MacKids Spotlight: Ekua Holmes

MacKids Spotlight: Ekua Holmes

Coretta Cover Image
Ekua Holmes Author Photo

For Black History Month, we are interviewing Ekua Holmes, illustrator of Coretta: The Autobiography of Mrs. Coretta Scott King, a picture book autobiography celebrating the life of the extraordinary civil and human rights activist Coretta Scott King.

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What was your first thought when you were approached to illustrate Coretta Scott King’s autobiography?

Ekua Holmes: Who, me? Seriously, I was deeply honored to be asked to illustrate Coretta Scott King’s children’s autobiography. An illustrator and researcher, as I learned more, my respect and admiration were bolstered. I’d never considered the grit, only the grace of Coretta Scott King. I’d never considered her iron core, forged in the rural landscape of Alabama, post slavery and Jim Crow. While she bestowed upon us her elegant beauty and reserved smile at heart, she was a fighter, a “tomboy” and self-professed “workaholic.”

Coretta’s early life laid the foundation for her to weather the storms and scale the mountains of her adult life. Mountains she chose to climb with Martin King while understanding the heights and depths it would entail. In photos of her and Martin, she is seen kissing him, holding him, hugging him. She physically demonstrated a radiant love that we looked upon with hope and inspiration. It was no accident. She wanted us to know. Love was the power she used to uplift and transcend all through her music, her motherhood, her movement and her marriage.

It is my hope that millions will be inspired by these chapters of Coretta Scott King’s magnificent story and firmly embrace her philosophies of peace, love and justice.

What was your research process like? 

Ekua: I began by reading books about Coretta Scott King, her biographies and autobiographies and listening to her speaking and singing voice. Unlike many biographies, there was a lot of photographic material. Photos of her were so expressive and iconic, I took a lot of visual information from them.

Someone once said that fashion is a way we express ourselves and tell the world who we are. It’s funny that she and Michelle Obama were recently mentioned as women to aspire to be like. I believe among other things they both used fashion to express the powerful moment they were assigned to and send messages of elegance and grace to the public as well as self-determination. They are both First Ladies and as such were aware of the impact of their words, behavior and dress on others.

What is your favorite spread from the book?

Ekua: I have to say, I tried to respond to this assignment as if Coretta herself had asked me to illustrate her biography. I was humbled by the task and felt that I had to do honor to her legacy. The more I learned about her the stronger that feeling became. I love the cover which attempts to touch upon several aspects of her journey. It’s a cameo anchored by the magnolia flower a symbol of quiet strength and beauty. I also continue to look at the first spread of her hovering over her childhood home where it all begins. 

What did Coretta Scott King’s legacy mean to you as a young person? What does it mean to you now?

Ekua: When Coretta and Martin were moving in the world and subject to my consciousness, I was between the ages of 7 and 8. Occasionally on the covers of Jet and Ebony I thought Martin Looked a lot like my dad and shared his sense of style and confidence.

In 1968 MLK was killed, and the nation went into mourning. Black and white photos and television broadcasts tried to explain the inexplicable to the world. On that day, April 4, 1968, I was held at school miles away from home because of the threat of violence in Boston. I couldn’t wait to get home to hug my mother.

In the weeks that followed, I looked at photos of Coretta on the covers of Life and Ebony with her silent tears and head held high. My heart broke for her and her children.

In 1963 my own father succumbed to an unknown illness, and I remember feeling a strong kinship to the King children and their mother, Coretta, who like my own mother held the world together for me after this tragedy. That is when Coretta Scott King became real for me. 

Tell us about a library, librarian, or educator who made an impact on you as a child (or as an adult!).

Ekua: Aunt Barbara (Barbara Clark Elam), my cousin by marriage took care of me after school when my mom returned to work. I was five years old entering kindergarten at the David A. Ellis School. She and her family lived next door and her children, my cousins Patricia and Jay, walked home together along the puddingstone wall that surrounded the school. 

Aunt Barbara was a rare entity, a graduate of Simmons College of Library Science with few black students. She graduated in 1949 and later was tasked to train Librarians for the Boston Public Schools. 

Throughout her life, she thought children’s books were more valuable than precious jewels and was always dazzled by beautiful illustrations and well-told, seemingly simple stories that held nuanced meaning for readers of all ages, particularly those by and about people of color.

She passed this love and respect of children’s literature on to us. I feel so fortunate for that gift. Growing up there was no TV in their house so after our school day we were tasked to entertain ourselves with reading, making up games, play theater and making books. She taught how to make the cover and spine in cardboard and then cover it with construction paper. We saddle stitched our folded letter paper and everything was written by hand in not so straight lines. The first book I read with a main Black character, was the one I wrote at age six, “My Best Friend, Tanya.” 

What was your favorite book when you were a young reader? 

Ekua: The Madeline series. I loved the rhyme and rhythm of the stories. I think I still have my original copy. What only girl child wouldn’t want to be surrounded by 11 more girls to share adventures with? Wearing the same uniforms, every night a pajama party, and a mischievous and loyal friend will climb a tree to see me. I also liked the loose style of colorful watercolor painting the illustrations were rendered in. 

About Ekua Holmes:

Ekua Holmes Author Photo

Ekua Holmes is a native of Roxbury, MA and a graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. She is the recipient of the 2013 NAACP Image Award, a Brother Thomas Fellowship, and a 5-year appointment to the Boston Art Commission. Her picture book illustrations include the Caldecott Honor book Voice of Freedom and the Coretta Scott King Award winners Out of Wonder and The Stuff of Stars. Holmes serves as Assistant Director of MassArt’s Center for Art and Community Partnerships, and manages sparc! the ArtMobile, the institution’s vehicle for community outreach.

About the Book:

Coretta Cover Image

Coretta: The Autobiography of Mrs. Coretta Scott King
Ages 4-8

Celebrate the life of the extraordinary civil and human rights activist Coretta Scott King with this picture book adaptation of her critically acclaimed adult memoir.

This is the autobiography of Coretta Scott King––wife of Martin Luther King, Jr.; founder of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change (the King Center); architect of the MLK, Jr. legacy; and global leader in movements for civil and human rights as well as peace. Learn about how a girl born in the segregated deep south became a global leader at the forefront of the peace movement and an unforgettable champion of social change.

Resilience, bravery, and joy lie at the center of this timeless story about fighting for justice against all odds.

Read more author Q&As here