This weekend my family and I were fortunate enough to attend Witness: The Art of Jerry Pinkney at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. It is the first major exhibition in the country that celebrates Pinkney’s 50-year career as an illustrator and artist. We got to see more than 140 of his beautiful watercolors, some from his children’s books, some from works that were commissioned by various clients (USPS, National Park Service, etc.). I got to attend a lecture, and my kids got to take a picture with him and have their personal favorites autographed. Pinkney’s artistic genius is indisputable, but I was touched by how gracious and humble he was about his achievements. He talked frankly about his struggle with dyslexia and how he overcame his reading challenges through art — as he does in this interview below:
Here’s the video that is shown at the exhibition:
It seems like everyone has their own favorite Jerry Pinkney book…or two or three. For me, it is nearly impossible to pick, but I was especially touched by The Patchwork Quilt (written by Valerie Flournoy) and Back Home (written by his wife Gloria Jean Pinkney) — the pictures and sentiments in those books remind me so much of the times I spent with my grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. The Lion and the Mouse, a wordless book, is even more fascinating now that I heard his explanation of the process by which it was created, down to how he and his editor/publisher decided on the ingenious cover. He felt, after the project was completed, that the work — not necessarily the artist — deserved some sort of recognition, and I wholeheartedly agree. My 9-year-old’s favorite was Sam and the Tigers: A Retelling of ‘Little Black Sambo’ (written by Julius Lester, with whom he worked on the Uncle Remus series), because she finds it hilarious that everyone’s named Sam and that the tigers melt into a pool of butter. My 7-year-old loves The Tortoise and the Hare, because she “really liked the moral.” The geek in me loves that the story consists of one sentence, “Slow and steady wins the race”, but it starts with just one word. As the race progresses, he restarts the phrase, adding words one at a time until the phrase is complete by the end of the book — reinforcing the idea that oftentimes the process is more important than the result, or the speed at which you achieve it. I hope it serves as an inspiration to students who might be struggling — whether it’s with reading or something else — that they can persevere through the difficulties as the tortoise has, as Jerry Pinkney has, and find victory at the end.
Other titles to consider for your own Jerry Pinkney collection:
The Ugly Duckling: Pinkney adapts the classic story by Hans Christian Andersen, about an ugly duckling that turns into a beautiful swan.
The Talking Eggs (written by Robert D. San Souci; illustrated by Jerry Pinkney): A folktale with Creole origins tells the story of kind-hearted Blanche, who warms up the heart of an old witch and alters her life, while her lazy sister and mother are punished for their greed.
Little Red Riding Hood: a retelling of the classic Grimm Brothers folktale in which a “sweet little girl”, on her way to deliver chicken soup and raisin muffins to her ailing grandmother, meets a sly, scheming wolf.
Puss in Boots: In this retelling of Charles Perrault’s folktale, a clever cat helps his poor master change his fortune by gaining the respect of a king, taking over a sorcerer’s castle, and winning the heart of a princess.
Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (written by Rudyard Kipling; illustrated by Jerry Pinkney): inspired by the Jungle Book, this book tells the story of Rikki, a courageous mongoose who risks his life to protect a boy and his parents from two evil cobras, Nag and Nagaina.
Black Cowboy, Wild Horses (written by Julius Lester; illustrated by Jerry Pinkney): Pinkney, in his High Museum lecture, talked about his love for old Westerns and his appreciation for horses, and how this was reflected in this book. In his research, he found that there were many cowboys of African American descent (as well as Hispanic), and this realization inspired this book, based on real-life accounts of Texas cowboy Bob Lemmons, a former slave turned expert tracker/herder of wild mustangs.
Sweethearts of Rhythm (written by Marilyn Nelson; illustrated by Jerry Pinkney): The story of an all-female jazz band, made up of interracial musicians, that toured the country during the 1940s. Pinkney talked about experimenting with collages and using mixed media for this project.
For more information on Jerry Pinkney and his works, visit his website.