Jerry Pinkney - Illustrator
Jerry Pinkney is a talented artist of many genres, but book illustrating is his favorite. He now has more than 75 children’s books under his belt, many of which have been honored by awards like the Caldecott Honors, Coretta Scott King Awards, and King Honors. Jerry grew up in a family of six children, and found an identity in art. Now, he often uses family and friends as models as he illustrates. His wife, Gloria Jean, works closely with him and wrote Back Home, which Jerry illustrated.
Jerry also contributed to The Art of Reading, an illustrated book in honor of RIF's 40th anniversary.
RIF: As a child, what was your favorite book?
Jerry Pinkney: It was the first book that I owned as a child, and I don’t mean as in bought, I mean owned as a way of relating to a story. It was the first story where I was drawn into the fact that Little Black Sambo was a black hero. It was a book that as a child, having the experience of seeing a child of color was pretty colorful. As a child of African descent, I was usually surrounded by characters who were white. Most spoke from a perspective of the dominant white culture. Little Black Sambo made my reading experience much richer and deeper.
RIF: What other books did you like as a kid?
JP: My mother read us Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales. She read the fables. I’m not quite sure if she read them or told them to us. One of the things that’s rich about the African-American culture is the tradition of oral storytelling. Many of the stories I remember were told to me. My mother had love for reading. She read from King James version of the Bible and Ralph Waldo Emerson. I always connected this oral experience of storytelling and the pleasure I saw in my mother’s face when I saw she was reading.
RIF: You struggled with dyslexia as a kid. Did that make reading hard? Was art easier?
JP: When I was growing up in school, they weren’t diagnosing learning disabilities as dyslexia. So I wasn’t really aware that I was dyslexic. I struggled and found reading and spelling very difficult. I always try to think back on that time and it was so clear that I was in trouble, but I never felt that I wasn’t bright enough to work my way around it. I don’t remember at all being called slow or not bright. There’s a part of my personality that decided that I wouldn’t let it get in my way of achieving.
By the way, my visual abilities were recognized quite early. That might have helped a great deal. I could do something that was unique. I was special in a certain kind of way.
RIF: What drew you to art?
JP: It was a passion and a way of expressing myself and keeping myself balanced. It was a private space for me, growing up in a small house with five siblings. I could find my own space by way of drawing. I could shut out the noise and energy.
RIF: What advice do you have for kids who want to be authors or illustrators?
JP: The key thing is to read, whether you want to be an author or illustrator. You have to look at things. As an artist, you interpret what you see, read, and hear. I present often to elementary schools, and I speak about the importance of reading and the importance to experience life. You draw from life, music, dance, and theatre. In order to be a writer or illustrator, you have to be a good listener and well rounded.
RIF: You’ve created a family of storytellers yourself, with your sons being an illustrator and a photographer, respectively. As a parent, did you read to your kids and tell them stories?
JP: I think that was probably Gloria’s role more often than mine. Gloria is a great storyteller, she’s an incredible reader. She devours books.
What we did, we had plenty of books at home. Gloria read, and I provided a platform for the visual experience. We always had a common room (never a TV), and we set up a workstation and materials. The children spent many hours there, expressing themselves. They had the freedom to choose which direction they wanted to go into. All that wraps into around reading. The more experiences you have, the more you want to read.
RIF: What's the most challenging book you've illustrated?
JP: The Old African, a book I did with Julius Lester [published in September '05]. It’s an illustrated novel for young adults, and it deals with people landing on St. Simon’s Island in Georgia, and slavery and the middle passage. Emotionally, that was the most difficult. It was more challenging than most books. Most often, my 32-40 page books takes 5-6 months. This book I worked on for two years.
RIF: What draws you to fairy tales, fables, and folklore?
JP: It gives me a chance to stretch my imagination. When you’re doing folk and fairy tales, you’re only limited by your own imagination. The ideas can be interpreted in different ways. That’s why they’ve been around for so long; they’re universal. I also love doing animals and the characters are often animals – there’s such a richness in personification.
Get in touch with Jerry!
c/o Penguin Young Readers Group
345 Hudson St.
New York, NY 10014