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The Art of Storytelling

TFK talks to award-winning illustrator Kadir Nelson about his new book, Blue Sky White Stars

May 17, 2017
COURTESY CHATTERJEE FAMILY

Artist and illustrator Kadir Nelson meets with TFK Kid Reviewer Jiyon Chatterjee at an art showcase in New York City.

Award-winning artist Kadir Nelson is taking readers from sea to shining sea with his new book, Blue Sky White Stars, out June 13.

In February, ahead of the book’s release, TFK Kid Reviewer Jiyon Chatterjee talked to Nelson at his art showcase in New York City. Blue Sky White Stars was written by Sarvinder Naberhaus and illustrated by Nelson. Nelson says the new picture book is an artistic celebration of the American flag and of the nation it symbolizes. His illustrations are meant to celebrate America's diversity. “I hope readers find their place in American history and how their family history feeds into the larger American story,” he told TFK.

Nelson has authored and illustrated award-winning picture books including We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball and Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans. He has won four Coretta Scot King Awards and two Caldecott Honors. In April, Nelson’s work was featured in HBO’s traveling art exhibit called “The HeLa Project.”

Read Nelson’s full Q&A with TFK below.

TIME FOR KIDS:

How did your early life shape your work?

KADIR NELSON:

My mom and dad were very supportive of my work—they were always very encouraging. I also had an uncle who was an artist, so I became his apprentice. He taught me how to draw better, he taught me to respect my craft, and he taught me about color. He gave me a very strong foundation.

TFK:

Who was the first person that noticed your talent? What were the first pieces of art that helped you get noticed?

NELSON:

My uncle noticed that I was holding the pencil correctly, with purpose. When I was in high school, I entered my work into art competitions. I got really serious about it when I was in college and I realized I could make a career out of it. I studied architecture, but after one semester I realized I didn't really want to do that. I wanted to be a basketball player, but I spent more time drawing than playing basketball.

Blue Sky White Stars is written by Sarvinder Naberhaus and illustrated by Kadir Nelson. It hits bookstores on June 13.

DIAL BOOKS FOR YOUNG READERS
Blue Sky White Stars is written by Sarvinder Naberhaus and illustrated by Kadir Nelson. It hits bookstores on June 13.

TFK:

Your work often focuses on African American culture and history. How do you choose which projects you will work on?

NELSON:

I choose projects based on my interest in the subject, and whether or not I can add something to it.

TFK:

Who are some African Americans in history that inspire you?

NELSON:

There are certainly some African Americans that I admire, but I really love history as a whole because it's a very dramatic history. There’s always Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman—who you read about in school. But in my studies, I admire my grandparents. Members of my family tend to find their way into my work. There's also Josh Gibson [a baseball catcher in the American Negro league].

TFK:

How is book illustration different from other kinds of art?

NELSON:

Book illustration is functional—the aim and objective is to tell a story. Not all artwork tells a story. Sometimes it is just the exploration of an idea. My focus is telling a story.

TFK:

What medium do you use for illustrations?

NELSON:

All by hand: oil on canvas.

Nelson’s painting of President Abraham Lincoln is featured in Blue Sky White Stars. The piece is titled “Well Worn.”

COURTESY CHATTERJEE FAMILY
Nelson’s painting of President Abraham Lincoln is featured in Blue Sky White Stars. The piece is titled “Well Worn.”

TFK:

You’ve created artwork of Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and Nelson Mandela. Do you feel nervous drawing such iconic people?

NELSON:

No, I actually love to do that. They are heroes of mine and they are national heroes, and to create artwork that will draw even more attention to them is an honor.

TFK:

If you had to pick one project that has been your favorite, what would it be and why?

NELSON:

I wrote a book on the history of the Negro league baseball. I really love history, and I love sports, so that was a really great combination.

TFK:

Are you working on another project right now?

NELSON:

I’m working on a history of basketball. It will cover basketball from its inception to current day.

TFK:

What would you say to kids who want to become artists?

NELSON:

I would encourage kids to draw what they like because they have to like what they’re doing. And to practice every day and hone your craft so that you can build momentum and confidence.


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