FLR: Black History month is celebrated in February, chosen because it was the birth month of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. And this year, Black History month will coincide with Abraham Lincoln’s Bicentennial and Barack Obama’s first month in office. And you just happened to have recently illustrated Abe’s Honest Words (written by Doreen Rapport, October 2008) and written and illustrated Change Has Come (January 2009), a celebration of the country’s reaction to Barack Obama. Was that a stroke of luck or a stroke of genius?
KN: Abe’s Honest Words has been in the works for quite some time and my publisher planned on its release in 2009 to coincide with the bicentennial of his birth in 1809, so there wasn’t much luck in that regard. But it is certainly quite serendipitous that Barack Obama’s election would coincide with Abe’s bicentennial. I think it’s quite fitting to celebrate this moment in history, and how better than with a tribute like Change Has Come?
FLR: How did your book Change Has Come come about? When did you begin work on the illustrations, were you confident that they would be part of a book about our first African-American president?
KN: I was approached by my publisher while I was traveling in November. They told me about an idea they had about how they’d like to celebrate Obama’s victory with a small collectible book that was spontaneous in nature. Then they told me that in order to publish the book in time for the inauguration in January, they’d need it in ten days. What they didn’t know was that of the ten days I had to work on the book, I was to be traveling for half of them. However, I thought it was a great idea and felt up to the challenge. So I set about working on the book in hotel rooms and airport lounges and finally in my home studio. It was quite daunting but a lot of fun. It was so amazing to see it come together so fluidly in such a short amount of time.
FLR: You have another book releasing in January, the photobiography Coretta Scott (written by Ntozake Shange). How do your methods for illustrating real people, such as Abraham Lincoln and Coretta Scott King, differ from your methods of illustrating fictional characters?
KN: My approach differs only in that I have quite a bit more research to gather when painting historical subjects. I don’t have the freedom to invent characters in historical settings as I would in fictional stories. I enjoy this format though, as it creates a framework to work within.
FLR: Having won the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for Ellington Was Not a Street (written by Ntozake Shange, 2004) and Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (written by Carole Boston Weatherford, 2006), did Change Has Come take on special meaning for you?
KN: I found Coretta Scott King to be such a beautiful, humble, and spiritually strong woman. It was a privilege to paint her likeness and pay tribute to her role in the Civil Rights Movement. Like the award, the book, Change Has Come is a profound way to honor her legacy.
FLR: Speaking of Coretta Scott King and Black History month, the Coretta Scott King Award was designed in 1970 to encourage artistic expression of the African-American experience. With so many wonderful and talented African-American authors and illustrators, not to mention an African-American president-elect, is encouragement still necessary? What purpose does the award fulfill today?
KN: The award not only encourages artistic expression of the African-American experience, it celebrates excellence in children’s literature, and pays tribute to the values that Coretta Scott and Martin Luther King, Jr. held and promoted throughout the Civil Rights Struggle that would lead to its success. I think that these principles will always have a place and a need in children’s literature, and in the hearts and minds of generations upon generations of readers.
FLR: We Are The Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball (2008) was your first foray into both writing and illustrating a picture book, and it recently won a silver medal from the New York Society of Illustrators Original Art Exhibition. Yet the text was equally engaging. Do you plan on writing more books, or would you prefer to focus on illustration?
KN: It’s no secret that I am primarily a painter, and this may never change, but as a result of writing We Are The Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball I found that I loved the writing process and I plan to write many more books.
FLR: Your illustrations are all so detailed and luminous, and you’ve illustrated over twenty books in the past ten years. Can you tell us some of the methods you use with oils to achieve the beautiful “glow” or lighting effects in your portraiture? And we have to ask: How can you produce so many books that are so well-done?
KN: I work in layers and build up the highlights and deepen the shadows. It’s like simultaneously driving in two different directions. I’ve been quite busy over the last ten years and plan to slow my pace a bit so I can really concentrate more intensely on each project I take on, whether it is a book, a private commission, or whatever.
FLR:A third book releasing in January is All God’s Critters (lyrics by Bill Staines), which features a variety of animals coming together in song and dance. The book is so much fun, perfect for storytime, yet the message of tolerance and unity is very serious. How do you employ the art of illustration to get to the heart of such important topics without being didactic?
KN: For a book like All God’s Critters, it’s not hard to make the point as the words do most of the work. Whatever the subject matter it’s important to enjoy the creative process and try to find an interesting way to present the story. If a subject does not hold my interest, the work will suffer, and the book will most likely not do well. So I make certain to choose books that will allow me to explore the story in a way that will be interesting to both myself and the reader. And if the story has a great message, it makes it all the better.
FLR: Of all the different types of projects you have worked on, from being the lead conceptual artist on Stephen Spielberg’s “Amistad,” to designing postage stamps, to illustrating award-winning picture books, which has been the most rewarding to you personally? Which has been the most fun?
KN: I enjoy creative diversity and choose projects that allow for it. When I have had fun and I’ve done my best work, I’ve found success and my reward lies therein. This is all I could aspire to.
FLR: Having created and/or collaborated on so many outstanding contributions to the field of Black History for children, from Ellington Was Not a Street to Moses to We are the Ship, what African-American people or experiences have yet to be fully explored?
KN: History is filled with bountiful, wonderful stories yet to explore. And our imaginations are filled with even more. I’m interested in telling many more stories, whether they are African-American in nature or not. Above all else, the story is the most important thing.
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