Telling A People’s Story is the first major museum exhibition to feature the art found within the pages of African-American children’s picture books. The exhibition features 130 works using a variety of mediums, completed by 33 African-American artists for 95 books. Initially 600 books and 14,000 illustrations were considered, but these final books were chosen based on their ability to collectively represent events and milestones in African-American history. Together, the books portray the African-American journey through language and imagery created for young reader’s consumption.
The books featured in the museum cover a wide variety of topics, spanning across time periods including African Origins, Middle Passage, Slavery, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Great Migration, Harlem Renaissance, Segregation, and the Civil Rights Movement. Additional books present biographical stories on important historical and influential figures such as Oprah and Mohammed Ali. While impossible to include tales of every significant event and person, this diverse collection of books provides an overview of cultural, historical and social aspects of the African-American journey. All the while, they serve to create an understanding of the importance in promoting good role models and positive identity for young African Americans.
The opportunity for this kind of positive influence, however, is slow to develop in the form of children’s books. Despite the large number of books initially considered, the number of children’s books published about African Americans is still relatively low. A 2016 study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that only 7.6 percent of books published in 2015 were about African Americans¹,compared to 73.3 percent written about White people². With efforts to minimize this gap, the percentage of children’s books about African Americans has risen about 4 percent, from 3 percent in 2012³.
This exhibition draws attention to this genre, featuring books including: Stevie, Written and illustrated by John Steptoe, Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton, Written and illustrated by Don Tate, and Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Ekua Holmes. These impressive books have won a variety of literary awards including the John Newbery Medal, Randolph Caldecott Award and The Coretta Scott King Award.
1. Larrick, Nancy. “The All-White World of Children’s Books,” Saturday Review, Sept 11, 1965, pp 63-65.
2. Huyck, David, Sarah Park Dahlen, Molly Beth Griffin. (2016 September 14). Diversity in Children’s Books 2015 infographic.