A Letter from Illustrator Kadir Nelson

  • Grades: 3–5

Dear young and cool readers,

You may wonder what goes into creating images for an historical picture book. I'll tell you that it would be very easy if I could simply make everything up, but that would be the worst thing I could do because I would get it all wrong. For each historical subject, I have to do an awful lot of research to learn all about it. It's kind of like doing homework, but I love homework. So to start Henry’s Freedom Box, I read Henry Box Brown's autobiography. I had recently finished a book about Harriet Tubman so I was pretty familiar with slavery and the Underground Railroad. 

When I was finished reading about Henry and the Underground, I then had to find images of urban slaves, free African-Americans, townspeople, wagons, horses, etc. Since this is a true story and set in a real place, I had to find photographs of each setting to make sure the images I was painting were authentic. Since Henry worked in a factory, I had to learn the process of growing, smoking, and twisting tobacco and along the way found some very interesting photographs of farm workers who work on tobacco plantations. 

I decided to base the style of the artwork for Henry’s Freedom Box partially on a lithograph of a drawing created by Samuel Rowse for the purpose of raising funds for the slavery abolitionist movement. I fused the cross-hatched rendering style with my own painterly style to give the artwork an antique-like feel.

In this slide show, you can see the original Rowse lithograph as well as some of the other primary source photographs and reference materials that I found and used for the artwork. You'll also find a few sketches of my artwork to give you a sense of how each image looks in the early stages.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, but I hope it gives you an idea about the work that goes into creating paintings for picture books!

Best regards,

Kadir Nelson

Hnery's Freedom Box
View a slide show of Nelson's
primary source images


For more on Kadir Nelson, watch this video of Scholastic's Q&A with the illustrator.