Floyd Cooper Draws from the Heart

To open a book illustrated by Floyd Cooper is to be drawn into a world of warmth, bravery, and joy. His drawings are as essential as the text itself in illuminating the world of childhood, often of the Black experience.

He was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1956. Early on, his family lived in the projects and had little money, but his mother was able to give him a sense of self-worth that he has carried with him always. She also shared stories with him, helping to build his imagination.

He studied fine art at the University of Oklahoma. After graduating, he spent several years illustrating advertisements and working for Hallmark greeting cards. He decided to move to the East Coast to expand his career as an illustrator.Freedom School, Yes! illustrations by Floyd Cooper

A few months after contacting an agent, he was given his first picture book assignment. In Grandpa's Face, written by Eloise Greenfield, young Tamika sees her grandfather practicing to be an angry character in a play. His acting scares her a little bit. She wants to make sure her grandpa still loves her so she misbehaves to see if he would ever turn such a mean face to her.

The critics immediately recognized Floyd Cooper's talent for showing warmth and love between generations. His paintings, made by using a wash technique with oil paints, brought a brightness of memory to the quietest scenes. Joyce Carol Thomas, winner of the National Book Award, found his paintings a perfect match for her first book of children's poetry, Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea.

Loving families, good friends, and dreaming big often go hand-in-hand with hardships, especially in stories about African-Americans' difficult past. Freedom School, Yes! by Amy Littlesugar tells of the dangers faced by African-American communities and the white women who came to teach during the 1964 Mississippi Freedom School Summer Project. Little Jolie loves to gaze at the stars at night and doesn't think she needs the Freedom School. When her mother volunteers take in Annie, the teacher, Jolie must learn to be brave as white neighbors shatter their windows late at In the Land of Milk and Honey, illustrations by Floyd Coopernight and torch their church. Annie teaches her to dream big, like Benjamin Banneker, another African-American who loved to study the stars.

After her husband dies in fighting out West, Ma Dear is left to raise David Earl by herself. Somehow despite the hard times, a mother's love for her son simply glows from the pages of Ma Dear's Aprons. Monday is wash day. Tuesday is ironing day. Wednesday is delivery day. Thursday is a day to visit the sick and elderly. Friday is the hardest-the day that Ma Dear takes him with her to clean house for the Alexander family. Saturday is a day to bake apple pies and sell them at the train station. David Earl knows which day of the week it is just by seeing which crisp and pretty apron his mother, "Ma Dear," is wearing. Sunday, however, is a no-work day--just church service followed by a picnic supper down by the creek.

I Have Heard of a Land by Joyce Carol Thomas tells the imagined story of a single African-American woman who joined the race for free land in the Oklahoma Territory in the late 1800s. Cooper's illustrations show the joys and hardships of settlers looking for a freer life, accompanied by the author's simple and sweet poetry which retells a cherished story from her family:

I have heard of a land Where a woman sleeps in a sod hut
Dug deep in the heart of the earth Her roof is decorated with brush A hole in the ground is her stove And a horse saddle is her pillow She wakes thinking of a three-room log cabin .

Floyd Cooper has also written and illustrated his own books. Mandela: From the Life of the African Statesman is written with reverence and gives insights into the two worlds, the village with its tribal wisdom and the city with its expanded educational opportunities, which were a part of Buti (Nelson was a name given him by a white teacher) Mandela's upbringing.Coming Home, illustrated by Floyd Cooper

Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes shows how a lonely little boy without a mother or a father grew to become a brilliant poet. He was able to turn the experience of his solitude and his grandma's treasured family stories into written down dreams for other people to share.

Floyd Cooper has won many awards, including the Coretta Scott King Honor for Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea (1994), Meet Danitra Brown (1995), and I Have Heard of a Land (1999). His books are quick to read and terrific to share with others. Why not check out two or three to bring warmth to chilly winter afternoons? Click here to see all the books in our catalogue illustrated or written by Floyd Cooper. If you have a CRRL library card, you may reserve your books to pick up at a favorite branch.

Learn more about the author on the Web:

Author Information: Floyd Cooper
The illustrator tells, in his own words, about his life and what his work means to him.

Meet Floyd Cooper
Willie and the All-Stars by Floyd CooperA lively article gives some information about his life and his painting techniques. From the publisher Houghton Mifflin.

A Visit from Floyd Cooper
An elementary school shares its wonderful day with Floyd Cooper.

These articles are available to CRRL card holders at no charge as part of our online database subscriptions:

From Biography Resource Center
Contemporary Authors Online, "Floyd Cooper"
Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, "Floyd Cooper"

From Infotrac Student Edition
"Black Artist's Struggle: Working on the KKK Tale," The Miami Herald (via Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service) Oct 13, 2004