African-American identity explored through children’s picture-book art

Miami University Art Museum and Sculpture Park is gearing up for its latest exhibition, “Telling A People’s Story: African-American Children’s Illustrated Literature,” which will open on Tuesday, Jan. 30.

The exhibition “looks at African-American cultural and historical identity through the lens of children’s picture books, particularly looking at the illustrations,” said Jason Shaiman, curator of exhibitions, Miami University Art Museum.

The spring 2018 show will feature about 130 original artworks from African-American children’s illustrated literature, produced by some of the biggest names in the field. A few of the well-known illustrators represented include Ashley Bryan, Jerry Pinkney, Jan Spivey-Gilchrist, E.B. Lewis and Kadir Nelson, among others.

“We are doing something positive. We’re doing something that is bringing attention to a world of multi-culturalism in a specific area that has been long neglected for attention,” Shaiman said.

The collection in the exhibition represents 33 different featured illustrators, and the illustrations on display were selected from more than 90 different books. Many of the books will be on display alongside each illustration.

READ THIS NEXT: Gardening firm to demolish ex-restaurant, build bigger site

“The way we organized the exhibition was to look at a chronology of African-American culture and history, and identified books that focused on certain historical time periods, events, and specific people,” Shaiman said.

He and the team that worked on the exhibition originally identified about 600 books to consider for the exhibition, which represented about 14,000 possible works of art.

“We felt that because this is an art exhibit, the artwork needed to come from the visualization of African-American illustrators, and as often as we could, books that were written by African Americans,” said Shaiman.

Works in the exhibition address chronological and historical topics such as slavery, the Underground Railroad with figures like Harriet Tubman, the Civil War and its aftermath, segregation, the civil rights era, and more.

YOU NEED TO KNOW: 10 places to eat at Austin Landing

“But we don’t want to focus that this is all about doom and gloom of the history of African Americans. There’s a lot of attention to the great things that African Americans have done to offer a diverse American identity. It looks at people like Rosa Parks and Dr. King. It looks at people that were involved in innovations…” Shaiman said.

There are works of art featuring Congressman John Lewis from his youth, and other works about Satchel Paige, Dizzy Gillespie, Muhammad Ali, Billie Holiday and many more. There’s even a work pertaining to Oprah Winfrey when she was a child.

The earliest book in the exhibition, “Stevie,” written and illustrated by John Steptoe, was published in 1969.

“It really represents the first book written or illustrated by an African American on an African-American theme that garnered any attention within mainstream publishing and readership,” Shaiman said.

“Telling A People’s Story: African-American Children’s Illustrated Literature” will be on display through Saturday, June 30.

“This is the first time any museum has ever attempted an exhibition of this nature. No one else has ventured to create an exhibit focused on African-American identity using children’s literature and the pictures. My colleagues and I, and everyone who worked on this realized that this is groundbreaking, and it’s so important, especially today,” Shaiman said.


What: "Telling A People's Story: African-American Children's Illustrated Literature"

When: Gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Saturday, from noon to 5 p.m. The exhibition will be on display through Saturday, June 30. Closed on Sundays, Mondays and University holidays.

Where: Miami University Art Museum and Sculpture Park, 801 S. Patterson Ave., Oxford.

Admission: Free and open to the public. Parking passes are available at the museum.

More info: (513) 529-2232 or

About the Author