Famous children’s book illustrator Jerry Pinkney dies at 81

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Jerry Pinkney, whose evocative illustrations have been acclaimed for bringing more than 100 children’s books to life, many with black characters or images from black history and culture, died Wednesday in Sleepy Hollow, NY. He was 81 years old.

Her stepdaughter Andrea Davis Pinkney said her death at Phelps Hospital was caused by a heart attack. He lived nearby in Croton-on-Hudson, NY

Mr. Pinkney was one of the most revered illustrators of the genre. His accolades include the Randolph Caldecott Medal, awarded for the most distinguished American children’s picture book of the year; he received his in 2010 for “The Lion and the Mouse”, a treatment of Aesop’s fable. This book was representative of his commitment to reflecting black themes and culture in his work wherever possible: he made sure his richly detailed illustrations define this classic story in the Serengeti, with the main characters surrounded by others. African wild animals.

Mr. Pinkney, who has written his own texts at times and sometimes collaborated with writers, has specialized in adapting and updating these timeless tales, often in a way that makes them more diverse. Last year, he released a version of “The Little Mermaid” in which he made it a friendship story (rather than a starry-eyed love story), gave it a thought-provoking twist, and filled it out. his illustrations of characters with brown skin. The New York Times named it one of the best children’s picture books of the year.

Other books by him dealt directly with questions of race. In 1996, for example, he illustrated Alan Schroeder’s text for “Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman” (a woman for whom Mr. Pinkney created a United States Postal Service stamp in 1978).

“Pinkney’s striking watercolors allow the reader to experience the trying life of young Harriet with her,” writes Kay Bourne in The Bay State Banner of Massachusetts, “the harshness imposed upon her mitigated by the child’s singular mind. in the face of cruelty ”.

One of the most daring challenges faced by Mr. Pinkney was the rehabilitation of Sambo. As a child, he said, he was struck by “The Story of Little Black Sambo,” an early 19th century book about a boy beating tigers.

“It was the only book we had in our house in which a little black boy was portrayed as a hero,” he recalls in a 1996 interview with The Detroit Free Press.

But that book had fallen out of favor by the time he grew up, due to its cartoonish depictions of black figures and other race-insensitive elements. In 1996, Mr. Pinkney and Julius Lester, a writer with whom he collaborated on several books, took a fresh look at the tale.

“Sambo as a negative would always remain negative if it was not changed,” Pinkney told The Free Press. “As a visual person, I felt responsible for changing the image. Sambo’s story is, for me, a natural step in my process of dignity of African-American images. “

The resulting book, stripped of negative stereotypes, was “Sam and the Tigers”. Publisher’s Weekly called it “a hip, hilarious story that marries the essence of the original with an innovative take of its own.” A grandchild was Mr. Pinkney’s model for the main character.

Another project illustrated Barry Wittenstein’s text for the 2019 book “A Place to Land,” on the events and decisions that led up to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. This project , he wondered if King’s feelings still apply today. His answer, he told Booklist in 2019, was yes.

“Knowing that,” he said. “I understood that in my art, I had to reorient the tone of Dr King’s remarks to correspond to the challenges of this 21st century, to consider the speech” I have a dream “as a call to continue the struggle. . As marching orders.

Mr. Pinkney’s watercolors and other works were frequently exhibited in museums, including the Woodmere Art Museum in his native Philadelphia.

“Jerry used his talent as one of America’s great watercolorists to tell stories in pictures,” William R. Valerio, director and CEO of the museum, said via email, “in an effort to move the society to a better place “.

Jerry Pinkney was born in Philadelphia on December 22, 1939. His mother, Williemae, was a domestic worker and his father, James, was a house painter and also painted wallpaper; Jerry drew from a very young age and sometimes did so on the backs of discarded wallpaper samples.

When he was 12, he worked in a newsstand, drawing passers-by in times of inactivity. John Liney, the designer who drew the comic strip “Henry”, noticed his talent.

“He was a client and had a studio across the street,” Mr. Pinkney told the Philadelphia Tribune in 2013.

“What I loved to do, he did by vocation,” he said – a revelation for this budding artist.

Mr. Liney became one of the first mentors.

Mr. Pinkney graduated from the Commercial Art Course at Dobbins Vocational High School in Philadelphia, where he met Gloria Jean Maultsby. They married while graduating from what is now the Philadelphia University of the Arts, and they settled in Boston, where Mr. Pinkney worked as a graphic designer.

He illustrated his first book, “The Adventures of Spider: West African Folktales”, by Joyce Cooper Arkhurst, in 1964. But he continued to work in graphic design and advertising for a few years, including after the family moved. in the New York area. He said that receiving the prestigious Illustrator Award from the Coretta Scott King Book Awards in 1986 for “The Patchwork Quilt” greatly raised his profile.

“It helped a lot,” he told The Toledo Blade of Ohio in 2005. “It moved everything forward for me.”

The same organization awarded him a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016.

The youngest color illustrators were mentored and influenced by Mr. Pinkney, including Elbrite Brown, who has several books to her credit and teaches at Creative Arts High School in Camden, NJ. at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, he attended a lecture from him.

“This conference opened my eyes in many ways and allowed me to see things that I had never seen before,” he said via email. Mr. Pinkney’s books had a similar effect.

“Every time I opened one of his books, I could see faces like mine, my family, my community,” Mr. Brown said, “and, through his use of watercolors, illustrated with a sense of class and dignity. “

Andrea Spooner, vice president and editorial director of Little Brown Books for Young Readers, which has published various Pinkney titles, said: “It’s fair to say that today’s industry could be very different without his work. revolutionary.

Among Mr. Pinkney’s collaborators over the years was his wife, Gloria Pinkney. He illustrated his text for, among other books, “Going Home” (1992) and “Sunday Outing” (1994), stories about a black girl named Ernestine which draw on Ms. Pinkney’s southern roots.

Mrs. Pinkney survives him, along with a daughter, Troy Pinkney-Ragsdale; three sons, Brian, Scott and Myles; nine grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Illustrating the story, as with the King book, Mr Pinkney said he tries to keep in mind that his young readers are living in the present.

“I think it’s so important to find a way to meet them where they are,” he told Booklist in the 2019 interview. “The language needs to be accessible to young people and presented in a way so that they can find something that connects them to the content. This country has been shaped by struggle, but I think it’s important to make sure the conversation ends on an upbeat note. Children need to hope.

Dr Valerio, the director of the museum, remembers working on an exhibit with Mr Pinkney and being intrigued by the book he was working on at the time, “The Three Billy Goats Gruff”, which seemed to deviate from racial themes he had addressed. .

“He worked hard to tell these stories in a way that was both truthful and accessible to children and young people,” said Dr Valerio. “So my question was: Why ‘The Billy Goats Gruff’?

“Jerry’s response was that he always wanted to change the end of this story. In Jerry’s version, the troll and the goats find common ground and find out how to live together on the mountain. This optimistic vision of creating a better world has been the driving force behind everything Jerry has touched. “


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