{illustrator} Floyd Cooper

30 days of pbI occasionally share an illustrator who has caught my eye. See the above “picture book list” for other illustrators highlighted on this blog. For ’30 Days of Picture Books’,“Day Thirteen” features two books and an Illustrator’s Spotlight!

Day Thirteen: These Hands and Danitra Brown Leaves Town


Illustration from A Beach Tail by Karen Lynn Williams

Floyd Cooper “defies The Brown Bookshelf’s mission of highlighting children’s literature creators whose works may be flying under the radar of teachers and librarians. His name isn’t flying under anything. In fact, he’s probably one of the best known, most celebrated, and highly regarded artists in the industry.” (The Brown Bookshelf 2009 interview).

cooper floydYou may already be familiar with Floyd Cooper’s work. He’s an illustrator that has a reader looking up his bibliography and pursuing his books henceforth: Cooper has over 96 published children’s books, here are a few:

  • Max and the Tagalong Moon (Philomel 2013); Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes (Puffin 1994); Mandela: From the Life of the South African Statesman (Puffin 1996); Cumbayah (HarperCollins 1998);
  • Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey (Carolrhoda 2010); These Hands by Margaret H. Mason (HMH 2011); Back of the Bus by Aaron Reynolds (Philomel 2010); The Blacker the Berry by Joyce Carol Thomas (HarperCollins 2007); and Becoming Billie Holiday by Carole Boston Weatherhood (Wordsong 2008) among many, many others.

“My advice to writers is: READ! A lot. Then read some more. read, read, read, read!”–Cooper (The Brown Bookshelf 2009 interview).

from A Dance Like Starlight by Kristy Dempsey

Floyd began his career while still a student at the University of Oklahoma. After which he worked in advertising, then took a job working at Hallmark greeting cards in Kansas City. In 1984, he headed for the east coast and snagged a literary agent, illustrated his first book, Grandpa’s Face, and the rest is history.

Mr. Cooper takes his work seriously. He says: “I feel children are at the front line in improving society. This might sound a little heavy, but it’s true. I feel children’s picture books play a role in counteracting all the violence and other negative images conveyed in the media.”


cooper danita brown coverDanitra Brown Leaves Town

by Nikki Grimes, Illustrated by Floyd Cooper

Amistad/HarperCollins 2002.

It’s summer vacation, but Zuri Jackson isn’t happy. What will she do all summer long in the city when her best friend, Danitra. Brown, the most splendiferous girl in town, is off to visit her family in the country? Write, of course!
Through a series of letters, these two friends share with readers what childhood summers are made of fireflies, Fourth of July, skies like a thick overcoat buttoned up with stars, family reunions, block parties, handball games… and coming back home, where true friendship always remains.
We met these two unforgettable best friends in the Coretta Scott King Honor Book Meet Danitra Brown. –publisher’s comments

I have yet to read Meet Danitra Brown and no doubt the sequel would be all the richer a read for it. As it is, Danita Brown Leaves Town stands well on its own.

cooper danitra pages

“At midnight, I stretched my arms out/to slip the darkness on,/ and opened my eyes again/at dawn.” (“First Night”)

The picture book is told in poems, alternating double-spread pages between the friends. Urban sits beside rural, solitude beside community, and the two reunite at the end as a collection of experiences aka friendship.

The colors, tones, and textures of the illustrations read warmth like summer and friendship. Cooper’s illustrations are photo-realist, narratives translated to brush and paint. The girls are actualized rather than caricature, real rather than abstracted types; which lends weight to emotion and to normal behaviors and narratives. Realism takes on artistic mediums only to enhance its verisimilitude.

Grimes fills her poems with voices conceivable of her characters. It is hard to part with friends over a summer, and not just the being away from each other’s company, but what about the sometimes resentment of one going on to better things? Grimes does not belittle Zuri’s response. Even so, Danitra does not choose the route of sulking or making a big deal about it. Instead, she writes a letter. And the letters between them are sincere in the way young voices can be: hurt, angry, excited, loving. Grimes’ accessibility as a poet provides an excellent opportunity for your grade schooler to understand the pleasure and appreciation for a form that otherwise receives a reputation for intimidation.


cooper these hands coverThese Hands

by Margaret H. Mason, illustrated by Floyd Cooper (using Oil wash with kneaded erasers)

HMH 2011

Joseph’s grandpa could do almost anything with his hands. He could play the piano, throw a curveball, and tie a triple bowline knot in three seconds flat. But in the 1950s and 60s, he could not bake bread at the Wonder Bread factory. Factory bosses said white people would not want to eat bread touched by the hands of the African Americans who worked there. In this powerful intergenerational story, Joseph learns that people joined their hands together to fight discrimination so that one day, their hands—Joseph’s hands—could do anything at all in this whole wide world.—publisher’s comments

In her “Author’s Note” at the close, Margaret H. Mason tells how she’d come to learn about the racism and protest at the Wonder Bread factory. She translates more than the story and its history, but the traditions passing this kind of narrative from one person to another, one generation to those following: oral-storytelling. Joseph’s grandpa, in a nice repetition of form tells him about what his hands could do, were able to do without restraint. Then he talks about what they were not allowed to do, and what they would do in protest. His hands train and, in effect, liberate his grandson’s.

copper these hands 2

cooper these hands 5The illustrations read like a collection of photographs capturing a sequence of a grandfather’s legacy. There is a realism, and I came to appreciate the little visual threads at the beginning, the shoe, the baseball in neighboring images. I adore the expressions of joy and of determination, not just of the face, but in the attitudes of the whole figure.

cooper these hands pages

The grandfather’s story gives Joseph a story of his own to tell, a continuation and an ownership. These Hands inspires story-telling and not just of the happiest of times, but of struggles as well.


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