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Five questions for Jerry Pinkney

Jerry Pinkney Author Photo_300At the 2016 Youth Media Awards announcement at ALA Midwinter, the audience cheered loudly when prolific author/illustrator Jerry Pinkney was named the Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement winner. A few minutes later, history was made — and the crowd again went wild! — when he also won the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for his “substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children.” We are thrilled to talk to Pinkney about his life’s work.

1. Congratulations on winning an unprecedented two lifetime achievement awards this year at ALA! What do each of these awards mean to you?

JP: I am deeply honored by these awards, and if I were to give myself a pat on the back, it would be for sticking with bookmaking as my primary way of expressing myself over the span of fifty years. I’ve always felt that if I worked hard enough and continued to refine my craft, while staying curious about our times and our world, I just might have something to contribute. Receiving both the Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award suggests I have succeeded, at least in terms of my own goals, in my intent to make art that moves children. This “double high-five,” as I think of it, eggs me on while I’m in my studio, and acts as a green light to keep working at what I so love doing.

I want to thank the ALA for this recognition, and for the commendable work they do; above all, these awards demonstrate the librarians’ continued commitment to putting books in the hands of young people, which I believe is the most important thing. Those children are our future, after all.

2. You talked in your May/June 2015 Horn Book article about not having had a lot of books growing up. If you could choose one of your own books to give your younger self, which would it be?

JP: Black Cowboy, Wild Horses by Julius Lester.

3. What do you say to kids who think they “can’t do art”?

JP: I try not to respond with a pep talk, such as, “Everyone has talent, just try, you’ll see.” I skirt those kinds of answers. I never demonstrate how art should be made or what the outcome should look like. Instead, give kids the tools and the materials to make their own art. Have them experience the process.

I do think it’s important to expose kids to artists, though. Just recently, I visited the Museum of Modern Art and viewed the exhibition of Picasso’s sculptures, and I couldn’t help but think about what it would be like to have a room full of school children explore Picasso’s approach to making art. But I would also show them Calder, Frida Kahlo, Romare Bearden. I would give them as many examples as possible to drive home how many ways there are to make art. We live in a time when there is an abundance of ways we can express ourselves. I want kids to understand that making pictures is similar to making music; there are so many instruments and so many tunes that the possibilities for how you play are truly limitless.

4. We Need Diverse Books. How far do you think we’ve come?

JP: Not far enough. We are seeing more diverse books now, but I still think we all need to be more creative in engaging children who come from many different backgrounds — urban, rural, different cultures, so many ways of experiencing the world. How do we tell stories that honor and respect where people come from and still speak to what we all have in common, especially in the short text of a picture book? That’s our challenge. Though the blame cannot be placed entirely on publishers, I do think a more diverse pool of editors would go a long way toward broadening the perspective. Our role is to work together to create books that act as wide-open doors — books that allow all children to walk through and feel safe enough to stay.

5. You’re known as a lion in this field. Do you have any advice for the young cubs just coming up?

JP: Make it all about the work. Everything else will follow.

From the January 2016 special ALA Awards issue of The Horn Book Herald. Read Jerry Pinkney’s 2015 Horn Book Magazine article “Transformers: The Power of Storytelling.”

To commemorate Black History Month, we are highlighting a series of articles, speeches, and reviews from The Horn Book archive that are by and/or about African American authors, illustrators, and luminaries in the field — one a day through the month of February, with a roundup on Fridays. Click the tag HBBlackHistoryMonth17 and look for #HBBlackHistoryMonth17 on Facebook.com/TheHornBook and @HornBook. You can find more resources about social justice and activism at our Talking About Race and Making a Difference resource pages.

The Horn Book celebrates Black History Month

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