Unparalleled: Floyd Cooper, A Literary Remembrance

By Carole Boston Weatherford

“There is no greater gift than the truth.”

Floyd Cooper

I credit my two children with introducing me to Floyd Cooper—not the man but the artist. Their grandmother gave them the poetry book Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea by Joyce Carol Thomas. Floyd’s subjects’ faces glowed with warmth and love. I next encountered his work in Nikki Grimes’s Meet Danitra Brown. Floyd’s realistic illustrations invited my daughter into Danitra’s neighborhood and into her circle of friends.

My children’s literature classes at Fayetteville State University delved deeper into Floyd’s work. I had students evaluate Jump! From the Life of Michael Jordan, which Floyd also wrote. That biography is a standout, not only because it profiles a superstar but also because of its tall, slim profile and a long gatefold showing a teenage Jordan in mid-air. Among other Cooper titles, my class studied These Hands by Margaret Mason. In this intergenerational story, Floyd’s poignant art shows the passage of lessons and love from grandfather to grandson and the power we all have in our hands to effect change.

In the days when handshakes were still safe, I first met Floyd at the Philadelphia African American Children’s Book Fair, an annual gathering organized by publicist and literacy advocate Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati. The event not only attracts thousands of readers and educators but also forges ties among Black children’s book creators. Though a giant in the industry, Floyd was always genuine and generous, insightful and incise, a stellar talent but a cool, down-to-earth cool dude. A family man at heart, he immediately became one of my “brothers.”

Tony Medina, Carole Boston Weatherford, and Floyd Cooper at the Shenandoah University Children’s Literature Conference, 2014

I am blessed that we also became collaborators. Our first book together was Becoming Billie Holiday, a verse novel about my muse—the book that I believe I was born to write. Like Lady Day herself, Floyd’s cinematic, sepia-tone illustrations are moody and mesmerizing. At the 2009 Coretta Scott King Awards Breakfast, I was thrilled to share the stage with Floyd when I received an author honor for our book and he won the illustrator award for The Blacker the Berry, his fifth collaboration with Thomas.

Three of Floyd’s books conjure my own memories. Set in my hometown, A Ride to Remember: A Civil Rights Story by Sharon Langley and Amy Nathan documents efforts to desegregate a Baltimore-area amusement park that I at one time could not enter. Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey reminds me of a 1960 family vacation when we were looking for accommodations. At motel after motel, we were turned away, despite neon-lit vacancy signs. In Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes, Floyd’s words and pictures show how young Langston came to find a refuge, and his calling, in words. The first Black poet I ever read, Hughes remains, for me, a guiding literary light.

Floyd illuminated so many stories, showing Blackness in all its glory. Just as readers are moved by his visual storytelling, they are awed by his unusual “oil erasure” technique. Floyd used erasers to make shapes from a ground of paint. He then layered on mixed media—mostly oil-based and applied in dry-brush fashion—to make the image emerge. His art demonstrations were magical!

How ironic that his method is termed a “subtractive technique.” Floyd added so much to children’s literature by chronicling Black history and celebrating Black joy. His publication credits are too numerous to list. However, I believe that our last collaboration may be his crowning achievement, his most important work.

When I was drafting Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre, I asked Floyd to illustrate. He accepted, saying, “You know I’m from Tulsa.” Of course. That is exactly why I thought of him. Because of Floyd’s roots, I knew he would bring passion to the difficult subject. Together, we strove to give voice to the victims and the survivors whose stories were never told and whose losses may never be fully measured.

Grandpa Williams

I did not know—until reading Floyd’s note for the back matter—that his own grandfather survived the 1921 massacre and had shared his recollections with Floyd when he was a boy. Floyd poured Grandpa Williams memories into this work. The resulting art is nothing short of masterful. Only Floyd could have created that searing cover art of a family in flight and in embrace amidst the violence. Central to the composition, the younger girl’s eye begs us to believe our eyes and to see racism for the evil that it is. The Tulsa Race Massacre may well be the truth that Floyd Cooper was meant to bring to light; and Unspeakable, the legacy that he was born to leave us all.

I am grieved by my friend’s passing and for his dear family’s loss. But I find comfort in imagining that Grandpa Williams greeted Floyd on the other side with a proud smile and a hearty hug.

Well done, Brother Floyd, well done.

note: The epigraph comes from an interview Floyd did with librarian and blogger Elizabeth Bird. You can read the full interview here.

Memories of Floyd Cooper

“We are shocked and devastated to hear of Floyd Cooper’s passing. Floyd was an amazing talent, gone too soon. The emotions flowed off the pages with Floyd’s artwork and we are honored to have had his talent on books such as Unspeakable, Ruth and the Green Book, Something to Prove, and A Spy Called James. We send our love and thoughts to Floyd’s wife, Velma; his children Dayton and Kai; and Floyd’s grandchildren. Floyd’s amazing artwork will always hold a special place in our hearts.” – Adam Lerner, Publisher and CEO of Lerner Publishing Group

“The first time I met Floyd Cooper was after my Book Ruth and the Green Book was published. He was the illustrator. We were in Virginia, and the Virginia Library Association was having a statewide gathering of Virginia Librarians at their convention. I was the novice working with Gwen Strauss and Floyd. I had the difficult task of following Floyd Cooper at the podium. His wit and humor were still in the air. I had no clue that he would have that room of Librarians spellbound by his magic and humor. I realized  that this man was more than someone who merely drew images to move a story along. This man lived and worked with the beauty and grace that only he could have shared with us time and time again. Mr. Floyd Cooper was a Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Rosa Parks all rolled up in one. And above that he was the one and only Floyd Cooper. As long as children read books and look at the images Mr. Floyd Cooper lives and inspires.” – Calvin Alexander Ramsey, author of Ruth and the Green Book

“I am so sorry to hear of the loss of Floyd Cooper. My thoughts are with his family, and with all of the publishing partners who have ushered his beautiful work into the hands of children across the country and world. My husband and I both met Floyd through writing events over the years, and he was a kind and wonderful soul who mentored a young illustrator through my WNDB Mentorship program last year. His illustrations on Unspeakable are bold and historic, and I hope this book will continue to live on as part of his grand legacy.” – Miranda Paul, author of Beyond and One Plastic Bag

“There is so much to say about Floyd but personally, Floyd was a champion. He was someone who took the time to encourage me along my writing journey.” – Baptiste Paul, author of I Am Farmer

“I’ve had the honor to work with Floyd on several books – he was kindness & thoughtfulness through all. And of course, an immense talent. He took such pleasure in his work; among some of my last messages with him while we were finishing work on Unspeakable last year were him pointing out with joy (or maybe even glee?) little details he added to scenes that took them to a more meaningful level, on top of the already luminous, bold work on every spread – the state bird of Oklahoma, the state flower, the corn husk doll… every little part mattered. He and his work are truly unique. I am shocked and saddened along with so many others at his passing – he will be so missed.” – Danielle Carnito, Senior Art Director at Lerner Publishing Group

From the Publishing Industry

The New York Times has published an article highlighting Floyd Cooper’s goal to “revive and recount chapters of African American history.” Find the full article here.

School Library Journal honors Floyd Cooper in this article.

Publishers Weekly details Floyd Cooper’s life and impact on the industry with this obituary.

The Brown Bookshelf celebrates Floyd’s life and mourns his passing. Read their article here.

ABC News remembers Floyd’s “bold, dramatic images” and legacy in children’s literature with this article.

The Associated Press covered Floyd’s passing. Read the article here.

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