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Jerry Pinkney (1939-)


From the day he began copying drawings from comic books and photo magazines, illustrator Jerry Pinkney pushed himself to be the best artist he could be. Pinkney's drive has made him, some four decades later, a nationally recognized illustrator of children's books, as well as a designer and illustrator of stamps, posters, calendars, and books for adults. Much of his work pays tribute to his African-American heritage, but the artist has illustrated books about Hispanic-Americans and Native Americans as well. Expressing his commitment to multicultural works in his autobiographical essay in Something about the Author Autobiography Series (SAAS), Pinkney said "these books are needed and are my contribution in terms of my concern for this country and the issue of racism."

Pinkney was born in 1939, to a large family living on an all-black block in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His neighborhood and extended family provided the young Pinkney with all the entertainment he needed, for the children were always involved in the many family projects, ranging from all-day barbecues to summer-long house raising ventures. He discovered drawing at an early age, and remembered in SAAS that "I was always caught in the middle between the thing that I wanted to do, which would be to sit and draw, and the other side of me that really wanted to be more social; and yet, being social was more work for me." Pinkney's artistic urges were rewarded in school, where his teachers and fellow students admired and encouraged his work, but he also remembered that "somehow I hooked into that competitive mode so that it became very important that I succeed." This "competitive mode" drove his performance throughout the rest of his schooling, and though Pinkney received consistently high marks in his classes, he was plagued by doubts about his abilities and his intelligence. He said in SAAS that he was "unable to make a connection between what I thought about myself and how others felt about my achievements."

Pinkney's mother actively encouraged his study of art, and his father, though skeptical, supported his decision to continue pursuing art studies into high school as well. Dobbins Vocational High School had an excellent program in commercial art, and Pinkney received encouragement and guidance from his teachers and peers. Upon graduation, he applied for and received a four-year scholarship to the Philadelphia Museum College of Art, becoming the first in his family to go to college. There he met and married his wife, Gloria, and established a network of contacts that would support him throughout his artistic career. Those contacts also landed him his first job, with a greeting card company near Boston. In Boston, Pinkney was involved in the expanding civil rights movement. As a result of the wide variety of people he met through these activities, Pinkney said in SAAS that "I worked toward being a well-rounded artist and I chose not to focus on one style or put all my energies into one visual discipline."

Pinkney's commitment to expanding his artistic range left him frustrated with his job, so with some friends he founded the Kaleidoscope Studio, where he worked for a little over two years before starting a studio of his own—the Jerry Pinkney Studio. Though he kept busy doing advertising and textbook illustration, Pinkney most loved doing illustrations for books and tried to do at least one or two a year. "The marriage of typography and illustration was always very important to me, and the picture-book area provided me with the opportunity to illustrate and design," he commented in his autobiographical sketch. Fredrick Woodard, interviewed by Donnarae MacCann and Olga Richard in Wilson Library Bulletin, noted that in Mirandy and Brother Wind the "stunning color and movement [of Pinkney's illustrations] are in perfect harmony with the beauty of the book's folk language." The book, which won the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration and was named a Caldecott Honor Book, tells the story of a young girl convinced that she will dance with the wind at an upcoming dance.

Soon Pinkney had even more book illustration offers because, he explained in SAAS, "the late sixties and early seventies brought an awareness of black writers. Publishers sought out black artists to illustrate black subject matter and the work of black writers. And there I was—it was almost like a setup." Pinkney was soon creating illustrations for a wide variety of projects, including African-American historical calendars, a number of limited-edition books for Franklin Library and, in 1983, a set of stamps for the U.S. Postal Service's Black Heritage series that included Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Scott Joplin, and Jackie Robinson. Pinkney commented in SAAS: "I was trying to use these projects as vehicles to address the issues of being an African-American and the importance of African-American contributions to society.… I wanted to show that an African-American artist could certainly make it in this country on a national level in the visual graphic arts. And I wanted to show my children the possibilities that lay ahead for them. That was very important. I wanted to be a strong role model for my family and for other African-Americans."

During this period, Pinkney got involved with a number of book projects that brought him a great deal of critical attention. The Patchwork Quilt, written by Valerie Flournoy, tells of a wonderful relationship between a grandmother and a granddaughter and celebrates the strength of the black family. Pinkney found people to model the relationships described in the book, and he created his drawings from these modeling sessions. The book won a number of awards, including two that were very important to the illustrator: the Christopher Award and the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration. Pinkney carried his live model concept further in crafting the illustrations for Julius Lester's retelling of The Tales of Uncle Remus. "After a number of preliminary drawings, I realized that the answer was for me to model and pose as the animals," he said in SAAS. "And that's what I did. I got dressed up in vests and baggy pants, and I took on the posture and attitude of whatever that animal might be." June Jordan, reviewing the book in New York Times Book Review, commented that "every single illustration … is fastidious, inspired and a marvel of delightful imagination."

Pinkney's collaboration with author Julius Lester on John Henry was, the illustrator wrote in his acceptance speech for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, their attempt "to create an African-American hero that would inspire all." Based on published versions of the traditional folk song as well as on additional verses remembered by Lester, the picture book depicts the life of John Henry from birth through his fatal contest with a steam drill. Praising Pinkney's "challenging visual imagery" in her review in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Elizabeth Bush noted that his "earthy, craggy watercolors capture the sober, thoughtful side of Henry's story."

As Pinkney once commented regarding John Henry, "As far back as I can recall, I have sustained the memory of the legend of John Henry.… I am not sure why it took me so long to entertain the notion to unlock John Henry from its place in my memories. After all, he had been a part of my most cherished remembrance of African-American perseverance, along with Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth. And John Henry and High John de Conquer were the only tall tale black heroes to come from that period in American history. I became intrigued with the realization that black heroes did not exist in African-American folklore until after the Civil War. Before emancipation, African-American story characters, like the enslaved, had only two weapons that they were able to use: good old-fashioned common sense, and that of trickster.… Only after freedom could African Americans afford to create black heroes in our folklore. How fortunate I was when Julius Lester embraced the idea to create the text; who better to take on the task than Julius, a civil rights advocate, folk-singer and author.… Our collaboration is a John Henry that represents and symbolizes the men and boys who made up the crews, whose muscles built the roads and railroads in this country in the late 1800s. One can only imagine the stamina and endurance of the men and boys, black and white, employed for such dangerous work. I tried to give reverence to the men, by instilling in each person I portrayed a sense of his own history.… With this book we strived to create an African-American hero that would inspire all."

Using the few facts known about Harriet Tubman's childhood, author Alan Schroeder teamed up with Pinkney to produce Minty: A Story of the Young Harriet Tubman. The book tells the story of how Minty—taken from Tubman's cradle name, Araminta—acquires the skills she needs to escape and survive alone in the wilderness, those same skills she later uses to lead hundreds of fellow slaves to freedom. In a School Library Journal review, Louise L. Sherman said that "Pinkney's illustrations are outstanding … and his depictions of Minty are particularly powerful and expressive."

Another picture book in which Pinkney explores African-American history is Goin' Someplace Special, which Patricia C. McKissack wrote and Pinkney illustrated. The story is about a little girl named 'Tricia Ann who is allowed to go Someplace Special, alone, for the very first time. Her journey across the Jim Crow South is difficult—she has to sit at the back of the bus and cannot rest on a bench in the park because it is for "whites only." The racism that she faces almost makes her give up, but remembering her grandmother's encouragement, she perseveres. Finally, she arrives at Someplace Special: the Nashville Public Library. In Pinkney's illustration, the building is "bathed in a hopeful lemon sunshine" that illuminates the sign over the door: "Public Library: All Are Welcome," Robin Smith wrote in Horn Book. Other reviewers commented upon the bright turquoise and yellow dress in which Pinkney clad the little girl, a frock which "jumps out of every picture," noted a Kirkus Reviews critic.

In recent years, Pinkney has been adapting and retelling classic works in addition to illustrating them. Titles include Rudyard Kipling's Rikki-Tikki-Tavi; Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl, The Ugly Duckling, and The Nightingale; and Aesop's Fables. Pinkney's adaptation of The Ugly Duckling garnered him his fourth Caldecott Honor Book award. Carolyn Phelan, writing in Booklist, called The Little Match Girl a "beautifully illustrated version of a classic tale." A reviewer in Horn Book called Pinkney's Aesop's Fables the "quintessential Aesop, lovingly retold in a contemporary yet timeless style embellished with a profusion of glorious illustrations." His adaptation of The Nightingale, with the setting moved from China to Morocco, also drew praise. His re-interpretation of the story is "fresh," Carolyn Phelan wrote in Booklist, "but true to the spirit of the original." Pinkney's artwork for The Nightingale was also praised: the "gouache and watercolor illustrations have the stained radiance of sunlight through glass; even his figures appear lit from within," commented a Kirkus Reviews contributor.

A Publishers Weekly reviewer called Pinkney's work in Noah's Ark "some of the finest illustrations of his career." Pinkney adheres closely to the events as told in the Bible, but unlike some other adapters of this story, he "seems utterly comfortable with the majesty of the tale," Stephanie Zvirin commented in Booklist. As a Kirkus Reviews contributor noted, Pinkney's "sweeping spreads of dappled paintings … capture brilliantly the hugeness of the Ark," and Zvirin thought that Pinkney's "strong, straightforward" language evoked "the deep rumble of a distant voice."

Although Pinkney is now an accomplished artist and teaches art to others at numerous universities, he has not lost the drive to improve that launched his career. He told SAAS that his future goals are "to have my work continually grow and to have something artistic to put back into the pot. Another goal is to continue acting as a role model, sharing my time with young artists and children. As for the work itself, my interest is in doing more multi-cultural projects." As the author once commented, "How blessed and privileged I am to draw upon my childhood stories and have the opportunity to share them with you through my illustration today."

Biographical and Critical Sources


African American Almanac, edited by Jessie Carnie Smithland and Joseph Palmisano, 8th edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.

Cederholm, Theresa Dickason, compiler and editor, Afro-American Artists: A Bibliographical Directory, Boston Public Library (Boston, MA), 1973.

Children's Literature Review, Volume 43, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997.

Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 15, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997.

Kingman, Lee, and others, compilers, Illustrators of Children's Books: 1957-1966, Horn Book (Boston, MA), 1968.

Marcus, Leonard S., Ways of Telling, Dutton (New York, NY), 2001.

Marcus, Leonard S., Side by Side, Walker (New York, NY), 2002.

McKissack, Patricia, Goin' Someplace Special, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Atheneum (New York, NY), 2000.

Pinkney, Jerry, Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 12, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1991.

Twelve Black Artists from Boston, Brandeis University (Waltham, MA), 1969.


Black Issues Book Review, March-April, 2002, Mondella S. Jones, "Awards Spotlight," p. 9.

Booklist, October 15, 1999, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Little Match Girl, p. 443; January 1, 2000, review of The Ugly Duckling, p. 825; July, 2001, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Aesop's Fables, p. 2011; September 1, 2002, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Nightingale, p. 121; October 1, 2002, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Noah's Ark, p. 342; February 15, 2004, Ilene Cooper, review of God Bless the Child.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, October, 1994, Elizabeth Bush, review of John Henry, p. 54; February, 2004, review of God Bless the Child.

Horn Book, January-February, 1996, Jerry Pinkney, "John Henry," pp. 32-34; September-October, 1996, p. 589; January, 2001, review of Aesop's Fables, p. 100; November-December, 2001, Robin Smith, review of Goin' Someplace Special, pp. 736-737; November-December, 2002, Mary M. Burns, review of The Nightingale, p. 733; May-June, 2003, Barbara Bader, "Multiculturalism in the Mainstream," pp. 265-292.

Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 1996, review of Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman, p. 537; September 15, 2001, review of Goin' Someplace Special, p. 1362; August 1, 2002, review of The Nightingale, p. 1120; October 1, 2002, review of Noah's Ark, p. 1478; January 15, 2004, review of God Bless the Child.

New York Times, February 26, 1978; December 13, 1988; May 23, 1993, pp. WC4-WC5; August 21, 2001, Doreen Carvajal, "Illustrating Familiar Tales for a New Generation," p. E1.

New York Times Book Review, May 17, 1987, June Jordan, "A Truly Bad Rabbit," p. 32; November 13, 1995, Jack Zipes, "Power Rangers of Yore," p. 30.

Publishers Weekly, February 25, 2002, review of In the Forest of Your Remembrance: Thirty-three Goodly News Tellings for the Whole Family, p. 63; July 8, 2002, review of The Nightingale, p. 49; September 30, 2002, review of Noah's Ark, p. 69.

Reading Today, April-May, 2002, "Park, Wiesner Named Winners of Newbery, Caldecott Medals," p. 11.

School Library Journal, May, 1996, Louise L. Sherman, review of Minty, p. 108; November, 2000, Julie Cummins, review of Albidaro and the Mischievous Dream, p. 126; September, 2001, Mary Elam, review of Goin' Someplace Special, p. 199, Kathryn Kosiorek, review of In the Forest of Your Remembrance, p. 252; November, 2002, Kathy Piehl, review of Noah's Ark, pp. 146-147; October, 2003, review of Noah's Ark, p. S26; February, 2004, review of God Bless the Child.

Watercolor, fall, 2003, Daniel Grant, "Jerry Pinkney Joins the National Council on the Arts," pp. 18-23.

Wilson Library Bulletin, April, 1989, Donnarae MacCann and Olga Richard, "Picture Books for Children," pp. 92-93.

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Jan Peck Biography - Personal to David Randall (1972–) Biography - PersonalJerry Pinkney (1939-) Biography - Career, Awards, Honors, Sidelights - Personal, Member, Writings, Adaptations