Jerry Pinkney and the Power of Story: Profile of 2016 Wilder & CSK–Virginia Hamiliton Award Winner Jerry Pinkney

Photo: Robyn Pforr Ryan. Jerry Pinkney, winner of the 2016 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award and the 2016 Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement. Photo: Robyn Pforr Ryan.

The power of story takes on new and exciting meaning when applied to the work of Jerry Pinkney. His choice of tales, his selection of words, the artistry of his pictures, and the way he brings these aspects together give power to the story. In exquisite and relevant ways, Jerry conveys a richness that lingers in the mind long after the book is closed. Being named the recipient of the 2016 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, given for a body of work, couldn’t be more deserved. And, matching that honor, Jerry has also received the 2016 Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Jerry’s innate understanding of the importance of story in word and image permeates his work, whether he’s creating an original picture book, illustrating a folktale or fairy tale, or presenting a biography, historical retelling, or contemporary story. Regardless of the genre, his characters ring with truth, his line work demonstrates strength, his carefully chosen colors brighten the tale, and his thoughtful use of the page showcases his understanding of design. His placement of characters and their movements; his use of dialogue; his attention to the gutter; and the resulting smooth flow of story make his books a joy to read. Jerry’s distinctive voice echoes through the pages whether he is illustrating someone else’s words or his own, retelling an old tale or imagining a new one.

pinkney_lionThe artist’s versatility is certainly in evidence in The Lion & the Mouse, the 2010 Caldecott Medal winner. His empathy with the animal world can be noted in a number of his earlier books (the Uncle Remus tales in particular). Jerry chose to place this old Aesop’s fable in a distinctive African setting — the Serengeti Plain — and the animal-filled landscapes are rich with gold tones, mixed shades of greens, and layers of browns, lending authenticity to the book’s locale. The front dust jacket, without title or artist’s name, is sumptuous: the lion’s ruffled fur encompasses his large head, completely filling the page, with only a quizzical look in his eyes to betray his vulnerability. On the back cover a small mouse awaits: an uneasy balance of size and power. Or is it? The lion’s struggle and his dependence on the mouse’s ability and willingness to release the lion from his capture are what give power to the tale.

pinkney_back home 2Jerry’s human characters are also vibrantly portrayed throughout his body of work, through gesture and action as well as through colors and patterns that often harmoniously blend and contrast. In Back Home and The Sunday Outing, both written by his wife Gloria Jean Pinkney, the buttery background hues and comfortable multi-patterned fabrics capture a particular moment in time, wrapped in a family’s warmth and closeness.

Mirandy’s ongoing determination to outwit Brother Wind’s high jinks is at the center of Patricia C. McKissack’s rollicking Mirandy and Brother Wind, one of Pinkney’s five Caldecott Honor books, awarded in 1989 (also: Noah’s Ark in 2003, The Ugly Duckling in 2000, John Henry in 1995, and The Talking Eggs in 1990). In a clever visual maneuver, Jerry shrouds Brother Wind in limpid shades of blue that help readers “see” this invisible character while providing contrast to Mirandy’s colorful, free-flowing wardrobe.

Jerry also delights in adding items for children to discover within the picture: in The Little Red Hen, for example, it’s the altering expressions on the sun’s face; in The Grasshopper & the Ants, different kinds of greenery form the title-page letters; in Little Red Riding Hood, an unusual wintry setting provides background, and a wall portrait humorously changes with the action; and in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling, the jacket features an amusing, just-hatched, surprised-looking baby bird sporting an eggshell for a hat.

All-important in an effective story is a lure to motivate readers to turn the page — a factor ever-evident in Jerry’s books. He invites this exploration, using words and pictures with just the right amount of information to pull readers along. One of Jerry’s goals, and highly successful efforts, has been to bring both contemporary and historic African American stories to children and to forefront contemporary African American children in tales both new and old. He has done so with impressive illustrations for The Little Match Girl, Little Red Riding Hood, and The Patchwork Quilt, in which he casts the heroines as African American.

pinkney_lester Jerry with friend and colleague Julius Lester. Photo: Seth Kaye.

Jerry and Julius Lester have been friends and colleagues for years. In 1987, their book The Tales of Uncle Remus was published, and that same year they teamed up to produce the Caldecott Honor book John Henry — both publishing landmarks. Placed large on the book’s cover, John Henry is pictured as rugged, confident, and a bit defiant. His battle to dig through the mountain faster than the railroad’s steam drill plays out strongly while the final portrayal of the folk hero, with his back to the page, arms raised, hammers aloft, and looking toward a cheering crowd, validates Jerry’s belief in the power of story.

For Lester’s The Old African, Jerry again chose a strong, richly applied palette. The dust jacket, for example, features an African man, standing with his back to the viewer in deep red-colored water to his waist, his hands clenched, his sinewy body focused on oncoming slave ships. The old legend that Lester chose to retell is influenced by magical realism, portraying a man who led hundreds of slaves through deep water, taking them back home to Africa.

* * *

Books such as these were often at the heart of conversations Jerry and I shared through the years whenever our paths crossed at various library and reading conferences. I attended as editor of children’s book reviews at Booklist and later of Book Links, Jerry as speaker or panelist. We often made time to exchange opinions and thoughts about the latest book releases and illustration trends. One year, after appearing on a panel at the Art Institute of Chicago, we decided to have dinner together, and asked his wife, Gloria Jean, and my husband, Don, to join us. All went as planned until the drive from our suburban home during a heavy rainstorm found my husband and me immersed in one of Chicago’s traffic-and-water-filled highways. Fearing we would be hours late, with the Pinkneys left stranded without dinner companions, I called the restaurant, only to discover that when we did arrive, Jerry and Gloria Jean’s gregarious personalities had generated conversation about our dilemma among fellow diners. We joined in, and our much-anticipated dinner became a much-remembered occasion.

Another memorable rendezvous occurred at Milwaukee’s Marquette University, where, after retiring from Book Links, I had accepted a half-time position teaching in the College of Education. The education majors did their student teaching in the city’s lower-income neighborhoods, where books at home might be few and far between. I decided to begin a Young Reader’s Festival, inviting authors and illustrators to come to Marquette, allowing children to see and talk to the people behind the books. One year, I invited Jerry and Gloria Jean to be our featured guests. Following his talk, Jerry asked Gloria Jean to read The Sunday Outing aloud to the children. Then, dropping to the floor in front of her, Jerry turned and with a wave of his arm invited the children to join him. In a swarm, they rushed forward until I feared he would be knocked over. But no worries: he welcomed everyone, quieted them down, and we all listened to Gloria Jean’s story. A wonderful moment.

Jerry’s talent has flowed into places outside the field. He was asked to design and illustrate the first nine stamps in the Black Heritage set for the U.S. Postal Service; National Geographic called upon him to create illustrations for a 1984 article on the Underground Railroad, including one featured on the magazine’s cover; and an RCA record album cover displays his innovative image of the composer Gustav Mahler.

lester_old africanThe joy in Jerry’s work, his dedication to the field of children’s literature, and his mentoring to beginning illustrators make him an ideal recipient of both the Wilder and Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton awards — in the same year! And one must also consider his distinguished ability as a watercolorist. To look at a shelf of Jerry’s fine craftsmanship is to marvel at his pencil and watercolor images. It would be difficult to accomplish at any level, but maintaining this artistry through thirty-two pages in book after book after book is pure talent. Jerry Pinkney is the power of story, personified.

Jerry Pinkney is the winner of the 2016 Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award and the 2016 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal. His acceptance speech was delivered at the annual conference of the American Library Association Conference in Orlando, Florida, on June 26, 2016. From the July/August 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2016. For more on Jerry Pinkney, read these Horn Book articles by and about him.

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 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




Barbara Elleman
Barbara Elleman
Barbara Elleman, former editor of Booklist's children's section and founding editor of Book Links, is the author of Tomie dePaola, His Art & His Stories and of Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art. She currently serves as an advisor to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst.

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