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.

Crocodiles Ready for Their Closeups

The number of crocodiles and alligators in picture books have proliferated over the last few decades for no obvious reason.  Increasing the representation of reptiles might be a good thing if we think their stories should be told alongside those of creatures with fur and feathers.  They aren’t the usual friendly beasts in children’s  books.  Just watch a crocodile bring down a wildebeest on a BBC Earth or a YouTube video of a gigantic alligator marching across a Florida golf course.

F. D. Bedford’s illustration of Captain Hook’s demise from J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy (1911).

Famous literary crocodile characters tend to be wily predators, like the ticking one waiting for its chance to nab the rest of Captain Hook or the soft-spoken “large-pattern leather ulster” that grabs the Elephant Child’s nose to drown him for dinner.  After its fifteen-minutes of fame in Paris as the Egyptian sensation, the reptile in Fred Marcellino’s I, Crocodile (1999) eludes Napoleon’s cook by slithering down a manhole into the sewer, where it can pick off unwary merveilleuses for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.Hippos can take on crocodiles in nature, a situation playfully recreated in Catherine Rayner’s Solomon and Mortimer (2016), where two bored male juveniles find themselves at the receiving end of their own practical joke.  Humans fare less well. Thomas in Patricia McKissack’s A Million Fish…More or Less (1992) illustrated by Dena Schutzer doesn’t stand a chance against Old Atoo, the grand-pere of the Bayou Clapateaux’s alligators, when he claims share of the enormous catch.Girls seem better at eluding crocodile incursions than boys. In Sylviane Donnio’s I’d Really Like to Eat a Child (2007) illustrated by Dorothee de Monfried, a girl so effortlessly repels scrawny Achilles’ attack that he realizes that he will have to consume mountains of bananas to grows big enough to catch tasty young humans. Poling through the bayou in her flat boat, the girl in Candace Fleming’s Who Invited You? (2001) illustrated by cartoonist George Booth has to let a heap of bold animals cadge rides. The low-riding boat catches the attention of “a-smilin’, a-slinkin’, a-blinky-blanky-winkin’” old gator who tries to clamber in too.  When the original nine freeloaders tell him there’s no more space, he just grins as wide as he can, “That’s all right…’cause I have room for YOU.” The girl escapes without a scratch. The heroine of author-illustrator Sophie Gilmore’s Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast (2019) runs a jungle clinic catering to sick crocodiles. One day Big Mean, the largest and surliest of them all, turns up at the door and isn’t especially uncooperative.  While the monster takes a cat nap, the little doctor finally succeeds in prying open her jaws.  By falling accidentally into Big Mean’s mouth, she finds the real patients, little hatchlings that need untangling from plastic waste.  For freeing them without a second thought about ng her own safety, Big Mean pronounces the little doctor  a “fearless beast…who could not rest until she had helped her fellow creature.”Of all the scene-stealing reptiles, the one in Laura Amy Schlitz’s Princess Cora and the Crocodile (2017) takes the prize.  The princess begs her fairy godmother for a dog and receives a crocodile instead, who has been charged with rescuing the princess from her overly fastidious nanny and slave-driving royal parents.  The crocodile will impersonate the princess and refrain from biting or eating anyone so she can have a day off to do exactly what she pleases.  During her absence, he stays more or less within parameters, but uses deliberately inappropriate methods of sensitizing the nanny, queen, and king to her discontents.  But they do set the stage for Princess Cora to calmly renegotiate the terms of her daily routine, which earns him in perpetuity a place in the royal lily pond and all the chocolate and vanilla cream puffs he can gobble up.

The gaping jaws need never be opened to make a wonderful picture book starring crocodiles, as the last two featured titles demonstrate. The quiet crocodile Fossil, created by Natacha Andriamirado and Delphine Renon, cheerfully plays along with his small herd of animal friends who clamber onto his back to form and reform into living sculptures until commanded to roar and send them flying.Instead of imagining a friendly crocodile at play, Giovanna Zoboli and Mariachiara di Giorgio celebrate the daily routine of a contented working reptile in their wordless Professional Crocodile (2017).  If you want to know his place of employment, you’ll have to read the book!With apologies to Bernard Waber and Maurice Sendak for not having room for Lyle, Lyle Crocodile and No Fighting, No Biting!