Floyd Cooper (1956-2021): Picture Book Historian of Black Americans

Three-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Award for the most distinguished portrayal of African American experience in literature for children or teens, Floyd Cooper passed away July 16 2021 from cancer. He was sixty-five.

So many of the 110 books he illustrated brought out the heroic, intimate, and joyful dimensions in American Black lives past and present, beginning in 1988 with Eloise Greenfield’s Grandpa’s Face. Over the years Cooper collaborated with notable Black writers for children and young adults Eloise Greenfield, Joyce Carol Thomas, Walter Dean Myers, Nikki Grimes, Patricia McKissack, Jacqueline Woodson, Howard Bryant, and Carole Boston Weatherford.  The last book he illustrated, Weatherford’s Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre, drew on his grandfather’s memories as a survivor of the tragedy.  Nikki Grimes told Publisher’s Weekly, that the book was “a good note to go out on. He left us all wanting more.”

Cooper was a native of Tulsa, Oklahoma and one of his earliest memories was scratching shapes into the side of the house  at age three.  Art kept him grounded during a childhood unsettled by divorce: in each of the eleven elementary schools he attended, he connected with the art teachers and showed them his work.  His talent was recognized by the award of an art scholarship to the University of Oklahoma, where he graduated in 1978 with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts.  After college, he headed out to Kansas City to start work in the greeting card design department of Hallmark. The unpromising job of erasing and changing old cards was the genesis of the “subtractive process” that gives his illustrations their distinctive look. In 2018 he described in illuminating detail his unique approach to picture making, a process of erasing shapes from a background of oil paint.

Cooper’s art radiates a warmth that is partly grounded in capturing the individuality of the figures on the pages.  He typically used models, often  drawing his sons, their friends, and family members.  In an interview with Brown Bookshelf, he explained that “I tend to focus on the humanity of my subjects, the details of expression that add a certain reality to the work. Real faces = real art. That’s the goal anyway.”   The uniqueness of the brown faces in every book linger in the mind.In Sprouting Wings: The True Story of James Herman Banning, the First African American Pilot to Fly Across the United States by Louisa Jaggar and Shari Becker (New York: Crown, 2021), the reader also feels the young pilot’s excitement  when he pulls the plane up off the ground for the first time.

The climax of Ben and the Emancipation Proclamation by Pat Sherman (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) shows the moment in the slave prison when young Benjamin Holmes no longer has to conceal his ability to read. One night word gets around the prison that Abraham Lincoln has freed the slaves and the illiterate inmates pool their money to buy a newspaper to see if the rumor is true. They ask Ben to read it to them and he does so with all the gravity the occasion demands.

Hands as a symbol of the dignity of work recurs in Cooper’s art.  Charles R. Smith Jr. tells the story of enslaved men’s unappreciated contribution to the construction of the White House in Brick by Brick (New York: Amistad, 2013).  Cooper draws hands skillfully wielding tools, lifting heavy burdens, and perhaps most poignantly, mixing clay, sand, and water to make bricks.  The weary boy looks at some point in the distance as he works.

A grandfather’s still nimble fingers can teach his grandson to tie his shoes, pick out a tune on the piano, throw a baseball, and knead bread dough.  Yet those skilled hands were stigmatized as dirty and forbidden by his employer Wonder Bread to touch the dough because white customers wouldn’t eat the product if they knew who made it. These Hands by Margaret H. Mason (Boston: Houghton Mifflin,2010) celebrates the Black workers successful labor action against discriminatory labor practices at the Detroit Wonder Bread bakery in the 1960s.

The young Frederick Douglass’s face is a study in just anger against an agent of cruel and arbitrary injustice, an anger strong enough to sustain resistance, even if it means risking death.  This remarkable illustration appears in Walter Dean Myers’ Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History (New York: Harper, 2017).

Rosa Parks, her hair pulled primly back, in Aaron Reynolds” Back of the Bus (New York: Philomel, 2010) doesn’t strike the reader as the kind of a woman who sets out to make trouble.  Yet her quiet face looks as if she has decided not to be frightened  an image of an ordinary person who has discovered power deep within to protest disrespectful treatment against her people. The focus of this illustration of Black Wall Street in Carole Boston Weatherford’s Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre (Minneapolis: Carolrhoda, 2021) is the confident, stylish lady who stands out in the crowd of other prosperous-looking shoppers.  Is she a symbol of the resentment White Tulsans harbored against the prosperous Black community that boiled over in 1921?Cooper’s joy in celebrating Black beauty takes its most irresistible form in his portraits of children.  This illustration of a little girl exploding with laughter is just as beguiling as the more famous one on the cover of Joyce Carol Thomas’s poems in Blacker the Berry (New York: Joanna Cotler Books, 2008).   In this fiercely partisan age we are living through, the compassion that shines through Floyd Cooper’s picture books will be missed.

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