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(Jerry) Brian (J. Brian Pinkney) Pinkney (1961-)


Brian Pinkney is an illustrator and author who works in a striking and unusual medium: oil painting over scratchboard. His unique illustrations have graced the pages of numerous books for children since he began his career in the late 1980s. Now married to children's book author Andrea Davis Pinkney, he has not only collaborated with his wife and other writers, but has also written several critically praised books himself. His work is considered notable for revealing the diverse experiences of African Americans, their ancestors, and blacks in other parts of the world. Pinkney has dramatically illustrated folklore from the American South, the Caribbean, and Africa, recreated the lives and contributions of important African Americans, and related his own experiences and stories.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Pinkney was raised in an artistic household. "My two brothers and sister and I played musical instruments, and we were always drawing, painting, or building things," the illustrator once recalled of his childhood. While his mother, children's book author Gloria Jean Pinkney, would inspire all her children with a love of reading, it would be his father, illustrator Jerry Pinkney, who would serve as a mentor to young Brian. "I did everything he did," Pinkney would later admit. "My desk was a miniature version of his desk. The paintbrushes and pencils I used were often the ones from his studio that were too old or too small for him to use. I had a paint set like his and a studio like his. Except my studio was a walk-in closet, which made it the perfect size for me."

Although Pinkney closely studied his father's working methods, he was never the elder Pinkney's student. After graduating from high school, he enrolled at the Philadelphia College of Art and earned his bachelor's degree in fine arts in 1983. While at college, he gained exposure to different artistic mediums, including pen and ink, watercolors, oils, and acrylics. Printmaking would prove to be one of Pinkney's favorite courses of study because he enjoyed the three-dimensional aspects of etching and lithography techniques.

Working in a three-dimensional medium would become Pinkney's preferred artistic method. He began experimenting in "scratchboard" techniques while working towards his master's degree at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Learning to work in scratchboard—a technique similar to engraving, wherein the artist uses small tools to scrape and scratch away the surface of a prepared board's black coating to reveal the white clay underneath—would be a turning point in Pinkney's career, and he would use it in nearly all his illustrations, overlaying it with oil paint when color was desired. "I like working in scratchboard because it allows me to sculpt the image," he once explained. "When I etch the drawing out of the board, I get a rhythm going with my lines which feels like sculpture to me."

In between receiving his bachelor's degree and obtaining his master's degree, Pinkney began to do some illustration work on a freelance basis. Under the name J. Brian Pinkney, he provided illustrations for Roy Wandelmaier's work Shipwrecked on Mystery Island, as well as noted author Robert D. San Souci's The Boy and the Ghost. Since graduating from the School of Visual Arts, Pinkney has undertaken a host of illustration assignments for other authors under the name Brian Pinkney. In addition to Sukey and the Mermaid and The Faithful Friend, both by San Souci, Pinkney has produced illustrations for Patricia C. McKissack's award-winning The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural and Judy Sierra's retelling of Wiley and the Hairy Man. His work for Wiley was praised by Booklist reviewer Janice Del Negro as "full of motion and feeling," and equally lauded by Maria B. Salvadore, who cited them as creating "a fresh and appropriately nefarious look for an ever-popular, appealing folktale" in a Horn Book review. When Patricia J. Williams reviewed Kim L. Siegelson's In the Time of the Drums for the New York Times Book Review, she described Pinkney's contributions as "gentle and luminous scratchboard illustrations [that] provide subtly intelligent counterpoint to the text."

When Pinkney looks for illustrating assignments, he chooses those with which he feels personally involved. "I like illustrating stories about African-American subject matter because I learn about my culture and heritage," he once noted. In addition to illustrating works that focus on American blacks, Pinkney has worked with author Maxine Rose Schur on Day of Delight: A Jewish Sabbath in Ethiopia, which portrays the traditions of a young boy and his family who live in an isolated settlement of African Jews, and its sequel, When I Left My Village, which follows the family on their journey from their mountain home to Israel. "Brian Pinkney's scratchboard illustrations are lovingly rendered and full of grace and dignity," commented Hannah B. Zeiger in a review of Day of Delight in Horn Book.

Pinkney also illustrated San Souci's Cendrillon: A Caribbean Cinderella, which places the familiar Cinderella story in a tropical setting. Here, a washerwoman is given a magic wand and uses it to benefit her goddaughter. Joanna Rudge Long commented in Horn Book that in Cendrillon, "Pinkney's signature multimedia art . . . glows with the richly saturated colors of the Caribbean."

Pinkney also enjoys providing pictures for stories that relate to his personal experiences and interests, like Burton Albert's book Where Does the Trail Lead?, which he illustrated by recalling his memories of summer months spent on Cape Cod when he was a boy. The opportunity for the illustrator to become personally involved with his text increased dramatically when he wrote his first self-illustrated work, Max Found Two Sticks. The 1994 book, which is based on Pinkney's experience playing the drums, tells the story of a boy who taps out the rhythms of his urban neighborhood—church bells, rain on the window sill, the rhythmic click-click of a train, pigeons taking flight—with a pair of branches fallen from a nearby tree. Praised as "a deceptively simple picture book that will appeal to children's sense of enjoyment in making noise" in a Horn Book review by Ellen Fader, Max Found Two Sticks was lauded by critic Hazel Rochman for its high-quality balance between text and art. In her Booklist review, Rochman termed the text "a spare, rhythmic accompaniment" to Pinkney's oil and scratchboard illustrations, which "swirl and circle" through the pages, "filling them with energy and movement."

Other works both written and illustrated by Pinkney include JoJo's Flying Side Kick, which grew out of its author's interest in and practice of the martial arts. The book focuses on a young girl as she awaits her test to receive her yellow belt in Tae Kwon Do. Eliminating her nervousness by channeling her fear of the sinister-looking tree that grows in her front yard into visions of a burglar standing in front of her, JoJo executes a perfect side kick and earns her belt. The Adventures of Sparrowboy is an exuberant fantasy that finds a paper-boy suddenly gifted with the power of flight. With his newly acquired bird's-eye view of the city, he earns superhero status as he prevents a local bully from harassing the neighborhood, while also finishing his newspaper deliveries on time. Pinkney tells Sparrowboy's story in both book and comic-book style, his scratchboard illustrations enhanced with "transparent dyes and gouaches in creamy colors never before seen in a comic book," according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer. And Cosmo and the Robot tells the story of a brother and sister living on Mars who have familiar squabbles over toys, except that the quarrels include the interference of Cosmo's malfunctioning robot, Rex. A Publishers Weekly reviewer said that the artwork had taken on the "slightly kitschy tradition of '50s science fiction," and that in his work, Pinkney "lets ordinary family dynamics shine brightly."

Pinkney's most frequent collaborator has been author Andrea Davis Pinkney, who also happens to be his wife. The couple, who met when their careers—he as an illustrator working for a magazine art department, she as a magazine editor—brought them together, chose a biography of dancer Alvin Ailey as their first project. "Brian and I had wanted to work on a project together," Andrea told Susan Stan in Five Owls, "and we have always gone to see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. At one point I said to Brian, 'I just wish there was a subject we were both interested in working on, like Alvin Ailey.'" Alvin Ailey is the life story of the famed African-American choreographer whose pioneering, blues-and gospel-inflected choreography would popularize modern dance among many blacks. "When I illustrated the book Alvin Ailey, . . . I got to act out Alvin's life as a dancer," Pinkney once confided. He and his wife took dance lessons with one of the original members of Ailey's famous dance company, "which was a lot of fun." With the understanding of Ailey's modern dance style gained through these lessons, Pinkney used himself as a model for the famous choreographer.

In their collaborations, as well as their individual projects, the Pinkneys select subjects that enable them to share little known facets of African-American history and culture with young readers. Their early titles include Seven Candles for Kwanzaa, Dear Benjamin Banneker, and Bill Pickett: Rodeo-Ridin' Cowboy. The "swirling strokes" of Pinkney's characteristic scratch-board illustrations for Bill Pickett, the biography of a famous black rodeo rider, were praised by Horn Book reviewer Lauren Adams for their ability to "capture the young [Pickett's] enthusiasm and the excitement of the rodeo." Approaching an urban topic, Mim's Christmas Jam tells the unfamiliar story of the workers who built the New York City subway system, anonymous figures who did difficult, dangerous work with little reward. One worker is a black man who is far from his family, wife Mim, and home in the Pennsylvania countryside. The illustrator's contributions were said to contribute "visual clarity to the stark differences between the settings," according to a Kirkus Reviews writer, who described the book as "a moving, sensitive story with which modern young readers can identify."

Other Pinkney family collaborations are books by Brian's mother, Gloria Jean: In the Forest of Your Remembrance: Thirty-three Goodly News Tellings for the Whole Family and Music from Our Lord's Holy Heaven, both of which include artwork by father Jerry and brother Myles, as well as from Brian.

Biographical and Critical Sources


Cummings, Pat, editor, Talking with Artists, Bradbury Press (New York, NY), 1992.

Rollock, Barbara, Black Authors and Illustrators of Children's Books: A Biographical Dictionary, Garland (New York, NY), 1992.

St. James Guide to Children's Writers, fifth edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.


Black Issues Book Review, January, 2001, Kalilah Shambry, review of Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra, p. 23; March-April, 2002, Kay Badalamenti, review of Cendrillon: A Creole Cinderella, p. 69; September-October, 2002, Lynda Jones, review of Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa, p. 58.

Booklist, April 1, 1994, Hazel Rochman, review of Max Found Two Sticks, p. 1441; September 15, 1994, p. 138; April 15, 1995, p. 1499; February 15, 1996, pp. 1023; March 1, 1996, Janice Del Negro, review of Wiley and the Hairy Man, p. 1186; November 1, 1996, pp. 504-505; April 1, 1997, Michael Cart, review of The Adventures of Sparrowboy, p. 1338; June 1, 1998, Bill Ott, review of Duke Ellington, p. 1757; October 15, 1998, Ilene Cooper, review of Cendrillon, p. 417; April 1, 1999, Hazel Rochman, review of In the Time of the Drums, p. 1428; July, 2000, Tim Arnold, review of Cosmo and the Robot, p. 2042; April 1, 2002, Gillian Engberg, review of Ella Fitzgerald, p. 1338; October 1, 2003, Jennifer Mattson, review of Thumbelina, p. 323, and Ilene Cooper, review of The Stone Lamp: Eight Stories of Hanukkah through History, p. 334.

Five Owls, September-October, 1995, Susan Stan, interview with Andrea Davis Pinkney, pp. 6-8.

Horn Book, January-February, 1994, p. 90; March-April, 1994, pp. 221-222; May-June, 1994, Ellen Fader, review of Max Found Two Sticks, p. 319; November-December, 1994, Hannah B. Zeiger, review of Day of Delight: A Jewish Sabbath in Ethiopia, p. 747; September-October, 1995, p. 591; May-June, 1996, Maria B. Salvadore, review of Wiley and the Hairy Man, pp. 333-344; November-December, 1996, Lauren Adams, review of Bill Pickett: Rodeo-Ridin' Cowboy; July-August, 1997, Roger Sutton, review of The Adventures of Sparrowboy, pp. 445-446; November, 1998, Joanna Rudge Long, review of Cendrillon, p. 747; May, 1999, review of In the Time of the Drums, p. 345; July, 2000, review of Cosmo and the Robot, p. 444.

Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 1993, p. 1278; February 1, 1994, p. 148; September 15, 2001, review of Mim's Christmas Jam, p. 1365.

New York Times Book Review, November 14, 1993, p. 49; August 15, 1999, Patricia J. Williams, review of In the Time of the Drums, p. 24; December 16, 2001, review of Mim's Christmas Jam, p. 21.

Publishers Weekly, September 11, 1995, pp. 85-86; March 10, 1997, review of The Adventures of Sparrowboy, p. 66; March 2, 1998, review of Duke Ellington, p. 68; July 13, 1998, review of Cendrillon, p. 76; December 7, 1998, review of JoJo's Flying Side Kick, p. 62; April 26, 1999, review of In the Time of the Drums, p. 82; November 8, 1999, review of Bill Pickett, p. 71; May 1, 2000, review of Cosmo and the Robot, p. 70; September 24, 2001, review of Mim's Christmas Jam, p. 50; February 25, 2002, review of In the Forest of Your Remembrance: Thirty-three Goodly News Tellings for the Whole Family, p. 63; March 11, 2002, review of Ella Fitzgerald, p. 72; August 18, 2003, review of Thumbelina, p. 78; September 22, 2003, review of The Stone Lamp, p. 66.

School Library Journal, April, 1997, John Peters, review of The Adventures of Sparrowboy, p. 115; May, 1998, Beth Tegart, review of Duke Ellington, p. 136; September, 1998, Judith Constantinides, review of Cendrillon, p. 198; May, 1999, Linda Greengrass, review of In the Time of the Drums, p. 96; June, 2000, Marie Orlando, review of Cosmo and the Robot, p. 124; September, 2000, Linda R. Skeele, review of Duke Ellington, p. 74; September, 2001, Kathryn Kosiorek, review of In the Forest of Your Remembrance, p. 252; May, 2002, Shauna Yusko, review of Ella Fitzgerald, p. 142; September, 2003, Cris Riedel and Ellis B. Hyde, review of Thumbelina, p. 166.*

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Jan Peck Biography - Personal to David Randall (1972–) Biography - Personal(Jerry) Brian (J. Brian Pinkney) Pinkney (1961-) Biography - Career, Awards, Honors, Sidelights - Personal, Member, Writings, Adaptations