The Caldecott Medal annually recognizing America’s most distinguished picture book for children has in the past gone to icons of children’s literature such as Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss, whose work could be both whimsical and profound at the same time.
This year’s Caldecott winner, The Undefeated, uses the powerful words of poet Kwame Alexander paired with the amazing paintings of Kadir Nelson to produce a moving and thought-provoking book that imprints on your memory with its beauty and truth. To my mind, the ability of the Arts to communicate directly to the heart and soul of human beings is ably demonstrated in this slim volume that so aptly conveys the woes and wonders of our country’s history and is incredibly relevant to this moment of time.
The book began as a poem written in 2008 by award-winning black writer Kwame Alexander as a tribute to the birth of his second daughter, born the year that a black man was elected President of the United States. Alexander says that he wanted his daughters to know how we got to this historic moment, to illustrate American history that has been left out of textbooks and forgotten by our society. So he wrote about those who urged blacks to fight for freedom, justice, and equality no matter the cost, about enslaved Africans pushing on with their unwavering hope and faith that one day they would be free—or that their children or their children’s children would be the master of their destinies. Alexander’s words praise poets and artists whose profound cultural expressions look to a land without racial injustice, poverty and war, and also speak about black Civil War soldiers who served a union that refused to see them as equal, about horrific acts taking the lives of black children, teens, and adults, as well as about black Olympians undermining the false narrative of white superiority.
These words — Unforgettable, Undeniable, Unflappable, Unafraid, Unspeakable, Unlimited, Unbelievable — paired with the vibrant illustrations of artist Kadir Nelson create an indelible image producing a lasting impact, beginning with the image of Jesse Owen literally jumping out of the darkness into the light and closing with the brightly glowing faces of black boys and girls who are the future. Nelson says that he sees the face of his grandmother, who came from a family of sharecroppers in the deep south and pushed her family forward to create a life for her whole family, in all of the images he created for this book; he says that she is represented in “all of these heroes who have drawn upon something greater than themselves and created beauty out of something that was not beautiful.” He also found inspiration in Alexander’s “beautiful poem that spoke to excellence and perseverance and triumph amidst adversity… an ode to the sung and unsung heroes in history.”
Among those heroes, you will see recognizable faces including sports stars Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, and LeBron James, famous musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald along with writers and visual artists like Langston Hughes and Romare Bearden, as well as historical figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. But you will also see anonymous black faces representing the many unnamed African slaves, Union soldiers, civil rights activists, and others who never gave up in their fight to survive and thrive as citizens of this country.
Images of flying cranes appear throughout the book, graphically illustrating the intent of the author to capture the spirit of the words of Maya Angelou, who wrote “We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated… So we can see, oh that happened and I rose, I did not get knocked down flat in front of the world, and I rose.” The book’s Afterword closes with Kwame Alexander’s exhortation to his daughter and the rest of the world to “Keep rising,” a statement of inspiration and hope that can motivate us all to keep reaching toward those ideals of liberty and justice for all so essential to the foundation of this nation.
Marilyn Delk is the former executive director of the Darke County Center for the Arts and can be reached at email@example.com. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.