The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books Image
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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books:

Rising Star
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.

Bryan Collier

With only five books to his credit so far (one of which he also authored), illustrator Bryan Collier is already making a pretty big splash in the world of children's book illustration. Three of those five titles have garnered him either the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award (Uptown, 2001) or Honor (Freedom River, 2001; Martin's Big Words, 2002), one was a Caldecott Honor Book (Martin's Big Words, 2002), and one was a BCCB Blue Ribbon Book (Martin's Big Words, 2002). A close look at Collier's work will demonstrate that such high accolades are indeed justified. Like richly woven tapestries, his watercolor and cut-paper collages are interwoven with a wealth of detail and meaning.

Collier uses his mixture of media to its best advantage, creating multi-layered illustrations that are rich in color, texture, and sensory detail. Whether depicting the smooth and deftly highlighted sepia-toned skin of his African-American subjects, the velvety black opaqueness of men's black suit coats, or the watery cobalt and violet hues of a nighttime sky, Collier is equally skillful in his rendering of color and tone. Patterned or textured bits of paper and the crisp edges and angularity of the cut pieces of his collages provide a pleasing counterpoint to the smoother watercolor elements, resulting in images that kids (and adults) want to touch or even imitate with their own collage attempts. Details like brownstones constructed from photos of chocolate candy bars or the occasional inclusion of cut-out snippets of text especially appeal to children, inspiring and encouraging them to look more closely at illustration.

Collier's illustrations are also rich in terms of the meaning that he expresses through his subjects and through his use of symbolism. His work thus far focuses on African-American culture, past and present, from escaping slaves in Freedom River to a modern girl's visit to the home of poet Langston Hughes in Visiting Langston. Collier's collages complement and emphasize the richness of African-American life, especially through his inclusion of symbols that represent elements of particular historical and cultural experiences. In Freedom River, Collier not only illustrates the actual story of a free African-American man trying to help slaves escape, but he also includes figures who represent African-American ancestors and guardians; the wavy painted lines on their faces reflect the river, both literally and figuratively, as a pathway to freedom for slaves. In Martin's Big Words, Collier incorporates photos of stained glass windows to represent several elements, such as beams of light in the darkness, Dr. King's ties to Christianity, and the multiple colors of the human race. The use of such symbols makes viewing the illustrations a more meaningful experience for Collier's audience and, again, prompts children to look more keenly at illustration.

Collier is also skillful in arranging his collages in ways that emphasize and support the tone and emotional qualities of his subjects. The numerous details that are packed into each spread in Uptown make each vibrant composition buzz with the bustle of urban life, and the joyful pride with which the young narrator regards Harlem is clearly communicated by the color and action of the images. In Martin's Big Words, on the other hand, the style and tone are quite different; this is particularly noticeable in one profoundly haunting and dramatic spread near the book's end. While Doreen Rappaport's text (printed against a solid black background) emphasizes the abruptness of King's death, Collier's facing art shows a close-up of King--his eyes probing, serious, and sorrowful--surrounded by a frame of stained glass, his face crossed by thin horizontal bars. It's a memorable image that perfectly captures the emotion and magnitude of the historical moment it portrays.

Whether you're looking for superbly illustrated picture books that feature African-Americans, illustrations to inspire classroom art projects, or just good books to share with young audiences, give Bryan Collier's works a try. Many current illustrators of children's books work in watercolor and/or collage; few are as talented as Collier.

--Jeannette Hulick


Books illustrated by Bryan Collier:

Books written and illus. by Bryan Collier:

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This page was last updated on October 1, 2002.