I want to start a new periodic series for this blog called The Essentials. I will celebrate the work of a particular current illustrator or writer and provide a list of six essential must-experience-for-yourself books by the talented individual.
Today’s artist is the great artist Frank Morrison, winner of 2 Coretta Scott King Honor Awards as well as the John Steptoe Award for New Talent, plus many other accolades.
Once you see a painting by Morrison you never forget his explosive, vibrant, hip-hop infused style. His illustrations burst with color and motion. His stylized figures with their elongated arms and legs dance across the pages, commanding your attention with their captivating body language. He has done several great covers for middle grade novels (Rita Williams-Garcia’s unforgettable Delphine trilogy that starts One Crazy Summer, Frascawell Hyman’s underrated gem Mango Delight, among others). This post applauds his work in picture books.
Here are six picture books with art by him I consider Essential–in chronological order:
Jazzy Miz Mozetta, illustrated by Frank Morrison, written by Brenda C. Roberts, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, ISBN: 978-0374336745. (2004)
This moving account introduces readers to an unforgettable character, a woman who moves with electric grace. Just look at how those reds pop. Morrison deservedly won the John Steptoe Award for New Talent for his visually striking work.
Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, illustrated by Frank Morrison, written by Katheryn Russell-Brown, published by Lee & Low Books, ISBN: 978-1600608988. (2014)
This informative and beautifully written picture book biography introduces readers to the extraordinary musician Melba Liston, child virtuoso and groundbreaking trombonist. I love how the music feels alive in every frame. This book made my list of favorite non-fiction books of 2014 and then the list of my favorites of the decade. I wrote: “Morrison’s (really cool) signature illustrations, with his characters possessing long limbs, is a perfect match for this picture book biography of Little Melba Liston who needs to stretch her arms to play her beloved trombone.”
I Got the Rhythm, illustrated by Frank Morrison, written by Connie Schofield-Morrison, Scholastic paperback edition: 978-0545838771. (2014)
This terrific storytime book bounces to a beat all its own, inviting movement and call and response. This made my 2014 list of favorite picture books. I wrote then: “While walking in the city with her mom, a young girl thinks of a rhythm in her mind (“think. think”) and she soon hears the rhythm with her ears (“beat. beat”) as a guy drums on some buckets on the sidewalk. The joy of the music spreads through her body, and soon all the other kids join her in a triumphant dance. Someone pushes the button on a boom box and soon everyone in sight claps, snaps, shakes, and stomps. This glorious interactive book invites story hour participants to dance along and perhaps even form a parade!” This book also has some sequels with I Got the Christmas Spirit (Bloomsbury, 2018, ISBN: 978-1681195285) and the upcoming I Got the School Spirit (Bloomsbury, July 7, 2020) keeping the party going.
Let the Children March, illustrated by Frank Morrison, written by Monica Clark-Robinson, published by HMH Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0544704527 (2018).
With his evocative oil paintings, Morrison captures the power and intensity of the 1963 Birmingham Children’s Crusade. He received his second Coretta Scott King Honor for this title, matching the immediacy of Clark-Robinson’s language with stunning panoramic images that give young readers a sweeping you-are-there feeling.
The Roots of Rap, illustrated by Frank Morrison, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, published by little bee books (an imprint of Bonnier Publishing), ISBN: 978-1499804119. (2019)
From a previous blog post praising this book: All the while, the terrific illustrator Frank Morrison, always remarkable, outdoes himself. His trademark elongated figures burst off the page, grabbing the eye and capturing the excitement of Weatherford’s zippy couplets. Look at his James Brown, stretching on stage with frenetic grace. Look at those rich spray paint colors. I love the overhead shot of a crowd watching a breakdancer in action. Each pose, every close-up of a boom box, his drawings of hip-hop superstars such as Queen Latifah, the way he illustrates the unforgettable fashion. This is a book Morrison was born to illustrate.
The Secret Garden of George Washington Carver, illustrated by Frank Morrison, written by Gene Barretta, published by Katherine Tegen Books (an imprint of HarperCollins), ISBN: 978-0062430151. (2020)
One of his latest efforts and it’s an absolute gem. Brilliant at depicting the lively vivacity of city life, Morrison proves here that he is equally adept at creating quiet scenes in the woods. Here budding scientist George Washington Carver explores and interacts with the natural world. He becomes a young plant specialist and later a renowned environmentalist while encountering hardship and racism. Writer Barretta does a solid job covering a lot of ground in a succinct fashion. The final spread with an elderly Carver standing near his garden, leaning on a stick cane, accompanied by the words “Regard Nature. Revere Nature. Respect Nature.” is Morrison at his best. He offers an image that haunts the memory long after you close the book.