High Museum exhibits children’s books on civil rights

Jerry Pinkney's Illustration from the 2019 book "A Place to Land" by Barry Wittenstein, is part of a new exhibit at the High Museum. Contributed.

Credit: High Museum of Art

Credit: High Museum of Art

The exhibition, entitled Picture the Dream, displays picture books that cry for social justice, freedom and equity.

The first time the High Museum of Art devoted an entire exhibit to the work of a children’s book illustrator, the show focused on Jerry Pinkney, a Caldecott winner whose watercolor fairytales drew comparisons to Winslow Homer.

That was 2013. Seven years later, a new exhibit includes another Pinkney, Jerry’s son Brian, whose work will be part of “Picture The Dream: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement through Children’s Books.”

To make the event, which opens Saturday, August 15, a true family affair, Brian’s wife, Andrea Davis Pinkney, an author, publisher and editor at Scholastic Inc. in New York and a collaborator on children’s books with her husband, is a co-curator of the show.

Among the more than 80 artworks in the show are images from Brian and Andrea Pinkney’s 2010 book, “Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down,” a colorful account of the 1960 path-breaking demonstration at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.

“I feel very blessed that I am part of a children’s book family,” said Andrea recently, praising her father-in-law, who she prefers to call her “father-in-love.”

“Essentially, Jerry is the father of children’s picture books at the High,” said co-curator Virginia Shearer. “Jerry always surprises and astounds me.

Raúl Colón's illustrations for "Child of the Civil Rights Movement," by Paula Young Shelton, are part of a new exhibit at the High Museum.

Credit: High Museum of Art

Credit: High Museum of Art

The exhibit includes paintings, prints, collages and drawings that tell the history of this world-changing movement, couched in images and words appropriate for young people. Among the artworks on display:

  • Atlanta illustrator Laura Freeman’s images from “Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race” by Margot Lee Shetterly.
  • Artwork by A.G. Ford for “My Daddy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” written by Martin Luther King III.
  • “If a Bus Could Talk: The Story of Rosa Parks” written and illustrated by Faith Ringgold.

Also in the show are drawings from “March,” the graphic novel by the late civil rights pioneer Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, with illustrations by Nate Powell. Lewis also appears in a Benny Andrews painting of the famous crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

That painting usually hangs on a wall in the boardroom of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, which agreed to lend it to the High for the event.

"Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut," by Derrick Barnes, with illustrations by Gordon C. James, celebrates the impact that a great haircut can have on a boy.

Credit: High Museum of Art

Credit: High Museum of Art

The exhibit was organized in partnership with the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, in Amherst, Massachusetts, which has worked with the High on five exhibitions since Jerry Pinkney got the ball rolling.

One of the underlying messages of the show, and of the ongoing teamwork with the Carle Museum, is that children’s books are not a frivolous pursuit and that the story of the civil rights movement can be taught to adults, as well as children, through this medium.

“So many of the creators in the exhibition have illuminated the importance of civil rights in ways that appeal to children of all ages,” said Andrea Pinkney, adding, as if it weren’t already abundantly clear, “children’s book art is art!”

Andrea Pinkney, a publisher and author at Scholastic Books, is co-curator of the new exhibit at the High Museum of Art, "Picture the Dream."

Credit: Christine Simmons

Credit: Christine Simmons

An example of an illustration that speaks volumes is the cover art for the Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James book “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut.” It’s about the barber’s chair as a rite of passage for African American boys, and about the pleasure of looking sharp.

The cover image is James’ rendition of a wonderful photograph of Barnes’ son, whose expression is a mixture of pride, truculence and utter confidence, a face that is the true image of swag.

Developing that sense of self is as much a part of the civil rights movement as the sit-in and the march, said Barnes. “Even in 2020, though things have come a long way, there still aren’t enough stories written about a Black child as a protagonist — not a runaway slave, not a civil rights hero, not a basketball player. Just a kid with a beautiful loving family.”

For that reason, he not only makes Black children the center of his stories, but he makes his own four boys the stars of Barnes saga. It’s a form of protective gear, in a world that’s dangerous for Black boys.

“I’m stitching these armored suits together from the time that they turn five,” he said. “A lot of that is a lot of affirmation, to give them knowledge of self, letting them know where they came from, not just American history but African history as well. Our children are stars in our house.”

In conjunction with the exhibit, Andrea and Brian Pinkney’s “Sit-In” was adapted for the state by Atlanta playwright Pearl Cleage, a play that explores the role young people serve in changing the injustices of the world.

The play will be presented online by the Alliance Theatre beginning in October.


“Picture the Dream: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement through Children’s Books”

Presented in a special exhibition gallery on the second level of the High’s Stent Family Wing.

Aug. 15 through Nov. 8. 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4400, high.org.

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