The Art of Testing the Ice
Illustrator Kadir Nelson does more than turn words into pictures.
- Grades: 3–5, 6–8
When artist Kadir Nelson began his illustrations of the book Testing the Ice, his goal was to "tell the story with pictures." His challenge was to do that in a way that went beyond turning words into drawings.
"You don't want to say something that has already been said," he told the Scholastic Kids Press Corps in a recent interview. "You want to add something to the story."
Testing the Ice by Sharon Robinson is a story about baseball legend Jackie Robinson. On April 15, 1947, Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers and became the first African-American man to play in major league baseball. In 1962, he became the first African-American to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
But this is not that story. Daughter Sharon Robinson's story is about an incident that happened in her family after her father retired from baseball. It illustrates his bravery in his personal life rather than his professional life.
"He was brave when he went out on the ice and he was brave when he went on the baseball field," Nelson said. "My role is really like a documentarian and an author. I shed light on pieces of history that don't always get as much attention as they deserve."
The path that led Nelson to creating illustrations for children's books started when he was 3 years old.
"I was drawing before I can remember, actually as soon as I could hold a pencil," he said. He continued to pursue his passion in college where he studied art and illustration.
Nelson began contacting publishing houses before he graduated college. He landed a few illustrating jobs that in turn led to more illustrating jobs.
His advice for children who would like to follow in his footsteps to become an illustrator emphasizes a love of drawing,
"I would say that kids need to learn to draw very well," he said. "And to learn to tell a story with their pictures."
Most important, however, is to love what you are doing.
"The worst thing in the world is having a job that you really don't like," he said.
The story and subject matter of the books are key to Nelson when selecting which projects to take on.
"I try and choose projects that I think are going to be fun and allow me to do something unique," Nelson said. "Maybe something that I have not done before or have not learned before."
Much of Nelson's artwork has illustrated books about African-American heritage or books that showcase African-Americans as the main subject. Last year he published a book that he both wrote and illustrated. We Are the Ship is about the Negro Baseball League. An exhibit of the artwork from We Are the Ship is currently on tour in museums around the U.S.
His focus on African-Americans has "been an education as far as learning about the subjects that I really didn't learn so much about in school," he said. "In school, I got a broader view of history and it didn't really focus so keenly on subjects like Jackie Robinson."
Stepping into the shoes of Robinson and other famous people "really broadens your perspective, America's (perspective) specifically, because of the subject matter that I've tackled. I think it makes you appreciate where we are now at this point in history."
Be sure to check out Kid Reporter Liam Childer's review of Testing the Ice!
Celebrate Black History Month
For more on the achievements and contributions of African Americans to U.S. History, return to the Scholastic Kids Press Corps' Black History Month Special Report.
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