15 August–8 November 2020, The High Museum of Art, Atlanta
Since spring, the coronavirus pandemic has forced art museums and galleries across the country to halt their programming, and while many have reopened, many would-be patrons remain unable to resume the travel or outings they look forward to in ordinary times. In the portfolio that follows, we offer a glimpse into a unique exhibition currently taking place at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. In collaboration with the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, the High Museum presents Picture the Dream: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement through Children’s Books, curated by prominent children’s book author and editor Andrea Davis Pinkney. The High Museum describes the exhibition as “the first of its kind to delve into the events, people, and themes of the civil rights movement, both celebrated and forgotten, through one of the most compelling forms of visual expression, the children’s picture book.” The show allows visitors to experience artworks created for books in their original forms as paintings, collages, drawings, and mixed-media compositions. Three years in the planning, the exhibition’s theme took on additional urgency when George Floyd’s murder by police officers in Minneapolis as well as several other killings of Black people by law enforcement incited a worldwide call for redress.
Andrea Davis Pinkney is the author of numerous books for children and young adults. Her work has been recognized with multiple Coretta Scott King Awards, as well as honors from the American Library Association, the NAACP, and the Boston Globe, and has appeared regularly on the New York Times bestsellers list. She often collaborates with her husband, illustrator Brian Pinkney; Brian Pinkney is the son of Jerry Pinkney, who is also a distinguished illustrator of children’s books. As an editor, Andrea Davis Pinkney has championed the work of authors of color throughout a career at some of the top publishing houses in the U.S. In August, she discussed the exhibition with GR managing editor C. J. Bartunek by email.
C. J. Bartunek (CJB): As an award-winning author of books for young readers who is also a vice president and executive editor at Scholastic, and who has two accomplished children’s book illustrators in the family, you have cultivated your expertise on this art form from multiple vantage points. In what ways did this varied experience guide your selections when curating Picture the Dream?
Andrea Davis Pinkney (ADP): When the invitation came to serve as guest curator for the Picture the Dream exhibition, I was immediately taken with the idea. Right away, I plunged into research to find similar exhibitions that could serve as guideposts. I also wanted to determine ways to distinguish this new exhibition, and to possibly expand on what had been done previously. While there had been exhibitions featuring the works of single artists whose illustrations and paintings explored civil rights themes as part of larger exhibitions—and while past exhibitions spotlighted the works of various children’s book artists of color, celebrating Coretta Scott King Award winners, for example—surprisingly, there hadn’t been an exhibition that specifically shone a light on the causes and conditions surrounding the civil rights movement, as expressed through the medium of children’s picture books. That was good news—and not-so-good news.
Picture the Dream would be the first of its kind. This presented a wonderful opportunity to create an exhibition experience that is wholly new and unique. At the same time, it ushered in several challenges—how to present such a broad and important topic in ways that would appeal to children and adults, while addressing some of the complicated issues surrounding race, diversity, equity, and inclusion. This is where I drew from my varied experience. Thank goodness for my phone’s speed-dial function. To set things in motion, I called in a team of experts, friends, past and present colleagues, and family members to advise, suggest, weigh in. I pored through files and books I ’d edited, published, written, or read, starting from when I entered publishing thirty years ago, up to books that will be published this year. I also culled the works of fellow editors and authors. As one can imagine, the treasure trove of past and present books was enormous! While researching, I was plunged into a vast and beautiful opportunity. Spending time with hundreds of books was like walking into a party of old and new friends who had gathered to celebrate a wonderful homecoming. This led to the unfolding of more reunions and introductions.
For example, in 2005, while serving as the children’s publisher at Houghton Mifflin Company, I published a book entitled A Wreath for Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson, with paintings by Philippe Lardy. In considering books to include in the exhibition, I revisited Lardy’s hauntingly beautiful paintings. I immediately recalled how controversial the book had been when it was first published, and I was reminded of all the letters we received from young readers and teachers expressing gratitude for the book that helped middle-schoolers understand and move through the harsh emotional impact of racial hatred. I was also struck by how timeless and relevant A Wreath for Emmett Till is today. The same was true when I revisited the paintings from Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans, written and illustrated by Kadir Nelson, a book that illuminates the struggles and triumphs of Black people through generations. I then looked back at my own publishing as an author and some of the collaborations done with my husband, illustrator Brian Pinkney. One of our books, Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down, gives children a front-row seat to the Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins of 1960 and the importance of peaceful protests. With so much race consciousness in the minds and hearts of kids today, these books are relevant to their experiences now.
CJB: Would you tell us a bit about this process and perhaps about some of the challenges or surprises of organizing this show? I would imagine that because the art created for books is not always collected by museums and galleries, some of the logistics were different, especially during the pandemic.
ADP: The show includes nearly eighty works, representing sixty different picture books. As I embarked on the curatorial process with the guidance of Virginia Shearer, High Museum Director of Education, and Julia Forbes, Head of Museum Interpretation at the High, along with Ellen Keiter, Chief Curator at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, I learned that, typically, an exhibition of this kind includes about ninety pieces. One of the most challenging aspects of deciding which pieces to include in the show was . . . deciding which pieces to include in the show. There were so many amazing paintings, illustrations, and mixed media to choose from, ranging from the works of the most beloved artists who have contributed to the field for decades, to newcomers who are bringing bold new perspectives to children’s literature. As an organizational tool, I began by outlining the show’s “big idea” and key components. From the very beginning, it was important to me to offer viewers historical context for the civil rights movement, an in-depth look at some of the harsh realities surrounding racism, and hope for the future.
I also wanted to infuse the power of story into the exhibition. While writing the labels that accompany the paintings, I was mindful of their tone. My hope is that the paintings and their accompanying narratives speak directly to kids and families, inviting them into an immersive experience, while addressing the complexities of racism, activism, police brutality, and modern-day social action. The exhibition is presented in three sections that explore the forces that sparked the civil rights movement, the key players and events that built the movement’s momentum, and the reemergence of activism in contemporary America. From Brown vs. the Board of Education and the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the March on Washington and Black Lives Matter, the picture books’ topics bridge the past and present, emphasizing how historical moments and leaders continue to inspire the struggle for equality.
As for obtaining the art from such a vast array of children’s book creators—during a global pandemic—this presented challenges with shipping and arrivals. Ironically, there were instances in which the art was held up due to shipping delays caused by nationwide protests surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement.
CJB: Though the occasion for the Picture the Dream show is the anniversaries in 2020 of several civil rights movement milestones, the exhibition explicitly connects the achievements of that period to the ongoing activism that today is most visibly embodied by the Black Lives Matter movement. What do you hope children and adults will learn or experience through the show?
ADP: The year 2020 marks the anniversary of several key events from the civil rights movement. Sixty years ago, six-year-old Ruby Bridges integrated her New Orleans elementary school. That was the same year four college students started the Greensboro sit-ins at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in North Carolina, and it’s been sixty-five years since Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated Montgomery, Alabama, bus in 1955. Faith Ringgold’s If a Bus Could Talk: The Story of Rosa Parks and George Ford’s artwork from The Story of Ruby Bridges pay homage to these important moments on the civil rights landscape.
When we embarked on the creation of the show three years ago, we couldn’t have planned that the Black Lives Matter movement would have grown to such a critical degree surrounding the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others. The exhibition takes a special look at modern-day activism as expressed through pieces from books such as Bryan Collier’s All Because You Matter by author Tami Charles. Additionally, the passing of civil rights notables such as Congressman John Lewis also occurred just weeks before the show opened. Nate Powell’s artwork from Congressman Lewis’s powerful March graphic novel trilogy is a key component to the show. These stories and so many picture books present an important opportunity to spark questions among kids and families about civil rights. With each and every piece that appears in the show, and the narratives that accompany the images, we thought very carefully about the nuances of presenting race issues to children and providing tools for adults to talk to the young people about the scary realities of discrimination and violence. To offer tools that could guide parents, we partnered with Embrace Race, an advocacy organization that provides materials for helping adults navigate complex race conversations with children. Picture the Dream offers these materials to viewers as a compass while they move through the exhibition, and when they return home. It’s my hope that the exhibition will invite these conversations, allow kids and families to probe and explore, and, hopefully, deliver answers to what we can all do to make the world a more equitable place.
CJB: When you were growing up, your parents were active in the civil rights movement and brought you to events such as the annual conferences of the NAACP and National Urban League. What are some memories that stand out of being a child witnessing this important work?
ADP: My late father, Philip J. Davis, was one of the first Black interns to work in the House of Representatives in 1959. My mother, Gwen, was one of the early African American members of the League of Women Voters. I was born in Washington, D.C., one month after Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his landmark “I Have a Dream” speech. My father marched with King. Mom, who was in her final weeks of pregnancy, was forbidden by her doctor to join Dad at the march. She stayed home glued to her tiny Magnavox tv, watching the speech with the volume turned all the way up, while I kicked and squirmed in her belly. I’ve always believed that I somehow heard that speech, and was moved by it, even though I hadn’t been born yet. Interestingly, my husband, Brian, was blowing out two candles on his birthday cake on the day the speech was given, August 28, 1963. As I grew up, my siblings and I constantly bemoaned our summer “vacations,” which were the same each year. Rather than days at the beach or day camp, we were made to go on long road trips to the NAACP National Convention, the annual conference of the National Urban League, and the Congressional Black Caucus, which always happened at the start of the school year. As kids, it felt like drudgery listening to speaker after speaker, and then being “forced” to talk, as a family, about the importance of social justice. We then had to go back to school in September, awaiting the question—“What did you do this summer?” I dreaded that inquiry! Year after year, I’d sink in my seat. My summer seemed “boring” compared to what other kids had experienced. Looking back, I’m so grateful my folks took us along for what I now refer to as “the civil rights ride.” These trips happened in our wood-paneled station wagon that had no air conditioning and a faulty car radio. They opened my eyes in ways I couldn’t have imagined back then. While working on the Picture the Dream exhibition, I was filled with heartfelt gratitude for my parents, and was also very pleased to see so many caregivers today who are bringing kids “along for the ride” by enjoying this exhibition. With the show’s opening in Atlanta, we were keen to present some of the most notable children’s book depictions of Martin Luther King, Jr. Jerry Pinkney’s paintings from the book A Place to Land by Barry Wittenstein pays special tribute to Dr. King’s preparation and delivery of his landmark speech at the March on Washington.
CJB: In 1998, you co-founded the Jump at the Sun imprint at Hyperion, which publishes children’s books that “honor the uniqueness of being Black” while challenging the idea that books about Black characters would only be of interest to Black readers, a conversation within and about the publishing industry that is once again in the spotlight. Jump at the Sun, of which you were managing editor, was the first imprint of its kind at a major publishing house. In what ways have you seen the publishing world change (or not change) over your career in the ways it acquires and promotes works for young readers?
ADP: When Lisa Holton, who was the president and publisher at Disney Publishing’s Hyperion imprint, called to invite me to serve as the publisher and chief editorial driver for the Jump at the Sun imprint, it was similar to being invited by Alexandra Kennedy, Executive Director at the Eric Carle Museum, to guest curate the Picture the Dream exhibition. While these invites happened decades apart, they each presented an important primary purpose—to illuminate the contributions of Black children’s book creators. Like Picture the Dream, Jump at the Sun was the first of its kind. It was important and bold, and a needed presence on the children’s publishing landscape. The Picture the Dream exhibition is equally vital—the show expands the canvas of museum exhibitions by illuminating the work of Black artists, while, at the same time, bringing issues of race into sharp focus. Jump at the Sun launched the careers of authors and illustrators who have gone on to create impressive bestselling and award-winning bodies of work. At Jump at the Sun we published Bryan Collier’s Martin’s Big Words, which appears in the exhibition, and is now considered a modern classic. Jump at the Sun opened many doors. By introducing the works of artists new to the field of children’s books, Picture the Dream also shines a light on the works of talented young people who are coming onto the scene in impressive ways.
CJB: Over your career, what have you heard from children about what makes them fall in love with a book?
ADP: I believe the picture books that touch children deeply—and that stand the test of time—are those that start with a great story and illustrations that offer emotionally compelling visual narrative. When I’m sharing books with the kids in my life, I often remind them that by looking carefully at the illustrations, they’ll discover a story not told in the words. That’s the promise Picture the Dream delivers—finding hope in colors, depictions, and visual storytelling.
CJB: The programming surrounding Picture the Dream includes a particularly special collaboration beyond the walls of the museum—would you tell us more about Sit-In?
ADP: In conjunction with the exhibition, the Alliance Theatre at The Woodruff Arts Center will present the world-premiere play Sit-In based on the book Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down, a collaboration between me and my husband, Brian Pinkney. The power of family and legacy is an undercurrent of the exhibition, and is especially relevant for the High. Brian is the son of Jerry Pinkney, who was the subject of the High’s first-ever children’s picture book show in 2013. The Alliance’s production, inspired by the book, is written by Atlanta-based playwright, poet, novelist, and activist Pearl Cleage, and explores the role young people can play in addressing the injustices of their time. Due to Covid-19, the stage production is now in development as a virtual experience. Working with the creative teams on this exhibition and theatrical production has underscored the power picture books have in reaching readers of all ages. Through an immersive tapestry of images and ideas, the artwork in Picture the Dream and the depictions in the Sit-In play guide viewers through times of bravery and triumph. That’s what activism is all about—inspiring change.