Shining a Light on Bryan Collier

This Black History Month, why not introduce
children to one of today’s most creative children’s book illustrators: Bryan Collier. A good place to start is with Collier’s latest, a picture-book biography that won the 2011 Coretta Scott King Award and a Caldecott Honor for its stunning illustrations.

Hill, Laban Carrick. Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave. illus. by Bryan Collier. Little Brown, 2010.

Hill’s spare, poetic text opens with the image of dirt. “But to Dave it was clay, the plain and basic stuff upon which he learned to form a life as a slave nearly two hundred years ago.” The simple words work with Collier’s art to focus on the growth and development of a unique artist. Known simply as Dave, this talented man went on to create about 40,000 pots, some of which are displayed in museums today. The concise biography gains heft and power with Collier’s textured, earth-colored watercolor/collage images. The illustrations feature Dave’s strong hands, especially in Collier’s four-paneled foldout showing how “Dave’s hands, buried in the mounded mud, pulled out the shape of a jar.” Collier clearly situates the artist’s remarkable achievement within the context of South Carolina’s lush green landscape and its cotton fields, worked by enslaved field hands. Living in a time when that state outlawed the education of slaves, Dave often wrote brief poems on his pots. The final illustration shows him picking up a stick to write a few lines that “let us know that he was here.” Facts about Dave’s life and art, a photograph of his work, and the author’s sources are included. This is a beautiful book that will lead to discussions on justice, slavery, and the nature of creativity.

Note: On February 5 you can see Bryan Collier at the African American Children’s Book Fair in Philadelphia, happening 1 to 3 p.m. at the Philadelphia Community College.

A Sampling of Collier’s Outstanding Books

Freedom River by Doreen Rappaport. Jump at the Sun, 2000. Ages 9-12. Rappaport and Collier make a fantastic team: exemplary nonfiction prose and striking, thought-provoking collages. This thrilling, true story tells of a little-known hero: John Parker, an ex-slave who helped hundreds escape from slavery into freedom. Risking all, Parker crossed the Ohio River time after time to bring slaves from slave-owning Kentucky to the free state of Ohio. Rappaport zeroes in on one particular family Parker managed to free from the Shrofe plantation. She builds tension by repeating simple action verbs: “Run, run”; “Row, row”; “Listen, listen.” Complicating this rescue attempt is the fact that Master Shrofe realizes the family nearly fled with Parker before. Knowing the mother will not leave her baby, he now keeps the infant the foot of his bed each night. Risking all, Parker quietly enters the house and retrieves the infant. Shrofe awakes, and the chase is on! The watercolor and collage illustrations capture the intensity of the story and provide historical context, at times using a ripple effect across people’s faces to evoke the river that forms a boundary and a passage to freedom.  Notes at the beginning and end of the book provide additional fascinating information, and endpapers show a useful map of the Ohio River. This superb picture book won the 2001 Coretta Scott King Honor for Illustrations.

John’s Secret Dreams: The Life of John Lennon by Doreen Rappaport. Hyperion, 2004. Ages 8-12. Another fabulous collaboration! See my October 1 post featuring this picture-book biography.

Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship by Nikki Giovanni. 2008. Ages 8-12. This book captures the unexpected friendship between two American leaders: the president and Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave but escaped in 1838 and became a key figure in the abolitionist movement. The men found they shared important values and worked for the same goal.

Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Doreen Rappaport. Ages 6-10. If you have time for only one children’s book on Martin Luther King, Jr., make it this one. The focus is on King’s powerful words, enhanced with Collier’s magnificent illustrations. Provide plenty of time to discuss King’s life and the beauty and wisdom of his words. For lesson plans, see these from Read.Write.Think.

Rosa by Nikki Giovanni. Holt, 2005. Ages 7-10. Acclaimed poet Nikki Giovanni portrays Rosa Parks as the strong, politically aware woman she was. She takes us back to that Thursday afternoon in December when Rosa left work. The bus was full, but Rosa found a seat in the middle, “neutral” section of the bus. After a few stops, the bus driver approached Rosa and demanded she give up her seat for white passengers. Mrs. Parks refused. When the police officer came to arrest her, she quietly asked, “Why do you push us around?” Collier’s painted collages, incorporating both dark and golden hues, won the 2004 Coretta Scott King Award and a Caldecott Honor.

Uptown by Bryan Collier. Holt, 2000. Ages 6-8. Collier wrote and illustrated this lively picture book, in which a boy shows off his hometown, Harlem. A melange of sights, sounds and smells fills the pages: from the row of brownstones that “look like they’re made of chocolate” to the sisters in their matching Sunday dresses; from the busy shoppers on 125th Street to the hopping jazz clubs; from the playgrounds where kids shoot baskets to the hot platters of chicken and waffles. Collier’s debut book won the 2001 Coretta Scott King Honor for illustrations.

Related resource: See Reading Rockets: Black History Month for more teaching tips and for video interviews with noteworthy author/illustrators, including Collier.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

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