In the Studio with Jerry Pinkney

Photo: Robyn Pforr Ryan.

With the Coretta Scott King Book Awards celebrating their fiftieth year, I was delighted to take a moment to talk about the CSK with Jerry Pinkney, my husband Brian’s dad, whom I admiringly call my “father-in-love.” (The term father-in-law is much too formal for such a down-to-earth guy.)

I love to visit Jerry in his artist’s studio in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. It’s a magical tapestry of sketches, artifacts, memorabilia, and process. I’ve always known that Jerry does great work, but it’s wonderful to witness how he does it — the creative ideas that bring forth such stunning illustrations, the challenges, breakthroughs, decisions, and inspirations that are poured into each and every brushstroke.

I was eager to spend time with Jerry to talk specifically about his Coretta Scott King Book Award–winning canon, and how the paintings in each of his award-winning books came to be. Before I went, I did a little research. I learned that Jerry is the recipient of ten CSK Illustrator awards and honors, as well as the Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement, bringing the grand total to eleven.

Reflecting on his CSK Award–winning titles, my father-in-love shared his quick-take anecdotes, offering an intriguing behind-the-book snapshot for each, with a special emphasis on what it took to breathe so much life and beauty into these books that continue to inspire so many. What follows are those snapshots, in Jerry’s words.

Count on Your Fingers African Style
written by Claudia Zaslavsky, 1981 CSK Illustrator Honor

Early on in my career, many of the titles I illustrated were fairy tales and folktales. This collaboration marked a shift in focus and allowed me to expand my art. My work aspires to change cultural perceptions — in this case, how one sees Africa and Africans. My pictures give context to the instructional text by showing vendors and customers interacting on market day, providing a window into contemporary African life.

The Patchwork Quilt
written by Valerie Flournoy, 1986 CSK Illustrator Award

When I first read this manuscript, I was taken with the originality of the text and the warmth of the characters’ relationships. It took some time to find the right approach to visually enlarge and enliven this close-knit intergenerational family. I chose a sketchlike watercolor style because I wanted my illustrations to give the story a sense of immediacy, as if the reader had been invited into Tanya’s home as an observer.

Half a Moon and One Whole Star
written by Crescent Dragonwagon, 1987 CSK Illustrator Award

This book provided a gateway to touch on my interests in nature and the countryside, as well as in urban life and music. I sought to give my art the same rhythmic and lively tone found in the poetic verse.

Mirandy and Brother Wind
written by Patricia C. McKissack, 1989 CSK Illustrator Award

It was the element of the fantastical that was so appealing to me in this narrative. At that time, it was rare to find children’s fantasy stories in which the central characters were African American, not to mention a story that touched on the Black legacy of the cakewalk. Look carefully at the character Brother Wind — who do you think modeled for him?

The Talking Eggs
written by Robert D. San Souci, 1990 CSK Illustrator Honor

This story has echoes of the classic European “Cinderella.” However, it also has roots in a Creole folktale, and Robert placed this variant in Louisiana to showcase that rich culture. In researching this project, I worked directly with the New Orleans Public Library, making sure that every aspect of the setting was authentic.

Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman
written by Alan Schroeder, 1997 CSK Illustrator Award

My challenge for this narrative was to find a visual approach that would speak to Harriet Tubman’s spirit and her determination to seek freedom from the bonds of slavery in the American South. My wife, Gloria Jean Pinkney, finds the models for my work, and the model who portrayed young Harriet had a certain light and will about her that helped me fill in the gaps between what we know about Minty’s growing-up years and what we can only surmise about her grit as a young person.

Goin’ Someplace Special
written by Patricia C. McKissack, 2002 CSK Illustrator Award

This book depicts an experience from Patricia’s own life growing up in the segregated South. However, I myself was born, raised, and educated in Philadelphia, and though the city was de facto segregated in the 1940s, there were no physical signs to confront. My challenge was to build the tension between the loving, protective nature of Patricia’s close-knit Black community and the ugly, hurtful, and toxic nature of segregation. In this story the will of the library wins, and the act of learning is itself subversive.

God Bless the Child
written by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog Jr., 2005 CSK Illustrator Honor

Illustrating the lyrics of a song is very much like creating art for poems, with the text acting as inspiration for the images. Here my art seeks to parallel the essence of this iconic song, and to visually speak to the experience of hundreds of Southern Black families who traveled North in the hope of finding a better life. My parents and grandparents were among those who pulled up stakes and became part of the Great Migration.

The Moon Over Star
written by Dianna Hutts Aston, 2009 CSK Illustrator Honor

It was not hard to connect with this narrative. After all, the moon landing was a very big deal. I was in awe of Mae Jemison, the first female African American astronaut, as her accomplishments made real to me the possibility of my granddaughters and great-granddaughters living out their dreams. I loved illustrating the children doing whatever they could to build their own spaceship; as kids, my friends and I always built the things we played with.

In Plain Sight
written by Richard Jackson, 2017 CSK Illustrator Honor

It is paramount for me to find something in the author’s text that mirrors my own experience. This connection lets me take ownership of visually interpreting the narrative and gives me fuel to spark my creative tendencies. The heart of this story is in the intergenerational bonds between a granddaughter and her grandfather, a love I can certainly understand. Gloria found a young girl and her father to act as models for Sophie and Grandpa, and it was evident how much they cared for each other. That made my role as illustrator all the more joyful.

Andrea Davis Pinkney is the author of numerous books for young people. Her Coretta Scott King Book Award–winning Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America (Jump at the Sun/Disney), illustrated by Brian Pinkney, is inspired by Jerry’s commitment to positive depictions of African Americans throughout history.

From the May/June 2019 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: CSK Book Awards at 50. Find more information about ordering copies of the special issue.

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