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At the Library: 50 years of Coretta Scott King Book Awards

a few red drops

The 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. is one of those pivotal historical events that defines a generation and leaves an imprint on a nation. When weighing the tragedy of King’s demise against the unfulfilled inroads he could have made had he lived, it feels a bit unseemly to think or speak of any positives stemming from his murder — and yet, they exist.

In 1969, one year after King’s death, librarians Glyndon Flynt Greer and Mable McKissick and publisher John Carroll established the Coretta Scott King Book Awards, as one way to keep King’s message and mission for peace and equality alive.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Coretta Scott King Book Award, which according to the American Library Association “is given out every year to outstanding African-American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African-American culture and universal human values.”

Categories for the award include author, illustrator, new talent-author and new talent-illustrator. Over the years, the award has expanded in scope and now includes the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement.

The first award was given to author Lillie Patterson in 1970 for her children’s biography, “Martin Luther King, Jr: Man of Peace.”

The Coretta Scott King Awards became an official part of the American Library Association in 1980 and are now bestowed during a ceremony at the annual American Library Association conference.

You’ll likely recognize some of the winning titles from past years, such as “The Sun is Also a Star,” for which author Nicola Yoon won the New Talent Award in 2017. Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir, “Brown Girl Dreaming,” won the Author Award in 2015, which was the same year that Christopher Myers won the Illustrator Award for his work on Misty Copeland’s biography, “Firebird.”

And prior winners in both author and illustrator categories read like a who’s who of outstanding contributions to literature for children and young adults, including Kekla Magoon, Mildred Taylor, Virginia Hamilton, Angie Thomas, Alice Childress, Jerry Pinkney and Walter Dean Myers.

While the Coretta Scott King Awards are reserved for African-American authors and illustrators whose work focuses on African-American subjects, an abiding goal of the awards is to highlight titles with themes that are universal, and which encourage young people to think about social justice, equality, personal and cultural identity and their own place in society and the world.

This year, the 2019 author winner is Claire Hartfield for her book “A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919.”

According to the American Library Association and the awards committee, “‘A Few Red Drops’ is a meticulously researched exposition of the socio-economic landscape and racial tensions that led to the death of a black teen who wanted to swim, and the violent clash that resulted. In 20 chapters, Hartfield’s balanced, eye-opening account contextualizes a range of social justice issues that persist to this day.”

Other honorable mentions for 2019 include Laura Freeman, who illustrated the picture book adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly’s best-seller, “Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race.”

For more information about the 50-year history of the awards, or to view the list of winners from 1970 to present, visit: https://tinyurl.com/ydgzob9c.

And if you’re interested in borrowing any of the winning titles, you can search our catalog at www.yvl.org, or ask staff at your local community library for assistance.

• Krystal Corbray is programming and marketing librarian for Yakima Valley Libraries. Learn more at www.yvl.org.

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