History, fables and folk stories

Artist: Jerry Pinkney's illustrations retell African-American history to a new generation of readers.

April 08, 2001|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Jerry Pinkney's ornate book illustrations reflect his vision of the world: a rainbow of races, generations and experiences from which he draws inspiration.

Since 1964, the award-winning illustrator has enchanted people in 13 countries and 10 languages with his lush watercolor-and-pencil depictions of fables and folk tales, forgotten histories and family memories.

Pinkney, 61, was the featured speaker for the Baltimore County Public Library's Great Book Celebration on Tuesday, packing a meeting room at the Randallstown library and keeping 100 children up past their bedtimes with a behind-the-scenes look at tales such as "The Ugly Duckling" and "Sam and the Tigers."

"He's a role model. He's done more than any one person to bring more African-Americans into children's literature," said Randallstown Librarian Jennie Boyd Bull.

Once wary of reading and writing because of his dyslexia, Pinkney has come full circle as a critically acclaimed children's book illustrator. He has won nearly every award in the field, including four Caldecott Honor medals and four Coretta Scott King Illustrator awards. In addition to illustrating children's books, he has designed Black Heritage stamps for the U.S. Postal Service and contributed to the design of the space shuttle Columbia.

A few hours before his presentation, the Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., resident took time at his Towson hotel to offer insights into a career that has yielded more than 100 books and a family that is involved in the children's book industry.

His wife, Gloria Jean, is an author, and two children are building reputations in the children's book industry.

His son Brian Pinkney is an illustrator whose most recent book, "In the Time of the Drums," a story about slavery, won the 2000 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award. Brian's wife and sometime-writing partner, Andrea Davis Pinkney, is the head editor of Jump at the Sun books.

And son Myles Pinkney is a photographer who recently collaborated with his wife, Sandra L. Pinkney, on "Shades of Black," which celebrates the diversity of African-American children.

The patriarch of the family also has been known to use his grandchildren as models for his books.

"I grew up in Germantown, Philadelphia. It was just one block, a dead-end street, all African-American," recalled Pinkney. "We were surrounded by an Italian community on one side, Jewish on the other. When I would walk to school, I would notice different aspects of different communities, and I was always curious about how other people lived."

As a result, he has been willing to explore other cultures, as he did with "Journeys with Elijah" in 1999. Several illustrations from that book were featured in the "Illustrators of Jewish Books for Children" exhibit at the Jewish Community Center in Park Heights in the fall.

He and frequent collaborator Julius Lester stirred controversy in 1996 with "Sam and the Tigers," a reinterpretation of "Little Black Sambo" that sought to reclaim a story considered offensive to many African-Americans. Other books, such as "Black Cowboy Wild Horses" and "Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman," were more warmly received for their creative retelling of African-American history.

"I feel I divert some of children's energy and attention from negative things, like the strong pull they have toward things that are flashy and move quickly, and the kinds of things they are bombarded by on television," he said. "In a sense, what we as book people provide is a form of entertainment - it comes fully loaded with the possibilities of stretching your imagination and also learning something."

Pinkney connected with the young people seated in front of him, telling them about his first job as a newsstand boy at age 11. It gave him time to draw, attracting the attention of a longtime customer who happened to be a professional artist.

"That was the point when the seed was planted, art as a career choice," Pinkney said.

The kids at the event appeared to be hooked as soon as he started clicking through his slide show, showing them the before and after shots of his work, sketches in progress and the black-and-white photos he uses in his research.

"I hope to be an illustrator," said Brandon Gunthrop, 13, who attended with his grandfather and four of his brothers. An eighth-grader at Hamilton Middle School, he has applied to the Baltimore School for the Arts. "I think Jerry Pinkney is great, especially `Sam and the Tigers,'" he said. "It's not the type of art I do - comics and cartoons - but he is inspirational."

Martinique Tillman, 8, spoke with Pinkney during the book-signing portion of the event and walked away impressed.

"I wonder how Mr. Pinkney draws so well, who taught him to draw," said Martinique. The Randallstown resident and Church Lane Elementary Tech second-grader likes to draw pictures of herself and her younger brother.

"When I saw his presentation, the way he made up stuff in his head, I thought, `He does what I do with pictures,'" said Frankie Alger, 7, a second-grader at Hillcrest Elementary in Baltimore County.

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