Artists enrich young lives Art review: Illustrators of children's books try to make lasting impressions on African-American children by showing their lives in a positive light.

February 15, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

There are all kinds of stories being told in pictures at the Walters Art Gallery these days.

In "Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters," John Steptoe illustrates a tale of how two young women, one good and one mean, compete for the hand of a king. In "From Miss Ida's Porch," Floyd Cooper pictures a girl who likes to watch from her bedroom as the neighborhood folks gather on the next-door porch to tell stories.

In "Working Cotton," Carole Byard shows the story of the hard life of a migrant family working in the cotton fields. In "The Patchwork Quilt," Jerry Pinckney shows a young girl learning from her grandmother how to make a quilt that reflects everyone in the family.

Yes, these are all children's books, but they are children's books with a difference. All their characters are African-American. The exhibit "Lasting Impressions" assembles the work of 15 children's book illustrators whose desire is to allow African-American children to see themselves in a positive light.

It would be hard to exaggerate the importance that has for children, says Pinckney, who in addition to being one of the show's illustrators was its curator.

"About five years ago I was at another show of children's books, which included my work," he says. "I was giving a gallery talk, and someone tugged at my coat sleeve. It was a young child, about 6, and I looked down at him and he said, 'I see me in your pictures. Come see me.' He took me over to the paintings and showed me a young boy he had found that looked like him, and he was incredibly excited. That was a really emotional moment for me. There is a strong need for all children to see themselves reflected in the pictures they see."

Pinckney, who put the Walters show together for the California Afro-American Mu-seum, says there were several criteria at work in making the selections. "These are among the leading artists in the field. When we were organizing the show, about three years ago, we decided the artists had to have illustrated at least three books. There are artists I would like to have in the show that could qualify if we were doing it now. And we thought there had to be a contribution to a positive image."

Today, the number of children's books published each year with African and African-American themes and illustrations may approach 100. That's still a drop in the bucket among the several thousand children's books published by mainstream publishers. But it's a lot better than when Pinckney, now 56 and living outside of New York City, entered the field in the early 1960s.

"I came into the business in 1963 or so," he remembers, "and there were very few artists then. Tom Feelings, John Steptoe, Ezra Jack Keats. You can't speak about integrating books without speaking about Ezra Jack."

Keats, who died in 1983, wrote and illustrated a book called "The Snowy Day," depicting an African-American child. Its 1962 publication was a breakthrough in the field. "I made many sketches and studies of black children," Keats, who was white, said later, "so that Peter would not be a white kid colored brown. I wanted him to be in the book on his own, not through the benevolence of white children or anyone else."

Keats and his colleagues had an uphill battle for the first two decades or so. "In the early period, there was a sort of positioning that [the artist] was going to do what's needed without even the possibility of making a living," Pinckney says. "My first book was in 1964. I did books for 20 years and I never made back my advance until 1984."

By that time, Pinckney estimates, "there were about 16 books coming out of mainstream publishers. Then it climbed with the use of children's books in schools and the emphasis on multicultural subject matter."

It's still a small field, and this exhibit brings together a significant number of its leading figures. "The vast majority of these books have won the Caldecott or the Coretta Scott King Award, two of the most prestigious awards for children's book illustration in this country," says Diane Stillman, the Walters' director of education and the show's curator in Baltimore.

"Among the older generation are Leo and Diane Dillon, who were the first illustrators to receive the Caldecott medal two years in a row," Stillman says. "Among the younger illustrators, there's superb work by Brian Pinckney [son of Jerry], who just this week won both the Caldecott and the Coretta Scott King awards for his most recent book, 'Faithful Friend.'

"Two other younger illustrators, James Ransome and Floyd Cooper, both work in oils and are superb artists in their own right," she says. "One of the beauties of the show is that by seeing the original illustrations people can appreciate the artistry in ways they can only approximate by seeing them in the book."

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