Floyd Cooper: The Man Inside Our Minds

When you read a children’s book, you often get lost in the words. The author takes you into another world, allowing you to escape the one you live in for a while. Sometimes they tell you a story that needs telling, opening a window into the past, helping you understand what once was, from the viewpoint of someone who was there or heard the story from someone who was. But what’s one aspect that aids children in their escape—the pictures that go along with those words. The person who draws those pictures is called an illustrator. And Floyd Cooper was one of the well-known illustrating names in the children’s book industry that helped bring words to life. This May, during Children’s Book Week, the book industry is inaugurating Floyd Cooper Day in honor of his impact on the writing industry and the Black community. 

Who Was Floyd Cooper?

Floyd Cooper was born on January 8, 1956, in Tulsa, OK. His parents, Floyd, Sr., and Ramona, separated, causing the family to relocate several times throughout Floyd’s childhood, causing him to attend all 11 schools within the area. One of his earliest memories was creating art upon a scrap piece of gypsum board his father had thrown aside. He was three. From that point on, he had realized his calling. From school to school, his talent drew the attention of teachers and bought him a friend or two. 

His talent earned him a scholarship to the University of Oklahoma, where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. He then accepted a job working for Hallmark Cards. One of Cooper’s jobs was to erase old cards and create new ones. He said this helped him develop his illustration style called “subtractive process.” After Hallmark, he relocated to New York and met Libby Ford, a literary agent. She helped him on to his first book, Grandpa’s Face by Eloise Greenfield. Then the rest is history.

How He Impacted the Writing Community

Floyd Cooper told the stories of the Black community, often unfiltered with historical accuracy. This earned him three Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Citations, the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award in 2009 for The Blacker the Berry, as well as The Golden Kike Award in 2015 for A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream. His final illustration, Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, will receive posthumous honors, a Caldecott Honor Award, a fourth Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, and a Sibert Honor. This was a personal project for Cooper as his grandfather was a survivor of the incident. Cooper passed away in 2021 due to cancer. 

How These Honors Impact Today’s Readers

Awards only tell half the story. As Cooper would have told you, it is the readers that matter. With his ability to convey emotion through detail, Cooper could take an author’s words and captivate readers through imagery. It wasn’t only other author’s prose he brought to life; he also created his own works. One is about a figure we all know too well, Michael Jordan. Jump! is the story of Michael as a child and his sibling rivalry with his brother. 

Cooper helped authors convey their message to children about growing up within the Black community and gave others a window into the reality of what life was like; the emotions and imagery are blended well in each book. Each book told true stories of success, not only Jordan but Alice Coachman and Venus and Serena Williams are brought to life, giving children stories of what dreams can become with work and determination. 

How These Honors Will Shape the Future

While it would be amazing to have him around forever, his hands will have inspired future generations. Somewhere right now, in an art class, there are amazing artists who aspire to be the next Floyd Cooper. You may even be reading this article right now. You may have those children in one of your bedrooms or classrooms. Inspire them, challenge them, cheer them on with every success. It’s what Floyd Cooper would have wanted. In closing, one of the things that Floyd challenged all writers and illustrators to do is, “My advice to writers is: READ! A lot. Then read some more. Read, read, read, read!”

Leave a Comment