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The Pinkney Family: In the Tradition

pinkney family

Jerry and Gloria. Brian and Andrea. The Pinkney family is unique in African-American children’s literature, perhaps in all of American children’s literature: four members of the family — two generations, two couples, two artists (one an author-illustrator), two writers — all currently producing award-winning children’s literature. And other family members are in the wings. How has this come about? What is there about this family that led to children’s books becoming the family business?

The answers begin with Jerry. The senior producer of this family drama, Jerry Pinkney is a painter whose opalescent watercolor illustrations have been gracing the pages of children’s books since the 1960s. John Henry (Dial), retold by Julius Lester, won the 1995 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for picture book, and three of his books, John Henry, Mirandy and Brother Wind (Knopf) by Patricia McKissack, and The Talking Eggs (Dial) by Robert San Souci, have been named Caldecott Honor Books. At this writing, he has received three Caretta Scott King Awards and two honor awards. Jerry also illustrated two picture books written by his wife, Gloria Jean — Back Home and The Sunday Outing (both Dial).

If Jerry gets first mention, it is soon clear that Gloria has played no small role in making theirs a creative household. They have been married for thirty-five years and have worked together in one way or another most of that time. The parents of four grown children and the grandparents of six young ones, they radiate affection for each other and great pride in all of their children and in each other’s work.

Gloria begins, “Jerry has been working at home for a very long time, over twenty-five years, and the studio is in the house. So the children have always been exposed to art. I’m a milliner and a silversmith, and I worked at home, too, so there has always been creative activity in the household. And we always supplied the children with materials. They all had their own space, so they started working at an early age.”

Brian confirms his parents’ account. “The main cause is my father. When we were growing up and went to museums or dance concerts or things like that, we always came home and made pictures. It was a family activity. We’d pull out the paper, and we’d all start drawing. It got to the point that it was just natural for me to draw. My mother would find me in the corner drawing and would say, ‘Wow, that’s beautiful. Go show your father.’ And he was in his studio, which was in the house, so that’s when I got to see his world.”

Brian is an illustrator whose books include Sukey and the Mermaid (Simon) by Robert San Souci, an ALA Notable and Coretta Scott King Honor Book, and three nonfiction picture books created in collaboration with his wife, Andrea Davis Pinkney. Brian has recently begun to write, and as author-illustrator, he has created Max Found Two Sticks and JoJo’s Flying Side Kick (both Simon).

Jerry elaborates on the children’s artistic upbringing: “When the children were growing up, one of the things Gloria and I wanted for them was to be able to make decisions about what would make them happy in terms of careers. We recognized very early that they were all very talented. So we provided them, as Gloria said, with materials and working space, but we never put any form of pressure on them toward going into the arts. The first reason was that we wanted them to choose what they wanted to do. Secondly, because Gloria and I have a love for art, music, and literature, we wanted them to have — even if they didn’t pursue it as a career — something else in their life that would give them that kind of joy. The key was that they made the decision for themselves.”

Asked about art lessons, Jerry replies that they never provided formal art lessons or critiqued their work when Brian and his siblings were children. Both he and Gloria assert, and Brian concurs, that what they offered was mainly encouragement. Gloria notes that some of the children’s early paintings still hang —
framed — in the kitchen.

It seems that all of the Pinkneys are involved in some sort of creative enterprise. In addition to Brian, Jerry and Gloria’s other three children — Troy, Scott, and Myles — are involved variously in art therapy, design, and photography. In fact, Myles’s photographs will illustrate Patricia McKissack’s forthcoming “Meet the Author” autobiography (Richard C. Owen). And Jerry and Gloria’s six grandchildren also all write, sing, paint, dance, and draw, making them the third generation in what Gloria calls “the Pinkney tradition.”

Brian is Jerry and Gloria’s second child. Not only is he an illustrator, but he also is a drummer and an aficionado of tae kwan do, a Korean martial arts form. His parents remember him as being creative from the very beginning. Brian himself recalls finding, when he was in second or third grade, a library book that told how to make figures out of pipe cleaners. He started working with pipe cleaners and eventually took the concept in his own direction, creating superheroes, cowboys, and space ships from colored wire, then taking them apart to make something new. He came to prefer his handmade original toys to store-bought ones.

Brian explored other media as well. His mother recently gave him a horse that he had sewn together when he was a child. But Brian says that he always wanted to be like his father. For his tenth birthday, he was given a miniature drafting table and paints like the ones Jerry used, and his mother set up his first studio, a converted walk-in closet.

Brian continues to follow his own direction, however. His first picture book was illustrated, like his father’s work, in watercolors, but by the time he came to his second picture book, he had found his own medium, scratchboard, a technique in which the picture is scratched through an inked surface. In many of Brian’s works, oil paints are then added. Jerry admires Brian’s ability to deal with the pressures of working in the same field as a successful father. He sees Brian as “an incredibly courageous young man, able to handle the opening of the door, and the responsibility once the door was opened. Where I find him most courageous is what he has done with his own space. Changing from watercolor to scratchboard to oil; using what I was able to provide, then finding his own space.”

Andrea Davis Pinkney, Brian’s wife, is a children’s book editor for Simon and Schuster and the author of three picture books — Alvin Ailey (Hyperion), Seven Candles for Kwanzaa (Dial), and Dear Benjamin Banneker (Harcourt), all illustrated by Brian — and Hold Fast to Dreams (Morrow), a novel based on her own experiences when her family moved from the Washington, D.C., area to the mostly white town of Wilton, Connecticut.

Andrea, a former editor for Essence magazine, says that she cannot remember not writing. She grew up in a family that appreciated the performing arts and took her and her siblings, sometimes in spite of their complaints, to see the Alvin Ailey Dance Company and the ballet — her mother insisting, in typical maternal fashion, “One day you’ll thank me for this.” No wonder, then, that Andrea, aspiring to be a dancer, entered Syracuse University in the School of Visual and Performing Arts. However, since writing was her first love, she transferred to the School of Journalism. After graduation, Andrea went off to New York City, where she met Brian; they were married in 1991. Her in-laws are delighted to welcome her to the family and to the Pinkney tradition.

The first of their collaborations, Alvin Ailey, came after several years of looking for a way to work together. Andrea was writing for various publications and reading the manuscripts that Brian was receiving, acquiring a good sense of the kinds of picture books that were being written and of the kinds of texts Brian liked to illustrate. Brian kept encouraging Andrea to try her hand at writing children’s books, and she kept holding out for a joint project, until one day she said, “I just wish we could find something we could do together — like Alvin Ailey.” And their first collaborative book project was born.

When asked to describe the way they work together on a book, Brian states, “It has to be something we’re both excited about. Usually that means there is some aspect that adds something for me in terms of the visuals. Then we bounce it back and forth in terms of the direction it may go in. Sometimes Andrea may do a rough draft first, and I’ll read that and have some comments on it. Other times we’ll sit down and maybe I’ll lay out some thumbnail sketches of the way I see images going. And then Andrea has that as a structure for the story.”

Andrea adds, “I like to call the books nonfiction with a twist. Oftentimes the idea will come from a very small bit of information. With the Benjamin Banneker book, my editor at Harcourt, Elizabeth Van Doren, worked with me on developing it around Banneker’s correspondence with Thomas Jefferson. We get a little tidbit like that, and these projects, especially the biographies, become all-encompassing.” For the Alvin Ailey book, for instance, they both took dance lessons from Ella Thompson Moore, who had been a dancer in Ailey’s company. Andrea’s mother had been right, after all.

Part of Andrea’s introduction to the world of children’s books came through modeling for Brian. Among the characters she posed for are the mermaid in Sukey and the Mermaid and Belle Dorcas in The Ballad of Belle Dorcas (Knopf) by William Hooks. “I had no idea that some illustrators photograph models and do research … I developed a whole new appreciation for the art form.” Brian recollects, too, that one of the ways he entered into the world of children’s books was as a model for his father. Brian remembers modeling “at about age eight or nine, and dressing up with my mother for a book about a little boy in Africa who plays the flute.” (Kasho and the Twin Flutes, Coward)

Working with models is partly what makes Jerry Pinkney’s work so distinctive. He is often acclaimed for his remarkably realistic watercolor portrayals of African Americans in all their variety. Usually he draws either from life or from photographs. He has said that he has even posed himself as animals in order to give them distinct personalities in books such as the Julius Lester retellings of the Uncle Remus stories.

When Brian illustrated his first picture book, The Boy and the Ghost (Simon), he too was working in watercolors. He had been assisting his father in his work, so it was a familiar medium. “I felt most secure in watercolor, probably because I was certain what the finished artwork would look like, because of my father.” After Brian had completed the book, he learned that Jerry had actually declined to illustrate it because he was unable to visualize a way to portray the ghost. “When I read it, of course, I saw the ghost perfectly, and it was him.” Readers familiar with The Boy and the Ghost will spot Jerry sporting red hair and a red beard. It was a turn of the tables — Brian as illustrator, Jerry as model.

Gloria has also modeled for Jerry’s books. She posed for the mother in The Patchwork Quilt (Dial) by Valerie Flournoy and for the old woman in The Talking Eggs, as well as for Miss Poinsettia in Mirandy and Brother Wind. She was Jerry’s agent back in the 1970s and still works as his assistant, finding models for him and helping in other ways. She is also his first critic, looking over his shoulder and giving him the benefit of what they both agree is “a good eye” for art. At the same time, Gloria has worked creatively herself as a designer of hats and jewelry. But what she seems most proud of currently is her writing. “I discovered something. I realized for the first time how my husband could love his work as much as he loves me, because I could see something that I love besides him and my children, and that is my writing.”

Gloria relates that she has always been a talker, a teller of stories, but never felt that she could write, even though Jerry had been urging her to try her hand at it since early in their marriage. In school, she remembers, students were given three grades for projects. One was for creativity, in which she excelled; the second was for neatness, which was not a problem. “The third was for punctuation, and my papers were all marked up, so I decided I could not write. If you can’t punctuate, how could you possibly be a writer? I kept that in my head for the longest time.”

It was Phyllis Fogelman, editor-in-chief at Dial, who finally helped to permanently dislodge the “I-can’t-write” notion. Phyllis heard Gloria telling stories about her growing up and urged her to write her stories down. Soon thereafter, Gloria attended a family reunion in Lumberton, North Carolina, and found her voice as a writer. The voice, she feels, “was linked to my past in the South because I grew up in my great-aunt’s rooming house in Philadelphia. She was from the South, and all of our relatives and friends, when they migrated North, would move into this rooming house where they would try to lose their southern accent. I was the only child there at the time, and I was able to lock their voices into my memory.” Her first book was Back Home, which was followed by a prequel, The Sunday Outing, both featuring a young girl named Ernestine, after Gloria’s mother, and both illustrated by Jerry.

Unlike Brian and Andrea, however, Jerry and Gloria did not collaborate on these books from the beginning, working them through as joint projects. They were Gloria’s stories, illustrated by Jerry after the manuscripts were completed. Gloria’s description of the process makes clear the ways in which they respect each other’s space and expertise: Gloria, reluctant to do her usual “looking over his shoulder” lest Jerry feel pressured; Jerry missing her feedback, and explaining patiently that her memory of reality might have to give way a little because, for instance, in a painting, a green truck would only fade into the green countryside. Ultimately, they realized that they could work together in their normal way and that, in spite of some teasing friends’ expectations to the contrary, their marriage was not endangered by potentially different artistic visions.

The Pinkney tradition began with Jerry, who started drawing as a child growing up in Philadelphia. Probably a born artist, he never entered an art museum until he was in college. Jerry’s description of his own childhood as an artist contrasts in some ways with that of his children. His mother recognized and encouraged his talent, but his father, even while making it possible for Jerry to take some classes, never really encouraged his art. A working-class man of his generation may have had limited experience with successful black artists and might have worried about whether his son could actually make a living drawing. His mother, however, provided staunch support, and in some sense she seems to have provided the model that he and Gloria adopted for nurturing the talents of their own children.

With their art and their writing, the Pinkneys have enriched American children’s literature by illuminating the experiences of African Americans and of others as well. They are committed to telling the untold stories of African Americans, to making connections across cultures, to demonstrating, as Jerry says, that “we as a people are as good as anyone,” and to producing work of high quality with the aim of reaching a wide audience.

As time passes, roles change, but the tradition continues. Jerry has done some college teaching and is now acting as mentor to some younger illustrators outside the family. And the family remains close. Brian still shows his work to his father, and Jerry is sensitive enough to provide only the kind of feedback he feels Brian wants. Father and son spend hours on the telephone weekly. Brian is pleased that his mother has now begun to read her stories to him, Andrea notes, “There’s hardly a holiday or barbecue where we all don’t talk about ideas and publishing and, ‘What are you doing?’ Usually we end up in Jerry’s studio to see what he’s working on, and talking about what Brian is working on. Gloria and I will ask each other, ‘Have you read this book?’ or, ‘Do you know this writer?’ It’s great, and there are times when we say, ‘Do you know we just spent the last four hours talking about books?'”

Sharing is the word that comes first to Andrea when she thinks of the family, “It’s an open exchange of ideas. It’s just a very rich experience, and I think we’re all very fortunate.” So is the field of American children’s literature.

From the January/February 1996 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Click the tag HBBlackHistoryMonth16 for more articles in this series.

Rudine Sims Bishop About Rudine Sims Bishop

Rudine Sims Bishop, Professor Emerita of Education at Ohio State University, is the winner of the 2017 Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement (practitioner category).

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Comments

  1. Amakiasu Turpin Howze says:

    Thank you so much for this “deep dive” into the Pinkney family tradition. As a retired elementary school teacher, I have read Pinkney books extensively and enjoyed them as much as my students. It was not until recently that I began to realize there were many Pinckneys in the children’s literature arena. You have cleared up my confusion about who’s who! Currently, I have three Pinkney books (Jerry, Myles, and Brian) on top of my stack of library acquisitions! I began writing children’s books many years ago but those manuscripts have been collecting dust, until recently. I am now doing research on publishers, book lay-out, illustrators, you name it!

    We, the African American community, and most certainly, the world at large are so blessed to have the Pinkney family in our midst! Thank you, Professor, Sims Bishop for such a beautiful and informative article.

    Amakiasu Turpin Howze

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