House Divided” speech, and his old law offices. I found wonderful reference at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library there, as well as in Washington D.C., where I toured the U.S. Capitol building and the spent time at the Lincoln Memorial. I did all of this to get a clearer picture of Lincoln’s journey and found the experience to be invaluable and inspiring.
What challenges do you face in your writing and drawing process? How do you overcome them?
The challenge I face with each book is trying to trying to approach my subject in a new way, different from that of former approaches. I aim to try something different than what I and other artists have done in previous books. It’s a great way to learn and improve on my work.
What artists have inspired you? What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing/illustrating?
I’m most inspired by master painters of old. They have given contemporary artists a wonderful foundation to build upon. I would encourage students who aim to become writers and artists to study, practice, love and respect your craft and subjects, and hone your skills so that when a great opportunity knocks on your door, you can take advantage of it. There’s no more terrible feeling than missing a great opportunity because you were not prepared for it.
Can you suggest a fun writing or drawing topic to get them started?
I would suggest young artists learn to draw the human figure. They can use themselves, friends, or family as models. Hands and feet are vitally important to learn to draw. They are very difficult, but once you learn them they become fun to draw. Learn to draw them and you can learn to draw anything.
How do you decide on themes for your books?
In order to illustrate or write on a particular subject, I must first love the story. Before I take on a book, I’ll imagine myself working on it. Only if it seems fun and interesting will I take it on. You have to remember that an artist/author will spend a considerable amount of time working on his subject. If it is neither fun nor interesting, I will decline because I know the work would suffer.
How important is research in the development of your books? Can you explain the process as well?
Research is essential to what I do. It’s the truth of the matter, and in my work I seek out truths to share with the readers of my books. I generally read a book about the subject and if time and budget allows, I’ll make a special research trip. I find most of my research materials in a library or online.
What is your list of favorite children or teen books?
- Where the Wild Things Are
- Muhammad Ali: Champion of the World
- John Henry (Pinkney Illus.)
- 'Snow White (Barrett Illus.)
'If you were not writing and drawing, what do you think you would be doing?'
I’d probably aspire to be a comedian, a baseball player, or a musician.
'What is your advice to parents for passing the joys of reading on to their children?'
I think it’s great to set an example. If a child sees you reading, it will likely spark his/her curiosity in reading. Interest based reading is also very important. It’s about finding the right book for a child.