Miami museum curator previews spring exhibit on children’s books

African-American identity explored through children’s picture books at Miami.

We talked to Jason Shaiman, curator of exhibitions, Miami University Art Museum in a Q&A to find out more about the upcoming spring 2018 exhibition, “Telling A People’s Story: African-American Children’s Illustrated Literature.” Shaiman shared his vision for the exhibition and gave us an insider’s perspective of what guests can expect when visiting the galleries. The exhibition with open on Tuesday, January 30 and run through Saturday June 30th.

Shaiman said “Telling A People’s Story: African-American Children’s Illustrated Literature” looks at African-American cultural and historical identity through the lens of children’s picture books, particularly looking at the illustrations.

“This is something different, but something that I feel is very needed in the world of children’s literature to have something that puts a positive spin on a genre that is largely overlooked, and that’s one of the facets that we discussed throughout the exhibit,” he said.

The exhibition features more than 130 original artworks from African-American children’s illustrated literature, produced by some of the biggest names in the field. The collection represents 33 different featured illustrators, and the selections were made from over 90 different books. Most of the actual books will be on display alongside each illustration, so guests can look for the book as they explore the exhibition.

“There is this need for much greater representation of diversity, which has been sadly lacking until the last few decades,” Shaiman said.

Q: How are the illustrations displayed within the exhibition?

A: The way we organized the illustrations within the exhibition was to look at a chronology of African-American culture and history, and we identified books that focused on certain historical time periods, events and specific people, and we started identifying all of the books, or we tried to, I know there were many books we couldn't get our hands on, because they were out of print. When we started, we identified roughly 600 books to consider. Just to give you a sense of the staggering number, when we looked at the average number of illustrations in each book, it came out to a little over 14,000 possible works of art for us to go through. So, we started to look at books that were illustrated only by African Americans. Now, many of the books are written by African Americans. Some are written by white authors, but we felt that because this is an art exhibit, the artwork needed to come from the visualization of African-American illustrators. And, as often as we could, books that were written by African Americans. So, we started to identify these books, and within each book, we went through and further identified specific works of art that we felt best represented the themes in the book, but that also supported the thematic progression of the exhibition. So, in some cases, there is only one work of art that was used as an illustration on a page, or from the front cover. There are some where we have more than one piece from a book, but it was never really about the book cover. It was about identifying the best pages, and some of them happened to be the book cover image.

Q: That must have been a challenge.

A: It was. I didn't do it alone. I certainly had help. There is a lecturer here at Miami University in the Department of Teacher Education. Her name is Brenda Dales, and she has been my main colleague throughout this project. The two of us spearheaded the exhibition, but we included a number of faculty from the university in different departments, such as Black World Studies, History, Art, Education and English. Then, we also brought in some scholars and experts in the field of children's literature, particularly children's illustrated picture books. And, some of those scholars have a specific focus or attention in African-American themes. So, we put together a strong team that assisted with identifying all of the authors and illustrators, Then, we whittled down the list of books to fit within the themes.

Q: What is the timeframe of the books or illustrations in the exhibition?

A: The earliest one that we have was published in 1969, and it's a book titled "Stevie." It was written and illustrated by John Steptoe, and it really represents the first book written or illustrated by an African American on an African-American theme that garnered any attention within mainstream publishing and readership. Now, that book did not win any awards. Steptoe went on to win awards, but that was the first book that ever received any critical attention. So, it has a special place. In fact, it so happens that the illustration from that book is the very first work that people will encounter in the exhibition.

Q: Can you touch on a couple names that guests would recognize as far as the illustrations that are represented?

A: That's hard. I would say among some of the biggest names, there's Ashley Bryan. He is one of the older illustrators. Ashley is in his early 90's, and he's still working. He is one of the most well recognized and most beloved illustrators. Then, there's other names like Jerry Pinkney, who is also a veteran in the realm of children's illustration. Jerry has done so many books that are not about African-American (themes,) but many people would recognize his style. He is also one of the more celebrated illustrators. By today's standards, some of the big names are E.B. Lewis, James Ransome, Don Tate and Kadir Nelson. Jan Spivey-Gilchrist is also well respected and highly celebrated in the field.

Q: What are you most excited about as far as bringing this to the community?

A: I'm excited about everything. Every part of it. This is the basic core idea of an exhibit on children's literature as a means of presenting identity, and it's an idea that I came up with probably 10 or 12 years ago. So, it's been a passion for me to do this, but what's more important, and meaningful, I believe, for the community is this is the first time any museum has ever attempted an exhibition of this nature. No one else has ventured to create an exhibit focused on African-American identity using children's literature and the pictures. My colleagues and I, and everyone who worked on this realized that this is groundbreaking, and it's so important, especially today. It would have been incredibly important 50 years ago, but in light of lack of diversity, of things that we're hearing today about racial tensions, this is something where we are doing something positive. We're doing something that is bringing attention to a world of multi-culturalism in a specific area that has been long neglected for attention. Having this at a university museum is so important, because we are able to connect faculty in different departments, who are integrating this exhibition into their classes. That's going to impact the students, but it's also going to have an impact on all of our visitors…The exhibition intertwines art, culture, history and identity. It gives attention to a topic that's been long neglected.

Q: You have your own collection of classic “Curious George” books and memorabilia on display in your office. Tell us a bit about that?

A: …It's interesting. I love children's books. I have a personal collection of classic "Curious George," because I loved those books as a child. I loved the illustrations, I loved the stories…I loved his innocence, imagination and curiosity. But, honestly, through this exhibit, I look at the illustrations differently now than I ever have. That's been incredibly rewarding for me.

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