As a child, Floyd Cooper’s first dream was to become a pirate. As an adult, his career path veered toward advertising, but he ended up closer to his original goal, as an illustrator of children’s books.
“It was just something that happened,” he said. “I met my wife, we started a family and it took a left turn from there. I’m very happy to have discovered it serendipitously.”
When fifth graders Cadence Nique and Nicholas VanHouten were reading “Juneteenth for Mazie,” about an African-American girl’s reflections on the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, they never expected to meet the storyteller and artist in person.
“It was really cool because we’ve read a lot of his books in the library,” Cadence said. “Everybody was really surprised when he came to the school.”
“Just like any other author, you don’t really know them but you like their books,” Nicholas added.
During a recent stop at Kent City Elementary School as part of a series of talks at area schools, the award-winning author/illustrator showed a gymnasium of third- through fifth-graders how winding the road to their dreams can be, and the rewards of perseverance.
Cooper shared his life trajectory, from reading his first book (“The Fire Engine”) as a 7-year-old in the projects of Tulsa, Oklahoma, to landing in New York City, jobless, with $3,000 to his name.
His career came after years of rejection letters and bad working relationships, he said, prompting his theme of the talk. In Nicholas’s own words, “always, never give up.”
Cadence and Nicholas are working on clay sculptures in their art class, and both said theywould love to do what Cooper does for a living.
“In art class you work really slow, you take your time and it’s the last day before it’s due and you’re rushing,” Cadence said. “It’s his career so he can work on it day after day.”
In a household with many younger siblings, Cooper said, art supplies were low on his parents’ list of priorities, and he developed his talent thanks to the graces of a school art teacher.
In a demonstration for the students, he drew figures and manipulated them with just a few strokes into completely different images. He invited volunteers to play the “scribble game,” where they scribbled on an easel and Cooper transformed them into cartoon animals.
“It’s exciting because he’s famous and he’s asking if we want to help him with something,” Cadence said.
Cooper has published more than 100 children’s books featuring African-Americans and other ethnically diverse protagonists, several of which are available at the Kent City Elementary library.
The series kicked off in April with a talk at KDL’s Tyrone Township Branch titled “Windows and Mirrors: Diversity in Children’s Literature.”
“Kids need to be connected to the world,” Cooper said. “They will eventually have to live in the world with others, and the sooner they get to know each other’s stories and narratives, the more they will appreciate what it is to be amongst humanity on this planet.
“Books are a great conduit for that, a great bridge for learning about others, for hearing others’ stories they might come across.”