A Tribute to Picture Book Virtuoso Jerry Pinkney

Jerry Pinkney, a giant in the field of children’s literature, passed away in late October, leaving behind a legacy as one of the most heralded children’s illustrators of all time. We would like to pay tribute to his extraordinary contributions over half a century of creating books, as well as his belief in expanding the range of children’s literature to make children of color feel included, seen and welcomed. Among his many prizes and honors are a Caldecott Medal, five Caldecott Honors, five New York Times “Best Illustrated Books” and five Coretta Scott King awards, as well as induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Born in 1939 and raised in Philadelphia, Pinkney loved to sketch and paint as a boy but never imagined that a career in art might be possible. “I was learning to draw,” he later reflected, “but no one was able to point me to a way of making a living in art.” Through a job at a newsstand as a teenager, he met a professional cartoonist and realized that drawing could be a viable career. Determined to succeed, he entered the Philadelphia School of Art as a design student and scholarship recipient, the first in his family to achieve higher education.

He began his professional career in Boston, designing greeting cards and advertisements. Then, in 1962, Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day came out, achieving such instant success that it finally broke the color barrier in publishing. Pinkney remembered how he had searched without success as a child for people like himself in his reading, and realized that, decades later, his own children were still looking in vain. In 1964, he created the illustrations for his first book, The Adventures of Spider: West African Folk Tales. He would turn again and again over his long career to narratives from world folklore and, in particular, African American oral culture. “What you find in my work is it being universal,” he said. “I would love for people to see the universality of the stories.”

One feature that stands out in Pinkney’s sumptuous watercolors, which have been exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the country, is his passionate attention to detail. Every vista is rich and alive, from the tiny stray insects to the ripples in water. Pinkney’s obsession with history and in giving children a window into the past also shines in many of his books. He set his version of the fairy tale Puss in Boots in France in 1729 and carefully researched costumes, coaches, mills and animals native to France to give this fanciful story a compelling sense of realism. To create Minty, A Story of Young Harriet Tubman, Pinkney visited former plantations in Maryland and searched for authentic details about food, clothing and living conditions in the 1820’s. His talent for bringing history to life extended to many realms. He designed a series of Black Heritage postage stamps for the U.S. Postal Service, created illustrations for the Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver heritage sites for the National Parks Service, and was invited to take a spot on NASA’s artist team for the space shuttle Columbia. “I wanted to show that an African American artist could make it on a national level in the graphic arts,” Pinkney said. “I want to be a strong role model for my family and for other African Americans.”

It is hard to choose among Pinkney’s many classic stories, but a picture book we love for younger readers is his version of the Aesop fable The Lion and the Mouse. Set on the Serengeti, this tale about the power of mutual kindness unfolds wordlessly, like a silent movie, ending in a lovely image of the Mouse’s babies playing and tumbling along the Lion’s back. In Pinkney’s retelling of The Little Red Hen, an entire barnyard comes expressively to life, with the busy hen inviting children to turn the pages with a crook of her wing. The kindly miller who helps the hen grind wheat is a portait of Pinkney himself, who enjoyed using his family members as models for characters.

Older children will giggle at the exuberant tall tales in John Henry, which Pinkney created with his frequent co-author Julius Lester. When the folk hero is born, all the creatures in the forest, including a unicorn, come to see him. The new baby laughs so loudly, he frightens the sun, and three days later he is tall enough to challenge the town bully, Ferret-Faced Freddy, “a man so mean, he cried if he had a nice thought.” The story finds endless energy and humor in John Henry’s superhuman exploits as he pulverizes boulders and smashes rocks to smithereens.

The Little Mermaid takes readers on a dive into a gorgeous undersea realm populated entirely by brown-skinned characters. Pinkney changes the fairy tale from a romance to a friendship between the little mermaid Melody, who is eager to explore life outside her coral palace, and a girl on land, Zion, who loves butterflies. “When I set out to reinvent the tale in a way that would speak more directly to today’s young readers,” Pinkney explained, “I imagined a mermaid who is a seeker, someone who doesn’t just yearn for a soul mate but who also wants to experience the world.”

That opportunity to see situations in a new light is what Jerry Pinkney’s beautiful books give us. As he remarked, looking back on his long career creating new worlds for children to explore: “I am a storyteller at heart. There is something special about knowing that your stories can alter the way people see the world, and their place within it.”