September 28, 2022

Artwork from African American Children’s Books on View at Princeton Library

A PERFECT TIE-IN: Illustrator Bryan Collier, who is among the artists in a new show at Princeton Public Library, was among those who appeared at a previous Princeton Children’s Book Festival at Hinds Plaza. The new exhibit and the upcoming festival on October 8 have some close ties.

By Anne Levin

Princeton Public Library staff members were looking for ways to expand the scope of the library’s exhibits when they hit on a logical match. “Telling a People’s Story,” a traveling display devoted to the art found within the pages of African American children’s picture books, is on view starting Saturday, October 1, just in time for the return of the popular Princeton Children’s Book Festival on October 8.

“I had read about this exhibit and had seen some photos,” said Janie Hermann, public programming librarian. “I did some research. When we realized that some of the illustrators had also been in our book festival, it was a really nice tie-in. As well, we just wanted to uplift the work of African American illustrators.”

On the library’s first floor through October 30, the show is focused on art produced as book illustrations. The traveling exhibition on loan from the Miami University Art Museum in Oxford, Ohio, is the first of its kind. The show spotlights the cultural, historical, and social makeup of African American cultural identity while raising awareness of the role African American illustrators and authors play in the field of children’s literature.

“Children’s picture books can really be a portal for kids learning about important events,” said Hermann. “The books in the show tell about different historical time periods. It provides a way for the community to learn more. And while it’s about children’s illustrators, there is something that everyone can learn from it.”

Hermann and Susan Conlon, who heads the library’s youth services department, worked together on bringing the show to Princeton. “We’re excited this exhibit will be available for visitors to this year’s Princeton Children’s Book Festival to view,” Conlon said in a press release. “The festival is back on Hinds Plaza on October 8 this year, and we hope everyone will take some time to go into the library to experience ‘Telling a People’s Story.’”

More than 600 books and 14,000 illustrations were reviewed during the development of the exhibition. Themes and time periods include African Origins, Middle Passage, Slavery, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Harlem Renaissance, Segregation, and the Civil Rights Movement. Other themes draw attention to historical figures in politics, music, sports, arts, and entertainment.

The 130 works by 33 artists — from 95 books — include paintings, pastels, drawings, and mixed media, spanning nearly 50 years of creativity. Among the artists represented are Floyd Cooper, Jerry Pinkney, Bryan Collier, and Shadra Strickland, all of whom have appeared at the library as part of the Princeton Children’s Book Festival.

“Collectively, the many books created by authors and illustrators since the late 19th century contribute to an understanding of the African American experience through two perspectives,” reads a description from the original exhibition. “First, is an internal look into the need for validation and the creation of positive self-images. Second, is to give an introduction to the African American experience for those unfamiliar in order to better understand the cultural, historical, and social makeup of African American identity.”

Presenting the exhibit now instead of waiting till February, which is Black History Month, made sense to those involved. “We certainly recognize special heritage months, but we like to uplift diversity year-round,” said Hermann. “That is certainly part of our mission.”