Diversity on display in new exhibit

“Telling a People’s Story,” an exhibit illustrating African American culture through children’s books, is on display in Rod Library through Feb. 19.


Though Rod Library typically functions as a sanctuary of academic sources for research papers, currently, children’s books have taken over as the main attraction thanks to the featured exhibit “Telling a People’s Story.” The traveling exhibit from the Miami University Art Museum is the first major exhibit to feature illustrations from African-American children’s books. It will remain on display in the Rod Library Learning Commons until Feb. 19.

Senior education major, Danielle Templeton is a co-coordinator for the exhibit. She said that all the illustrators featured are African American, and the original exhibit had their actual works of art.

“It did the full-scale paintings, which was really cool, and then on the vinyl panels it’s just a downsized high-quality print of those paintings and they’re arranged in chronological order of history, and it comes with some books that feature those same illustrations.”

Last summer, while visiting Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, Templeton saw the original exhibit. After discussing it with the curator, she discovered that there was also a traveling exhibit. She emailed UNI Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction Sarah Montgomery at the beginning of the fall 2018 semester, interested in bringing the exhibit to UNI to kick off the annual African American Children and Families Conference, which will be held on Feb. 21.

The exhibit features 130 works by 33 artists found in 95 books. The illustrators whose works are on display include Jerry Pinkney, Kadir Nelson and Don Tate. Some of the most famous books include “Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears” by Verna Aardema, “From Slave Ship to Freedom Road” by Julius Lester and “A Sweet Smell of Roses” by Angela Johnson. Although every illustrator is African-American, not every author is a person of color.

Another one of the exhibit’s featured illustrators is Dr. Janet Spivey-Gilchrist, who will be speaking at this year’s African American Children and Families Conference. The keynote speaker from last year’s conference, another illustrator, has work in the exhibit as well.

The exhibit includes both classic and newer illustrations, Templeton said. 

“There’s gonna be a lot of illustrations that university students will recognize from picture books they read and then there’s illustrations that teacher ed students now will recognize from newer books they’ve seen. So it’s kind of a wide range.”

According to Templeton and Montgomery, not only do the books depict African-American characters, but they discuss real-life people of color with historical significance, such as Harriet Tubman, Langston Hughes, Effa Manley, Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King, Jr. The exhibit offers a broad overview of African-American history: from early African history to the 1600s to Middle Passage, all the way up to modern African-American cultural identity.

“I think it does a good job of hitting some of the more common topics in African-American history like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks—things like that—but it also goes into some more niche stories that people might not be as familiar with,” Templeton said.

Montgomery, who is also a co-coordinator for the exhibit, hopes that the illustrations can help open up some challenging conversations on race.

“The hashtag’s out there, #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and we’re starting to get more publicity on the fact that there’s so few books that are written or illustrated by people of color or about people of color that are making it to publication,” Montgomery said. “There’s a lot more books about animals and trucks every year than people of color.” 

One of the hopes for the exhibit is that it will encourage more teachers to share books that celebrate diversity with students.

Montgomery noted the increasing standardization in today’s classrooms.

“There might not be as much room to make decisions, but when it comes to the books that you have in your classroom  or the books that you get in the library or the books that you read aloud, there’s still quite a bit of freedom, and so what are you doing with that time?” Montgomery said. “Are you choosing to read the same old stuff […] or are you taking that as an opportunity to read about multiple perspectives and multicultural topics?”

Templeton and Montgomery said they love how the exhibit makes art easily accessible to everyone.

“Because these illustrations were created with the audience of children in mind, you don’t have to be an art critic to consume them mindfully,” Templeton said. “Because sometimes we walk into an art museum and we’re like ‘I don’t understand,’ but these were created for children they were created for young eyes, so everyone can enjoy it. I think just the opportunity to look at something through a child’s eyes and to feel that is special and enjoyable for everyone.”

When the exhibit’s time at Rod Library concludes, it will make two more stops in Cedar Falls: Schindler Education Center from Feb. 21 through March 8 and the Cedar Falls Public Library from March 12 through 31, due to a grant from the Cedar Falls Tourism and Visitors Bureau.

Montgomery added that Nathan Arndt of the UNI Museum and the Rod Library staff played important roles in setting up the exhibit.