This is a guest piece written by Jill Lauren, author of That’s Like Me!
Jerry Pinkney has devoted much of his life to illustrating books for children. His award-winning picture books, such as Caldecott recipient The Lion & the Mouse, are beloved by generations of readers. For many readers, the fact that Jerry is also dyslexic makes his life story even more inspiring.
It’s been ten years since Jerry Pinkney wrote the captivating foreword to That’s Like Me! To celebrate, author Jill Lauren caught up with him for this interview. In it, young people ask Jerry questions about his art and motivations. His answers provide insights into his creativity and illuminate how his learning disability colors his artistic gifts.
Megan asked: What do you wish you knew when you first entered children’s publishing?
Jerry Pinkney: I entered because I was passionate about book making. I was a graphic design major in art school. But when I first started, book publishers didn’t really have a design department. The design of the book was up to the illustrator. So I was able to combine my two interests in illustrating books and contributing to the design. That’s how my first book, The Adventures of Spider (1964), was created.
Back then, my nine-to-five job was as a graphic design illustrator at Barker–Black Studio in Boston. This is how I supported my family. I worked on illustrating books after work. I had no understanding of the kind of rich life that children’s publishing would provide for me. I worked on books because I needed to do it—it made me feel good. I was contributing to something, I was exercising certain talents and gifts and passions that I had. It may be good that I didn’t know how the success of illustrating children’s books would change my life because it might have affected my passion.
But, mostly I wish that I had understood more the value of the process. And had enjoyed the many steps in creating the final art.
Emily asked: What was your favorite book as a child?
Jerry: Well, I didn’t read as a child. I did enjoy stories, and they were served up in two ways. One was that my mother was an amazing reader, a ferocious reader. So she read to us, usually from a book that was a collection of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, Aesop’s Fables, or Uncle Remus’s tales. You can see that reflected in the work I do. And because I didn’t read, the other way stories were served up was the oral tradition, which is a Southern tradition of storytelling by listening to stories. I want my work to show the kind of energy and emotional content that I enjoyed in hearing someone tell a story.
We didn’t have a television. We had one radio that was in my parents’ room, so storytelling was a way of expressing and filling that space.
As a kid growing up, the barbershop was also amazing. I didn’t want to go to get my hair cut, but I loved the kind of language and storytelling among the older folks. It also was a sort of social center, the barbershop, so people would just come and tell stories and talk and solve the problems of the world. I remember listening.
So, there was no one specific favorite book. My fondness for listening to the stories from Aesop’s Fables and Hans Christian Andersen does impact my art, though, which can be seen in The Lion & the Mouse, The Ugly Duckling, and John Henry, for example.
Elliott asked: You often work with watercolor. Have you found it to be an easier medium to work with?
Jerry: No, not at all. There is something about watercolor that I think matches my personality. As a person with a learning disability, watercolor fits a certain need. Because watercolor is challenging, this medium gives me the opportunity to focus. I have to be in the moment with the medium, so it’s important to me because it helps me to concentrate.
Watercolor is also a medium that has its own surprises, and I think for a creative person, surprise is a reward. In order to be successful at watercolor, one has to also honor the certain properties and challenges that are built into the watercolor medium itself. Watercolor is not a medium that one can easily control. There is movement in watercolor. I never consider reworking watercolor, so there is some letting it be and going with that as I create. I build the movement into the work, and that creates some tension. Now, it turns out that all of this tension, this process of working with watercolor, gives the viewer a bridge into the work itself. People say that my work has a sense of being alive, which comes from my relationship with watercolor.
Thank you, Jerry, for dozens of spectacular children’s works and for your personal stories. We can’t wait for the gift of your next book!
Learn more about the book That’s Like Me!: Stories about Amazing People with Learning Differences at this link.