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Kadir Nelson Biography

Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Work in Progress, Sidelights

Born in Washington, DC; Education: Graduated with honors from Pratt Institute.


Office—6977 Navajo Rd., Suite 124, San Diego, CA 92119.


Artist and illustrator. Has painted commissioned works for corporations and publishers, including Dreamworks, Nike, Coca-Cola, and Major League Baseball. Conceptual artist for motion pictures, including Amistad and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. Exhibitions: Paintings have been exhibited at galleries and museums, including Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance, Los Angeles, CA; Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences, Los Angeles, CA; Negro Baseball Museum, Kansas City, MO; Museum of African American History, Detroit, MI; Society of Illustrators, New York, NY; and Center for Culture, Tijuana, Mexico.

Honors Awards

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Image Award, 2001, for Just the Two of Us; Silver Medal for original art, Society of Illustrators, 2002, for Under the Christmas Tree; Coretta Scott King Honor Book designation, 2004, for Thunder Rose.



Steven Spielberg, Maya Angelou, and Debbie Allen, Amistad: "Give Us Free": A Celebration of the Film by Steven Spielberg, Newmarket Press (New York, NY), 1998.

Kadir Nelson

Debbie Allen, Brothers of the Knight, Dial Books (New York, NY), 1999.

Debbie Allen, Dancing in the Wings, Dial Books (New York, NY), 2000.

Deloris Jordan and Roslyn M. Jordan, Salt in His Shoes: Michael Jordan in Pursuit of a Dream, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2000.

Jerdine Nolen, Big Jabe, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2000.

Will Smith, Just the Two of Us, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2001.

Ann Grifalconi, The Village That Vanished, Dial Books (New York, NY), 2002.

Nikki Grimes, Under the Christmas Tree, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2002.

Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee, Please, Baby, Please, Simon & Schuster, 2002.

Jerdine Nolen, Thunder Rose, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 2003.

Ntozake Shange, ellington was not a street, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2004.

(With others) Tina Packer, Tales from Shakespeare, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2004.

Jerdine Nolen, Hewitt Anderson's Big Life, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2005.

Illustrations have appeared in New Yorker and Sports Illustrated.

Work in Progress

A book about the Negro Baseball League.


"Kadir Nelson is an illustrator to watch," declared Janice M. Del Negro in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. Nelson, an African-American artist who paints primarily in oils, has exhibited his works in art galleries and museums throughout the United States and abroad. His paintings have been featured in publications such as Sports Illustrated, the New York Times, and the New Yorker. He also served as the lead conceptual artist for the motion pictures Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and Amistad. Nelson has also become a respected children's-book illustrator, having worked on such award-winning titles as Just the Two of Us, Under the Christmas Tree, and Thunder Rose.

Nelson began drawing at the age of three. "I have always been an artist," he remarked on his Web site. "It's part of my DNA." At age eleven Nelson spent a summer with his uncle, an artist and art teacher. "He first taught me about perspective, different mediums, color mixing," Nelson explained to San Diego Union-Tribune contributor Leigh Fenly. "That was the first time I'd used watercolor with any know-how." At age sixteen he began working in oils, again under the tutelage of his uncle. After graduating from high school, Nelson won an art scholarship to study at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. Immediately upon graduating from Pratt, he garnered job offers from Sports Illustrated and Dreamworks. During his professional career, he has gone on to receive commissions from Nike, Coca-Cola, and Major League Baseball, among others.

Nelson made his picture-book debut in 1999 with Brothers of the Knight by actress and choreographer Debbie Allen. Brothers of the Knight, a retelling of the fairy tale "The Twelve Dancing Princesses," focuses on Reverend Knight, a Harlem preacher with a dozen sons. Each morning, the Reverend finds that his sons' shoes are worn to threads. The family's magical housekeeper, Sunday, quickly discovers the boys' secret: they slip out at night to dance at the Big Band Ballroom. Booklist critic Ilene Cooper praised Brothers of the Knight, remarking that Allen's "snappy text is matched by Nelson's high-energy pictures." According to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, Nelson's "sepia-toned illustrations possess the precision of line accorded to pen-and-inks, filled out with a full palette of oil paints." Allen and Nelson collaborated again on Dancing in the Wings, a 2000 work. Sassy dreams of becoming a ballet dancer, but her feelings are hurt by comments about her tall, gangly frame. With her uncle's encouragement, she auditions for a summer dance festival and impresses the show's director. "Nelson's animated illustrations depict Sassy with a grace that belies her self-image and that effectively foreshadows the accolades to come," stated a contributor to Publishers Weekly. Booklist critic Carolyn Phelan observed that Nelson's artwork "clearly shows the characters' attitudes and emotions."

Nelson has illustrated works for several other well-known personalities. He teamed with actor and rapper Will Smith for Just the Two of Us, a picture book adaptation of Smith's hit song "Just the Two of Us." In the work, a father reveals his love, hopes, and dreams for his son. School Library Journal reviewer Judith Constantinides complimented Nelson's "moving pencil-and-oil illustrations," adding, "Many of the stunning images are set against a blue sky and conjure up a marvelous atmosphere of spaciousness and freedom." A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that Nelson "effectively conveys the affirming message of the text." Nelson served as the illustrator for Please, Baby, Please a book coauthored by film director Spike Lee and his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee. Please, Baby, Please humorously chronicles a day in the life of a rambunctious two year old whose parents run out of energy long before their child does. A Kirkus Reviews critic found much to like in the work, citing Nelson's "richly colored and meticulously detailed paintings" and stating that "The repetitive text, sunny illustrations, and entirely familiar scenarios will make this a favorite of parents and children alike." In an interview with Lynda Jones for Black Issues Book Review, Tonya Lewis Lee commented that Nelson's style of illustration suits the text well. "In particular, with our book, the baby is so expressive and so alive," Lee stated. "And the colors are so vibrant that you really get a sense of a living, breathing thing. As in his other work, it's just his fluidity; his subjects just come to life."

Big Jabe is the first book Nelson illustrated for author Jerdine Nolen. In the work, a young slave named Addy goes to the riverbank and finds a boy floating in a basket. Addy soon realizes this is no ordinary child: Jabe grows to maturity in a few months, commands fish to jump out of the water, and possesses the strength of fifty men. When several abused slaves disappear from the plantation, Addy suspects Jabe of spiriting them away. "Part magical savior, part tall-tale hero, Big Jabe personifies the triumph of African Americans who … escaped from slavery," remarked a Horn Book contributor. Reviewing the book for School Library Journal, Ellen A. Greever added that "Nelson's watercolor-and-gouache paintings bring the characters fully to life and provide a realistic and historically accurate setting for the fantastic events." A Publishers Weekly reviewer agreed, observing that the illustrator's "finely hatched watercolor and gouache illustrations emphasize images of slave life; when he does depict Big Jabe's fantastic feats, his naturalistic style permits him to depict them with an apparent realism. In this way, Nelson supports Nolen in using superhuman elements to distill all-too-human truths." In Thunder Rose, another tall tale by Nolen, the title character—an African American girl born during a thunder storm—demonstrates remarkable talents, including the ability to gather lightning into a ball. "Nolen and Nelson offer up a wonderful tale of joy and love, as robust and vivid as the wide West," according to Andrea Tarr in School Library Journal. Nelson's illustrations "capture the Wild West vistas, the textures of grass and homespun cloth, and the character's personalities," wrote Booklist critic GraceAnne A. DeCandido. Nelson also paired with Nolen for the 2005 work Hewitt Anderson's Big Life.

Nelson's artwork has graced the pages of books by several notable authors. In 2002 he illustrated Ann Grifalconi's The Village That Vanished, about an African village whose residents escape from a band of slave traders. According to School Library Journal contributor Miriam Lang Budin, Nelson's drawings "are wonderfully evocative of place, mood, posture, and expression." Nelson also provided illustrations for Under the Christmas Tree, a holiday poetry collection by Nikki Grimes. The 2004 work ellington was not a street is based on Ntozake Shange's poem "Mood Indigo," which describes her childhood home, where her family was visited by such celebrated figures as Paul Robeson, W. E. B. DuBois, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington. In the words of San Diego Union-Tribune contributor Fenly, Nelson's artwork is his "most striking in storytelling, composition, and color."

Critics often use words like "expressive," "rewarding," and "uplifting" to describe Nelson's art. "My work is all about healing and giving people a sense of hope and nobility," he stated on his Web site. "I want to show the strength and integrity of the human spirit."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Black Issues Book Review, November-December, 2002, Lynda Jones, "The Lees Do the Write Thing," p. 40.

Booklist, November 15, 1999, Ilene Cooper, review of Brothers of the Knight, p. 629; November 15, 2000, Carolyn Phelan, review of Dancing in the Wings, p. 646; February 1, 2001, Denia Hester, review of Salt in His Shoes: Michael Jordan in Pursuit of a Dream, p. 1056; November 1, 2003, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Thunder Rose, p. 505.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, December, 2000, Janice M. Del Negro, "Rising Star: Kadir Nelson, Illustrator."

Childhood Education, September 15, 2001, Jeanie Burnett, review of Just the Two of Us, p. 394.

Ebony, September, 1999, "Bookshelf," p. 20.

Horn Book, July, 2000, Joanna Rudge Long, review of Big Jabe, p. 440; September-October, 2002, Joanna Rudge Long, review of The Village That Vanished, pp. 551-553.

International Review of African-American Art, Volume 9, number 2, "A Nurturing Romance of Sport."

Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 2002, review of Please, Baby, Please, p. 1533; November 1, 2002, review of Under the Christmas Tree, p. 1619; September 15, 2003, review of Thunder Rose, p. 1180.

New Yorker, November 17, 1997, "Old Wounds."

Publishers Weekly, October 11, 1999, review of Brothers of the Knight, p. 76; April 17, 2000, review of Big Jabe, p. 79; September 25, 2000, review of Dancing in the Wings, p. 116; November 13, 2000, review of Salt in His Shoes, p. 103; April 30, 2001, review of Just the Two of Us, p. 76; August 26, 2002, review of The Village That Vanished, p. 68; October 14, 2002, review of Please, Baby, Please, p. 82.

San Diego, October, 2001, Eilene Zimmerman, "Drawing Attention."

San Diego Union-Tribune, October 12, 2003, Robert L. Pincus, "Antin Tends to See 'Funny Sides of Things'"; April 18, 2004, Leigh Fenly, "Just for Kids"; August 2, 2004, Jeanette Steele, "Champions Exhibit in Its Own League."

School Library Journal, December, 1998, William Byrd, review of Amistad: "Give Us Free": A Celebration of the Film by Steven Spielberg, p. 147; October, 1999, Kate McClelland, review of Brothers of the Knight, p. 131; June, 2000, Ellen A. Greever, review of Big Jabe, p. 122; September, 2000, Kay Bowes, review of Dancing in the Wings, p. 184; June, 2001, Jeffrey A. French, review of Salt in His Shoes, p. 121, and Judith Constantinides, review of Just the Two of Us, p. 129; October, 2002, Maureen Wade, review of Under the Christmas Tree, p. 59; December, 2002, Miriam Lang Budin, review of The Village That Vanished, p. 97, and Anna DeWind, review of Please, Baby, Please, p. 100; September, 2003, Andrea Tarr, review of Thunder Rose, p. 186.

Sports Illustrated, August 30, 1999, "Leading Off."


Art of Kadir Nelson Web site, http://kadirnelson.com/ (August 16, 2004).

HarperTeacher.com, http://www.harperchildrens.com/ (August 16, 2004), "Kadir Nelson."*

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