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Illustrator encourages Fox Valley students  to follow their dreams

Kadir Nelsillustrator several children's books including recently published 'I Have Dream' 'CorettScott' presents his work students Grande Park Elementary Tuesday.

Kadir Nelson, illustrator of several children's books, including the recently published "I Have a Dream" and "Coretta Scott," presents his work to students at Grande Park Elementary on Tuesday. | Jeanette Sturges~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 25, 2013 12:44PM

When illustrator Kadir Nelson was a kid, his hero was Michael Jordan.

So he drew the Bulls basketball legend.

An action shot of Michael slam-dunking with great long arms. A portrait of MJ as a golfer, leaning on his club between holes. A Michael Jordan body with the head of Mickey Mouse, doing a lay-up.

“When you’re an artist, you draw the things you like, so I drew cartoons, and when I was older, I drew people playing basketball and people listening to music,” he said.

Now, Nelson draws all kinds of subjects, largely from African American culture and history, from books about sports figures such as Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson, to concept art from the movie “Amistad.”

Now, Nelson draws another hero: Martin Luther King Jr.

On Tuesday afternoon, Nelson dropped by the Oswego School District’s Grande Park Elementary School with copies of some of his latest books, “Coretta Scott,” a biographical storybook about Coretta Scott King’s contributions to the Civil Rights movement, and “I Have a Dream,” an illustrated copy of King’s famous speech.

While the author is famed for those and several other works about Civil Rights leaders and other influential African Americans, Nelson made little mention of King and other historic leaders. Instead, he focused on encouraging the students of Grande Park to follow their own dreams.

“When you guys grow up, you’re going to have to figure out what you want to do, what job you want to have, but don’t think about it like that,” Nelson said. “Think about what you like to do. You can figure out what you want to do, and you can do that for the rest of your life, and you can have a lot of fun.”

He encouraged the youngsters to make positive choices in their lives, telling a story about his own experiences growing up and how he learned to channel his anger and other negative emotions into his art.

“Go home and make something beautiful,” Nelson said. “Because when you make something beautiful, you make someone else feel good, and you feel good, too.”

The author also encouraged students to practice, showing off several childhood drawings his mother had saved to demonstrate how talent develops with practice.

Nelson stopped into Grande Park Elementary at the request of librarian Erin Raleigh. Nelson, she said, had recently started his book tour as the students of Grande Park were beginning their study of the Civil Rights movement and African American history.

“The timing of it fit really nicely,” said Raleigh, “We recently read ‘I Have a Dream’ and his visit really got classes talking about Martin Luther King.”

Nelson, a two-time winner of the Caldecott Medal and recipient of the NAACP Image Award, continues his tour in Washington, D.C., this week.

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