The History of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards

The Coretta Scott King Book Awards are given annually to outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values.  The award commemorates the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and honors his wife, Mrs. Coretta Scott King, for her courage and determination to continue the work for peace and world brotherhood.  

The Awards are given in author and illustrator categories; honor recipients may also be named. Both the Author and Illustrator Winner recipients receive a plaque and $1,000. The John Steptoe Award for New Talent is occasionally given for young authors or illustrators who demonstrate outstanding promise at the beginning of their careers. Steptoe winners receive a plaque.   

The Coretta Scott King - Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement is presented in even years to an African American author, illustrator or author/illustrator for a body of his or her published books for children and/or young adults, and who has made a significant and lasting literary contribution. In odd years, the award is presented to a practitioner for substantial contributions through active engagement with youth using award-winning African American literature for children and/or young adults, via the implementation of reading and reading-related activities/programs. Virginia Hamilton Award recipients receive a medal and $1,500. 


The Coretta Scott King Book Award was founded in 1969 by Mabel McKissick and Glyndon Greer at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference in Atlantic City, New Jersey.  The first award was given to Lillie Patterson in 1970 for her biography, Martin Luther King, Jr.: Man of Peace (Garrard). 

In 1979, the Coretta Scott King Task Force was formed and became part of ALA’s Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT) the next year.  In 1982, the Coretta Scott King Book Awards became an officially recognized ALA award.  The Coretta Scott King Task Force joined ALA’s Ethnic and Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table (EMIERT) in 2003 and became the Coretta Scott Book Awards Committee. 

The Coretta Scott King Book Awards have grown to include several categories.  In 1974, George Ford became the first illustrator to receive the award for Ray Charles (Crowell).  The John Steptoe Award for New Talent (originally the Genesis Award) was established in 1995 to recognize exceptional work from new African American authors and illustrators.  The first Steptoe Award was given to Sharon Draper for Tears of a Tiger (Simon & Schuster).  In 2010, the committee established the Coretta Scott King – Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement to be given alternately to an author or illustrator and a practitioner. The first Hamilton Award recipients were Walter Dean Myers (2010) and Henrietta M. Smith (2011). 

Since 1972, the recipients of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards have been honored at a celebratory breakfast during the ALA Annual Conference.  In 2009, ALA published the fourth edition of The Coretta Scott King Awards, a complete history of the awards edited by Henrietta M. Smith. 

The Coretta Scott King Book Awards Seal

The Coretta Scott King Book Awards Seal was designed by artist Lev Mills in 1974.  The symbolism in the seal reflects both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy and the ideals of the award.

The basic circle represents continuity in movement, resolving from one idea to another. Within the circle is the image of an African American child reading a book.  The five main religious symbols below the image of the child represent nonsectarianism. The superimposed pyramid symbolizes both strength and Atlanta University, the award’s headquarters when the seal was designed.  At the apex of the pyramid is the dove, symbolic of peace.  The rays shine toward peace and brotherhood.

The bronze seal denotes a Coretta Scott King Book Award author or illustrator winner; the silver denotes an author or illustrator honoree; and the green seal denotes a John Steptoe Award for New Talent recipient.

According to Lev Mills, the five nonsectarian* symbols on the seal represent:

Star and Crescent - a symbol of Islam. Many nations with a Muslim majority display this symbol on its flags. This not a religious symbol but rather it is a national, cultural, political, military, or community symbol.

Om - a symbol of Hinduism. The written form of the word is in Sanskrit, a language of India. The sound OM is used repeatedly during meditation.

Latin Cross - a symbol of Christianity; the cross upon which Jesus died; Christian emblem or badge.

Star of David - a hexagram used as a symbol of Judaism.

Tao - a symbol of China. Pronounced “Dow,” it has the design of “Yang and Yin” (Dualism); its purpose is to nourish balance in the universe.

*not affiliated with or limited to a specific religious denomination.

Information provided by Lev T. Mills designer of the Coretta Scott King Award seal. 6/13/2002, published in Ask the ALA Librarian (Hawkins, Valerie. Ask the ALA Librarian. (blog) American Library Association, October 10, 2012.)

The Coretta Scott King Book Awards seal images and award names are solely and exclusively owned by the American Library Association.