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Encore: 'The Undefeated,' A New Picture Book, Celebrates Black Brilliance

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today the American Library Association announced the top awards in children's books, and the big winner was "The Undefeated," with three honors, including the Caldecott Medal for best picture book. Kadir Nelson illustrated "The Undefeated." His work often explores what it's like to be black in America today and throughout history. The book's words are by poet Kwame Alexander.

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KWAME ALEXANDER: (Reading) This is for the unforgettable, the swift and sweet ones who hurdled history and opened a world of possible, the ones who survived America by any means necessary and the ones who didn't.

SHAPIRO: When I spoke with illustrator Kadir Nelson last year, the first image I asked about was of the Olympian Jesse Owens.

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KADIR NELSON: I think the visual mantra that I used for this book was the - all of the figures emerging from the shadows. So you'll see it begins with Jesse Owens literally jumping out of the darkness into the light.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. The lower half of his body is in dark shadow, and the upper half of his body looks like the sun is shining on it while his...

NELSON: Right.

SHAPIRO: ...Muscled body gleams.

NELSON: So by the time we get toward the middle and end of the book, those shadows have disappeared, and the brilliance and excellence of the subjects have completely emerged into the bright light.

SHAPIRO: And then the next page, we have the line, the ones who survived America by any means necessary. So this is a family of five formally dressed in old-fashioned clothing, staring straight out of the page at the reader. How did you decide what to put on this page?

NELSON: I just really think about people in my family, people that I know who are, you know, the unsung heroes, the people throughout history who we don't necessarily know or who we may never know. But all their contributions to the story of America are just as important.

SHAPIRO: So the page after the ones who survived America by any means necessary is the page that has a line, and the ones who didn't - the ones who didn't survive. This is a blank page. It's the only page in the book with no image at all. Tell us about the decision you made here.

NELSON: It, for me, was a very logical choice. It's a moment of silence. It's a moment of pause to provoke thought about all of those who didn't make it. Part of this - the inspiration for the poem was, one, the election of President Barack Obama and also carries through to the Black Lives Matter movement. And all of those voices who have been silenced, all those voices who we have not known, have not seen, have not heard - this is a spread that is really speaking to them.

SHAPIRO: The images in this book all have a similar style except for one page. There is a line, this is for the unspeakable, that repeats three times. And the first time, it appears on a page with an image of countless slaves stacked in a boat so tightly that, at first glance, this looks less like human figures and more like a black-and-white textile pattern, almost. How did you come up with this image?

NELSON: The subject matter is very difficult. It's not pretty. So even though I'm an artist and I try to create images that are, you know, visually pleasing, it was important that this subject be portrayed in the way that I think it should be. It's striking. It's unsettling. But - and it also gives you pause. Like, wow. This was - this really happened.

SHAPIRO: OK, this question is a shot in the dark, but I'm going to ask it anyway. You dedicated this book to your grandmother...

NELSON: Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...Verlee Gunter Moore. Are any of the women in these pages who we might not recognize as a famous person - do we see her face anywhere in here?

NELSON: No, we don't see her face. But, I mean, at the same time, you know, I look at that family on the second spread, and I'm reminded of my grandmother, you know? I come from a family of ancestors who were sharecroppers. And, you know, when I look at what she was able to do to push her family forward and create a life for the whole family, I - you know, I see her face in all of these faces. I see her face in Harriet Tubman or in Zora Neale Hurston - you know, all of these heroes who have drawn upon something greater than themselves and created beauty out of something that was not beautiful.

SHAPIRO: That's artist Kadir Nelson talking about his illustrations in "The Undefeated," which won the Caldecott Medal today.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUSINE'S "PANORAMIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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