In Memory: Jerry Pinkney

Photo credit: Alvin Trusty

By Stephani Martinell Eaton

Celebrated and legendary illustrator Jerry Pinkney died of a heart attack Oct. 20 at Phelps Hospital in Sleepy Hollow, New York. He was 81.

Obituary: Jerry Pinkney by Shannon Maughan from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Renowned children’s book illustrator Jerry Pinkney, winner of the Caldecott Medal and five Caldecott Honor citations, widely acclaimed for his picture books honoring his Black heritage as well as for his richly detailed works reimagining well-loved fairy and folktales died . . .”

Jerry Pinkney, Acclaimed Children’s Book Illustrator, Dies at 81 by Neil Genzlinger from The New York Times. Peek: “Mr. Pinkney . . . specialized in adapting such timeless tales, often in ways that made them more diverse. . . . Other books of his took on matters of race directly.”

Jerry Pinkney, Children’s Book Illustrator Who Celebrated African American People and Culture, Dies at 81 by Emily Langer from The Washington Post. Peek: “Mr. Pinkney wielded his paintbrush to tell stories that had long been omitted from library bookshelves . . . the feats of Harriet Tubman to the oratory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. . . scenes from everyday African American life that generations of Black children rarely . . . saw reflected in their picture books.”

Jerry Pinkney, the Beloved, Award-Winning Children’s Book Illustrator, Has Died at 81 by Neda Ulaby from NPR. Peek: “Over the course of a nearly six-decade long career, he left his mark on over a hundred books . . . Gen X readers will remember Pinkney’s covers for . . . Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry . . . And millennials will remember the numerous books by Julius Lester that he illustrated . . .”

‘A Cultural Touchstone.’ Author Jason Reynolds Remembers Iconic Illustrator Jerry Pinkney by Jason Reynolds from Time. Peek:

“I don’t know if anyone has accomplished bringing Black history and culture—and Black beauty—to life through illustrations with the consistency and vigor that Pinkney did, and for as long he did.”

In Appreciation of Jerry Pinkney (1939-2021) By Anne Holmes from The Library of Congress National Book Festival Blog. Peek: “Many of us at the Library grew up with his work, had the pleasure of meeting him at National Book Festival events, and have shared his work with our children.”

Pinkney was born on Dec. 22, 1939, in Philadelphia. He was the fourth of six children. While he struggled with dyslexia at a young age, he showed a promising talent in art and drawing. On his website he writes, “In all that time, the word Dyslexia was never used nor did anyone try to find out why it was so hard for me to read. Little was understood about learning disabilities or a child like me that was eager to learn, and was trying his best.” In a 2016 essay for WHYY radio, he said that drawing gave him a feeling of safety in the midst of the scariness of real life: “no police sirens in my illustrated world . . . or city curfews, or newspaper headlines exclaiming the lynching death of Emmett Till, just two years younger than me.”

When Pinkney was 12, he worked at a newsstand and would sketch people during the lulls in business. One of his customers, John Liney, the cartoonist of “Henry,” spotted Pinkney’s talent and later became a mentor.

Pinkney graduated in 1957 from the commercial art program at Dobbins Vocational High School. Afterward, he attended the Philadelphia Museum College of Art, what is now Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. To pay for his art supplies, he worked shining shoes and selling newspapers. In 1960, Pinkney married his longtime girlfriend, Gloria.

Pinkney worked in advertising and as a graphic arts designer. He took on illustration and design work in a move to Barker-Black Studio in the 1960s. Soon after he illustrated his first children’s book, The Adventures of Spider: West African Tales by Joyce Cooper (Little, Brown, 1964). He also illustrated textbooks. Eventually, Pinkney started his own firm after having started Kaleidoscope Studios with fellow artists. At Jerry Pinkney Studios he pursued illustration as well as advertising work. He published one or two books a year.

In all, Pinkney illustrated more than 100 titles working mostly in watercolor and pencils. His body of work celebrates African American culture whether by reimagining old folk and fairy tales or by directly depicting scenes from African American history and everyday life.

In both his retelling of Little Red Riding Hood (Little, Brown, 2007) and The Little Mermaid (2020), the protagonist is Black. His depiction of another of Hans Christian Andersen’s protagonists, The Little Match Girl (Phyllis Fogelman Books, 1999), is racially ambiguous, and he sets it in the tenements of the 1920s. He told the Philadelphia Tribune, “My work is a personal testament to my own roots . . .When I grew up, I heard these European fairy tales, but I didn’t see them as White, I saw them as African-American.”

His work on titles such as John Henry by Julius Lester (Dial, 1994), Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman by Alan Schroeder (Dial, 1996), and A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation by Barry Wittenstein (Holiday House, 2019) celebrate the culture and history of African American people. While titles such as Back Home written by his wife Gloria (Dial, 1992) and its prequel Sunday Outing (Dial, 1994) depict important moments of everyday life.

One of his biggest challenges was reimagining the tale of Sambo, a problematic story from the turn of the 19th century for its caricatured depictions of Black characters. Pinkney and Julius Lester, whom he frequently worked with, created Sam and the Tigers (Dial, 1996), stripping the story of its previous insensitivities.

Receiving the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for The Patchwork Quilt by Valerie Flournoy (Dial, 1985) garnered him attention and in his words, “pushing everything forward” for him.

His wordless picture book, The Lion and the Mouse (Little, Brown, 2009) won the Caledott Award. In his acceptance speech, he said, “I believe ultimately the enduring strength of this tale is in its moral: no act of kindness goes unrewarded. Even the strongest can sometimes use the help of the smallest. To me the story represents a world of neighbors helping neighbors, unity and harmony, interdependence.”

In addition to the Caldecott Award, he also received five Caldecott honors for his illustrations. Pinkney received the Children’s Literature Legacy Award in 2016 as well as Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Illustrators in 2006. In 2016, he received the Coretta Scott King Virginia Hamilton Award for lifetime achievement. He received six Coretta Scott King illustrator awards and one honor. President George W. Bush appointed him to serve on the National Council on the Arts in 2003. In 2012, he was the first children’s book illustrator elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Pinkney’s illustration work is the most exhibited in American museums. Some venues where his work has appeared are the Norman Rockwell Museum, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Schomberg Center, and The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. He also served on the U.S. Stamp Advisory Committee designing the first Black Heritage stamps.

Forthcoming from Simon and Schuster’s Paula Wiseman Books is The Welcome Chair by Rosemary Wells that Pinkney illustrated. He was also working on a picture book by Nikki Grimes, A Walk in the Woods (Holiday House), and his memoir with Gloria to be published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Social media tributes to Pinkney included: Carole Boston Weatherford, Kadir Nelson,  Eric Carle Museum, Mo Willems,  Jon Scieszka,  Sharon M. Draper, Nikki Grimes which includes her own tribute attached to the tweet.

Cynsational Notes

Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle grade fiction. She is represented by Lori Steel at Raven Quill Literary Agency. Connect with her at