Obituary Note: Jerry Pinkney

Jerry Pinkney

Jerry Pinkney, the beloved children's book illustrator whose honors included a Caldecott Medal, five Coretta Scott King Awards and a lifetime achievement award from the Society of Illustrators, died yesterday from a heart attack, NPR reported. He was 81 years old.

Pinkney's first book, The Adventures of Spider: West African Folk Tales, was published in 1964. He went on to illustrate or create covers for more than 100 books over the course of his career. In the 1970s he illustrated The Planet of Junior Brown by Virginia Hamilton, which was a Newbery Honor Book, and he was the cover artist for Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor, which won the 1977 Newbery Medal.

His 2010 picture book, The Lion and the Mouse, was a Caldecott Medal winner, and his Coretta Scott King awards came in 1981, for Count on Your Fingers African Style (Claudia Zaslavsky); in 1990 for The Talking Eggs: A Folktale From the American South (Robert D. San Souci); in 2005 for God Bless the Child (Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog Jr.); in 2009 for The Moon over Star (Dianna Hutts Aston); and in 2017 for In Plain Sight (Richard Jackson).

He was a frequent collaborator with Julius Lester (John Henry and The Last Tales of Uncle Remus), as well as with his wife, the children's author Gloria Jean Pinkney (Back Home; The Sunday Outing). High school sweethearts, they were together for 64 years, and at the time of his death they were working on a memoir about his childhood struggles with a learning disability and his path to becoming an artist.

"Jerry was a devoted husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather whose impact influenced the creative endeavors of so many in our family," Gloria Jean Pinkney said.

He was a mentor to many artists and illustrators, including James Ransome (recipient of the Coretta Scott King Award for The Creation, written by James Weldon Johnson), and his son Brian Pinkney, who is also a children's book illustrator (winner of the Coretta Scott King Award for In the Time of the Drums, written by Kim L. Siegelson).

"Jerry's indefatigable attention to, and love of his craft was unmatched, and he never stopped asking for work to be pushed and challenged," said Megan Tingley, executive vice-president and publisher of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. "Everyone he worked with was touched by his infectious delight in the act of creation, which never waned, and his generous spirit of kindness and collaboration."

Andrea Spooner, v-p and editorial director at LBYR, said: "Jerry Pinkney was a true artistic legend of the children’s book industry for more than half a century, and it's fair to say the industry today might look very different without his groundbreaking work. As someone who worked with Jerry for more than 25 years, I can say that every interaction with him was a meaningful one. He brought great joy, excellence, genuine personal connection, and dignity into every aspect of his work and being, and we will all miss him dearly.”

Born in 1939, Pinkney grew up in an era when Black Americans were barred from many places, institutions and opportunities, even in parts of the country that were not segregated by law. In his home city of Philadelphia, Pinkney wrote in an essay for WHYY, "stores did not have any 'whites only' signs posted, but the 'open' sign on the door didn't always mean that my friends and I really could enter and be served. I never knew if that 'welcome' sign included my parents, uncles, aunts, and the black adults who were our neighbors, teachers, and pastors--those very individuals who tried their best to instill a sense of self worth in us."

Pinkney found an escape through art, buying art supplies with money he earned shining shoes, and he attended the Philadelphia College of Art (now named the University of the Arts). He later told the Society of Illustrators that he was a "storyteller at heart. There is something special about knowing that your stories can alter the way people see the world, and their place within it."

In lieu of flowers, please donate to the Dyslexia Foundation or the Teatown Lake Reservation Preserve and Education Center.

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