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Kadir Nelson. Author/Illustrator Study RE 5140-375 Elisabeth Borowicz. 1974: Born in his mother’s home in Washington, DC. 1990: Began working with oil paints. .

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Kadir Nelson

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Kadir Nelson

Author/Illustrator StudyRE 5140-375

Elisabeth Borowicz

1974: Born in his mother’s home in Washington, DC.

1990: Began working with oil paints.

1985: Spent a summer with his uncle, an artist and art teacher. Learned all about perspective, different mediums and color-mixing.

1996: Married his wife, Keara. Hired for “visual development” work for Steven Spielberg’s Amistad.

1992: Earned an art scholarship to Pratt University. Declared an architecture major to get a “real job”. Switched to Illustration in his 2nd semester.

Biography of an Artist

2007: Recipient of Caldecott Honor for Moses.

1999: Picture Book debut: Brothers of the Knight.

2009: Kadir earns the Coretta Scott King Author Award and Sibert Medal for We Are the Ship.

2008: For the first time, Kadir publishes a book he has not only illustrated, but written- We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball.

2013: Lives in San Diego, CA with his wife and 3 daughters.

2010: Created the mural cover art for Michael Jackson’s album, Michael. Also created a Negro Leagues Baseball stamp for the United States Postal Service.

  • “Because at heart, I wasn’t an architect- I was a painter. So I decided, even if I had to starve I would become an artist and do what I really loved to do.”

The Fire that Burns Within…

  • “I want my work to be relevant, and I have to figure out what that means for me.”

  • “I have always been an artist. It’s in my DNA.”

“When you’re good at something, you do it a lot!”

  • “It’s just a search for the truth. … When we learn about history in school or in books, we don’t always get the whole truth, and that’s kind of what I’m searching for.”

Listen and Watch Kadir talk about his passion for art throughout his life.

From Where Does the Fire Ignite?

Kadir was an artist from a very young age. He was more into drawing than his other siblings and loved the attention he received from it. He can remember toting around drawing pencils at the young age of three. Kadir loved the Sunday comics, comic books and drawing superheroes. He remembers his mother realizing his dedication to art at a young age upon asking him to put away his toys, Kadir answered, “Those are not my toys. Those are my pencils and papers.”

Weary of professors who would try to change his style, Kadir majored in architecture. When he actually got a glimpse of the art a friend was completing for a class, Kadir realized the professors were there to “help you do what you do better”. The next day he changed his major to Illustration and “never looked back.”

Just a One-Trick Pony?

Kadir Nelson is more than just an author/illustrator. He spends his “free” time:

  • Traveling

  • Creating advertisements

  • Spending time with his family

  • Creating album cover-art

  • Painting works for his gallery or commission

Nelson Family

LionessOil on Canvas

MichaelMichael Jackson 2010 posthumous album

Essence Music FestivalCoca-Cola Company

  • “I wanted to tell the African-American story through my work. But I didn’t just want to tell the African-American story. I wanted to tell the American story through the eyes of an African-American.”

  • “One of the things that I really enjoy about it is that when it comes to the artwork that I do, I’m telling human stories, and they’re essentially human truths.”

  • “I’m trying to tell the story in a way that it needs to be told, and I am trying to put some people in front of young people who they may not be familiar with […]”

  • “There’s a lot of ugliness to American history as within any history, and it’s a matter of trying to tell it in a very tasteful way.”

  • “Painting historical American subjects pushes me to learn more about who I am, where I come from, and the role my ancestors played in helping form our country.”

Watch the “Painting African-American History” segment of Kadir’s ReadingRockets interview to learn more about where he draws information from.


Where does Kadir get his ideas for his majestic oil paintings and award-winning books?

Artist’s Medium

Kadir works primarily with oil paint. After spending summers with his artistic uncle, Kadir dabbled in watercolor but ultimately connected with oil paints.

Stepping out of his comfort zone, Kadir incorporated many fabrics into his work for Mama Miti. He chose to branch out and do fabric work for this piece because “African culture is rich with textiles and color”. Kadir felt it “essential that the artwork reflect an aesthetic of both East Africa” and his own work.

Paintings from Thunder Rose


Kadir understands the power of an image. He has the dedication and exerts the discipline required to create award-winning illustrations.

When asked if he finds more freedom creating stand-alone pieces compared to a series of paintings for a book, this is how he responded:

“Actually, I try to make each painting independent, even in books. We shouldn’t have to look at a painting and feel like there’s something missing. It should be able to stand on its own. I think that’s part of what makes some of the work that I do more successful than not; I try to make each painting a work of art on its own.”

The Creative Process

  • When creating a book, Kadir uses ideas/events/people he’s learned about and that were inspiring to him. That inspiration motivates him to share it with others and he finds that children’s books are a “great platform” to do so.

  • Kadir has shared that he starts each project from “a loving place”. This sometimes means drawing inspiration from loved ones.

  • Kadir works in his studio in San Diego, California.

Paint over photocopy; 2000

Starting with Just the Two of Us, Kadir felt confident to paint over his own pencil drawings.

“Just” painting; 2013

The Evolution of a Master

He soon grew tired of this method, as well, and began to “just do paintings”.

The evolution of his work is resilient and shows the habits of a true artist: reflection and growth.

For the first four of his books, Kadir used a technique of photocopying his sketches and then painting over the copies.

Kadir’s use of low perspective exudes strength.

Personal Style

Kadir makes use of perspective over and over again throughout his works. He capitalizes on “worms eye view”. Worms eye view “invites readers to experience the scene from a smaller creature’s vantage point”. This is exactly how Kadir creates characters who radiate strength and power.

“I often use a low perspective because it adds a bit of drama to the composition.” –KN, in an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered

Let’s Take a Closer Look. . .From: Henry’s Freedom Box

Note the contrast of colors between Henry and his mother and the nature scene in the background. Could the slaves be painted in dark colors to represent their oppression and fear? Could the bright sky and trees represent the “light” of freedom? Giorgis states that “yellow denotes happiness” and “blue is a restful color expressing calmness and tranquility”. All the things a slave would dream of….

Kadir achieves something here that is difficult to do with oil paintings: he creates a rough texture.I want to reach out and touch this brick wall. I can almost feel my fingers scrape across its hard edges. Could Kadir be referencing the rough, tough, and hardness of slavery?

Let’s Take a Closer Look…From: Ellington is Not a Street

Look at the different shades of color Kadir uses to illustrate each girl’s dress. The youngest girl has the brightest dress and the mother has the darkest. Could Kadir be referencing the different lives and opportunities each character has? The mother has lived the hardest life in the darkest times; but times are changing and the smallest daughter’s future is the brightest.

Look at how Kadir has chosen to frame this illustration through a window pane; like an outsider looking in. Not all of the party guests can even fit in the window frame. With this particular framing choice, Kadir is expressing how many important people there were that took action to change our country. These game-changers can’t all fit into one book, let alone one picture.

Let’s Take a Closer Look….From: The Village that Vanished

Again, Kadir employs the color yellow to evoke a sense of happiness. In this picture, the “entire population of Yao had crossed over” and reached safety. That is certainly a cause to be happy!

Kadir’s use of horizontal lines in the tree line, women, and water suggest “peace and relaxation”. While crossing a rushing river may not be relaxing, these women are sensing peace as they are so close to their freedom and escaping the slavers.

Note the contrasting textures Kadir creates between the roughness of the dress’s fabric and the smoothness of the river.

Let’s Take a Closer Look…From: A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis

Look at the diagonal lines and shadows of the referee’s arms. These visual effects not only enhance the realism of the painting, but the movement that happens in the ring!

A rare example of Kadir’s use of the birds-eye-view perspectiveas he is a self-proclaimed user of low perspective. This is the perfect example of how perspective can be used to alter the feel and experience of a moment.

Note how Kadir capitalizes on the negative space by leaving a blank background. While the bottom of the ring may truly be white, he decided to frame only the ring, not the fanatic crowd. This emphasizes the true power Louis had, and puts all eyes on Louis, just as they were that night.

Let’s Take a Closer Look…From: Mama Miti

Notice how Kadir’s alternating use of oil painting and fabrics enhances texture. The reader can feel the Africans’ smooth skin without even touching it, just as the reader knows their clothes are heavy, rough and itchy.

Kadir’s choice to frame the “poor woman's” head in a white circle evokes a spiritual feel, as if she is one of God’s chosen ones to protect her children and His earth.

The human eye cannot but help be drawn to the statuesque figure of this woman. Kadir’s use of vertical line alludes to a sense of stability; that this mother will become strong and dependable.

Again, Kadir utilizes the color yellow to conjure a sense of hope and happiness. In this instance, this poor woman is about to learn how to plant trees and provide for her babies.

Salt in His Shoes: Michael Jordan in Pursuit of his DreamsBy: Deloris Jordan with: Roslyn M. JordanIllustrated by: Kadir Nelson


Written: Michael Jordan’s mother and sister paired up to write this short biography focused on the younger years of the athlete’s life. The women tell a story of an unknown Michael- one that was picked last, was short and not confident. Wanting to be taller than he was he begged his mother for advice. With a pinch of salt and a whole lotta prayers, Michael grew into the star he is today.

Illustrated: Looking across the board at Kadir’s style, this is obviously one of his earlier works. He pays more attention to lines and borders and therefore his characters evoke less emotion and aren’t as realistic. Nelson masters color and perspective in this text.

Classroom Connections:

  • Biography Study

  • Teaching THEME: Persistence, Perseverance, Spirituality, Hope

The Village that VanishedBy: Ann GrifalconiIllustrated by: Kadir Nelson


Written: This is a tale of the Yao tribe, but could tell the same tale for so many other tribes just like it. Grifalconi spins a tale about a young girl, Abikanile, and how she and her wise grandmother, Chimwala, hatched a plan to escape to freedom from slavers.

Illustrated: One of Kadir’s earlier works, the photocopying method was used for this series of paintings. Kadir uses more cross-hatching than in any other book for Village. It provides texture to create culture in the villager’s clothes, huts, forests, and landscape.

Classroom Connections:

  • Slave trade: Africans selling Africans

  • Forced relocation and displacement (tie to Native Americans and colonists; Trail of Tears)

  • Teaching THEME: Reliance on faith, Hope, Creativity/Imagination, Resourcefulness, Trust, Community

Ellington Was Not a StreetBy: NtozakeShangeIllustrations by: Kadir Nelson


Written: NtozakeShange transforms her free verse poem “Mood Indigo” into a captivating picture book. Each page turn introduces a new, influential man who helped “change the world”. Shange drew inspiration from her childhood memories of the adults who always seemed to be gathered in her home.

Illustrated: Kadir Nelson uses primarily dark colors in this book, reserving bright colors only for the outfits of his young characters. He uses strong vertical lines throughout, which elicits a sense of the strength each of these activists, musicians, and writers had.

Classroom Connections:

  • Excellent way to model and teach free verse poetry.

  • Use of this book can jump-start mini-research projects focused on the 8 men and 1 vocal group introduced on each page.

Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground RailroadBy: Ellen LevineIllustrations by: Kadir Nelson


Written: Levine chronicles the life and hardships of Henry Box Brown, a slave from the South who worked for his freedom. After a childhood of not understanding slavery, Henry grows into a man who watched his own children disappear in a slaver’s wagon. Wanting a better life, Henry hatches a plan to mail himself to freedom. Enduring the seclusion of a cargo box and the trip from the South to Philadelphia, Henry finally achieved his dreams.

Illustrated: Kadir flexes his color muscles more than any other element in this book. The illustrations shift from dark to light as Henry gets closer and closer to his freedom. Kadir pays attention to every detail, especially in these two pages of the book. Everyone is saddened; look at all the people’s downturned faces, the boy clinging to his mother, and the young man’s shifted eyes. Even the horse is in darkness.

Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad [CONTINUED]By: Ellen LevineIllustrations by: Kadir Nelson

  • Classroom Connections:

  • Teaching THEME: Hope, Freedom (the slave owner “passing” Henry down to his son), Family, Perseverance and Persistence

  • Routes of the Underground Railroad

  • Map Skills

  • Discuss the power and influence of music (Follow the Drinking Gourd) in the African-American community

  • Students can play Nat Geo’s interactive Underground Railroad game

  • Reader’s Theater

Moses: When Harriet Tubman led her People to FreedomBy: Carole Boston WeatherfordIllustrated by: Kadir Nelson


Written: A beautifully written lyrical text detailing Harriet Tubman’s voyage to freedom. Unlike any other text, this book uses Tubman’s undying faith as a crutch and her prayers, as well as God’s voice, are woven throughout.

Illustrated: Nelson outdoes himself in MOSES, and is aptly applauded for it. He earned himself a Caldecott Honor for his work in this book. He utilizes perspective throughout, using a “worms-hole-view” which allows Harriet to embody power and strength page after page. Kadir uses mostly dark colors in this series of paintings; the darkness is necessary when thinking about Harriet’s travels and how she only traveled at night, in the darkness. Kadir’s dark paintings establish the perfect tone and style for this book.

Moses: When Harriet Tubman led her People to Freedom [CONTINUED]By: Carole Boston WeatherfordIllustrated by: Kadir Nelson

Classroom Connections:

  • Reliance on Faith

  • African-American Spirituals

  • Underground Railroad Routes, US geography (students can create their own maps to freedom)

  • Empathy (of whites who helped Harriet along the way)

  • Freedom

  • Astrology (constellation charts)

  • Discussion Guide

  • Reader’s Theater

  • Flocabularyvideo

Mama MitiBy: Donna Jo NapoliIllustrated by: Kadir Nelson


Written: Napoli describes the life of Wangari Maathai and her inspiration to change the environment of her home, Kenya.

Illustrated: Nelson uses a mixed media of oil paint and fabrics. His choice to incorporate a foreign medium (foreign to him) was ingenious! The culture of Kenya is illuminated on every page. The texture of skin, clothes and earth grabs the reader on every single page.

Classroom Connections:

  • Global Awareness (Trait of 21st Century Learners)

  • Service-Learning Projects

  • Displays how influential we can be in our OWN communities; LOCAL change

  • Women leaders

  • Opportunity to discuss government and what options citizens have when the government neglects its citizens

  • Pair with: Planting the Seeds of Kenya, Wangari’s Trees of Peace, Seeds of Change, and for a cross-culture reference- The Never-Ending Greenness

Nelson MandelaWords and Pictures by: Kadir Nelson


Written: Nelson’s fourth attempt at writing and illustrating is a hit! His impeccably majestic paintings construe the dark times South Africa experienced at the hands of their government and apartheid. Nelson opens with a glimpse of young Rolihlahla’s Xhosa village life and chronicles to the moment he was elected president of South Africa.

Illustrated: Nelson’s paintings are breathtaking to say the very least. Bright colors are only used in the negative pages at the very beginning and end of this book, referencing the “good times” of Mandela’s life. The middle of the book drowns in dark tones just as South Africa drowned in apartheid.

Nelson Mandela [CONTINUED]Words and Pictures by: Kadir Nelson

Classroom Connections:

  • Discussions about social-justice issues:

    • Inclusion- Apartheid AND/OR Segregation

    • Ethnic traditions- destroyed, outlawed

    • Gender equality

    • Government, roles of power

    • True identity- Harming a whole group’s “sense of self”

  • Teaching THEME: Patience, Justice, Hope, Democracy

  • Study Activists who made a difference

    • Ruby Bridges

    • Harriet Tubman

    • Abraham Lincoln

    • Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King

    • Mahatma Gandhi

Critical Acclaim

Award-winning author and illustrator. Check out Kadir’s impressive accolades.

  • Illustrated:

  • Brothers of the Knight

  • Dancing in the Wings

  • Salt in His Shoes: Michael Jordan in Pursuit of a Dream

  • Big Jabe

  • Just the Two of Us

  • The Village that Vanished

  • Under the Christmas Tree

  • Please, Baby, Please

  • Thunder Rose

  • Ellington Was Not a Street

  • Tales from Shakespeare

  • Hewitt Anderson’s Great Big Life

  • The Real Slam Dunk

  • Please, Puppy, Please

  • He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands

  • Michael’s Golden Rules

  • Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom

  • Written (Self-Illustrated):

  • Change Has Come: An Artist Celebrates Our American Spirit

  • Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African-Americans

  • Nelson Mandela

  • We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball

Kadir’s Works of Art

  • Henry’s Freedom Box

  • Abe’s Honest Words: The Life of Abraham Lincoln

  • All God’s Critters

  • Coretta Scott

  • Testing the Ice: A True Story about Jackie Robinson

  • Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya

  • A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis

  • I Have a Dream

  • Illustrations have appeared in New Yorker, New York Times, and Sports Illustrated.

I have chosen to launch Kadir’s author/illustrator study in February of next year as I already know our pacing guide has an informational unit geared to Black History Month.

I will want to first immerse my students in Kadir’s works. I will check out from our school library and public library all the copies I can. Kadir’s books will be placed in book boxes in which students make independent decisions about what they would like to read. I will be interested to see how many of my students self-select his work and recommend it to others.

After having an independent experience or two with Kadir’s work I want to dive right in and help my students explore Kadir’s art form and the visual elements he employs. We can try our own (brief) hand at oil painting early in the unit to gain an appreciation for his talent.

Focus of this study:

THEMES and ARTISTIC MEDIA (how it supports text)

Launching the Author/ Illustrator Study

To take place: February 2014

(Black History Month)

While I will use an assortment of books to fill our book boxes, I will select these six for our study:

  • A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis

  • Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad

  • Mama Miti

  • Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led her People to Freedom

  • Nelson Mandela

  • The Village that Vanished

    I will also incorporate one of these two texts as a daily read-aloud:

  • Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African-Americans

  • We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball

Book Selection

  • After reading The Village that Vanished, students will use the class set of Netbook laptops to research another group of people who have been forced to relocate. Suggestions include: Native Americans, and Mapuche. Students should then contribute to the respective Padlet.

  • Students will pick their favorite character from the books read in the study. Students will create a bio-poem for that character. If the students don’t exactly know how the character feels, or what they say, the students will need to use the illustrations to infer these things. The students will then use Animoto to turn their poem into a video.

  • After selecting their favorite character and creating an Animoto, students will then pick their favorite book that was studied. We will continue to work with the GCS opinion piece outline which stresses opening and closing statements and support sentences starting with linking words. I will model for students a think-aloud of my favorite work and the construction of my opinion piece. Then, using the projector connected to my computer, I will take students step-by-step through how to post their completed opinion piece on the Amazon Book Review website.

Literature-Based Activities

Related Websites

  • http://www.kadirnelson.com/

  • http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/contributor/kadir-nelson

  • http://www.readingrockets.org/books/interviews/nelson/

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5JpjS6SZY4

  • http://www.californiareaders.org/interviews/nelson_kadir.php

  • http://0-www.teachingbooks.net.wncln.wncln.org/tb.cgi?aid=1046

  • http://www.kidsreads.com/authors/kadir-nelson


Ciardiello, A. V. (2004). Democracy's young heroes: An instructional model of critical literacy practices. International Reading Association, 138-147.

Gale. (2013). Kadir nelson (1974(?)-). Something About the Author, 246, 140-147.

Giorgis, C. (2009). Exploring visual images in picture books. International Reading Association, 3-13.

Grifalconi, A. (2004). The village that vanished. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers.

Jordan, R. M. (2000). Salt in his shoes:michaeljordan in persuit of a dream. New York: Scholastic, Inc.

KidsReads. (n.d.). Biography: Kadir nelson. Retrieved from http://www.kidsreads.com/authors/kadir-nelson

Levine, E. (2007). Henr'ys freedom box, a true story from the underground railroad. New York, NY: Scholastic Press.

LOC. (Performer) (2006, 09 30). Kadir nelson: Book fest '06. Literature Webcasts. [Video podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_wdesc.php?rec=3915

Napoli, D. J. (2010). Mama miti. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Nelson, K. (2011). Heart and soul: The story of america and africanamericans. (1st ed. ed.). New York, New York: Balzer Bray.

Nelson, K. (n.d.). Interview by B O'Brien []. Meet kadirnelson.

Nelson, K. (2011, September 26). Interview by M Block []. "heart and soul":anafrican-american history.

Nelson, K. (n.d.). Interview by Reading Rockets []. A video interview with kadirnelson

Nelson, K. (2010, September 7). Interview by Teaching Books []. Kadir nelson.

Nelson, K. (2013). Nelson mandela. New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Nelson, K. (2008). We are the ship: The story of negro league baseball. New York, New York: Hyperion Book CH.

Peña, M. D. L., & Nelson, K. (2012). A nation's hope, the story of boxing legend joelouis. New York, New York: Dial Books for Young Readers.

Shange, N., & Nelson, K. (2004). Ellington was not a street. Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing.

Weatherford, C. B. (2006). Moses: When harriettubman led her people to freedom. New York, New York: Hyperion Book.

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