Magazine Feature

True Pictures

The Pinkney's offer children new ways to see -- and read about -- themselves.

In their books for children, illustrator Jerry Pinkney and author Gloria Jean Pinkney portray the ordinary lives of African Americans in rich, authentic detail and highlight universal themes of home, family and the pursuit of dreams.

Jerry Pinkney's distinctive colored-pencil and watercolor illustrations for books such as Mirandy and Brother Wind, The Talking Eggs and Patchwork Quilt have earned him three Caldecott Honor medals and three Coretta Scott King awards. In collaboration with author Julius Lester, Pinkney has revived the legend of John Henry and other African American folk tales. In 1992, Jerry illustrated Gloria's first book, Back Home.

The Pinkneys have since completed another joint effort, The Sunday Outing, and are at work on a third. The Pinkneys' son, Brian, is also a well-known illustrator who has collaborated with his wife, author Andrea Davis Pinkney, to produce the children's books Alvin Ailey, Dear Benjamin Banneker and Seven Candles for Kwanzaa.

Jerry and Gloria Pinkney spoke with Teaching Tolerance Research Associate Gabrielle Lyon by telephone last fall from their home in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.


What were your experiences with books as children?

Gloria: I grew up as an only child in my great aunt's rooming house in Philadelphia. I learned how to read very early, and I always had lots of books. Books were my playmates. I used to daydream about the stories and imagine myself as the main character. I tended to like stories that were very dramatic, like Heidi. Other favorite books, which I read over and over again, were Little Women and The Secret Garden.

Jerry: My experience was quite the opposite. I don't recall many children's books at our house, nor being read to as a child. One of the first books I remember was Little Black Sambo. I think then I was drawn to the story because there was a black character. I still love that story but have great difficulty with the drawings and the names of the characters. I'm in the process of retelling it with [author] Julius Lester.


Many people think of Little Black Sambo as a book that demeans African Americans. How would you address that concern?

J: Well, it depends on which version you read. We recently visited a gallery I'm affiliated with in L.A. and saw about 16 or 18 versions of it -- there are more than 50 versions in all. They go from Helen Bannerman's original [1899] manuscript and drawings of Little Black Sambo as an Indian in India, through the 1920s and '30s, when they became extremely vicious. Some of these illustrations are really difficult to look at. Later on, in the '40s and '50s, publishers tried to clean it up a little bit, and one popular edition put the story back in India again and made the character cute and cuddly.

When you see the history of this book, you understand that it was frozen in a time when it was at its most negative point, so the images on most people's minds are those images. As a black artist, I feel a responsibility to change those stereotypes that were created by writers and artists in the past. One of the things that Julius and I are trying to do is thaw Little Black Sambo out with a new telling, bringing to it what was originally there -- which was a fantasy. It's a story about a hero who overcomes an obstacle. Certainly, it's steeped in controversy, but I never felt the rightness of this project until actually being able to hold these different versions in my hand.


Aside from Little Black Sambo and the Uncle Remus stories, the children's literature of your generation offered few characters of color. How did you respond, as children, to the mostly white heroes and heroines of the day?

G: When I read a story, if the story related to my life, I enjoyed it. I knew that Heidi was white, but all I cared about was that Heidi was a person. In my imagination, the heroine wasn't white -- she was me. Heidi was always looking for her grandfather, which was very important to me. I lost my mother when I was 8 years old, and I never really believed she was dead. I was always searching for her, and that's one of the things I related to in that story.

I never felt that the predominance of white characters in my books meant I couldn't become what I wanted to. Then, when I was a teenager, I saw my first all-black movie -- I believe it was "Porgy and Bess" -- and that opened my eyes completely. I became aware of my heritage. To see Porgy and Bess, to see black people on the screen who had dignity and pride -- it gave me more of a sense of self and an appreciation for my family.

J: I wanted to be Davy Crockett. I didn't know about Bob Lemmons or black cowboys. Then at a certain point I realized I couldn't be Davy Crockett -- Davy Crockett was white. As a young black child, to have a pull towards the main heroes of the West and know that you're not one of those heroes, that you can't be one of those heroes, has, I think, a negative effect. Knowing about Bob Lemmons or Nat Love would have made me better able to picture myself in that fantasy.

As a minority child growing up without minority heroes, I felt like an outsider because of the inability to place myself in fantasy or history -- you get all kinds of indirect messages that tell you there is a limit to your hopes and dreams. They come in all different forms -- literature, movies. I was always aware of being excluded. I remember feeling outside, or "not a part of." There were parts of my education that I felt were not relevant to me because I didn't see myself reflected.


What helped you reach past the stereotypes that surrounded you?

G: For me, it was a teacher who told me I could achieve anything with hard work -- and I believed her. I also found role models in my community -- my great aunt who raised me, and my minister at church. What's so great is that today all children can find role models in their home and in their community and also in their books -- as most white children have traditionally been able to do.

J: My mother never talked about the obstacles. She just said, "Whatever you make up your mind to do, you do."

In my senior year in high school I was studying art, and the city would hand out three art scholarships every year. At the end of the semester, my instructor gave out applications for the scholarship, but he gave them out to all the white students and didn't give any to the black students. The message was: "There's no need for you to go any further." I went downstairs and got applications and gave them to the black students. And as a result, two of us got scholarships.

I once told this story and someone asked me, "Well, why didn't that [teacher's action] stop you?" And I said, "I just didn't get it. I didn't believe that was true."


How do you think those early experiences influence the books you create today?

J: Always, Gloria and I are conscious of the need children have -- especially children of color -- to have their faces reflected in the literature they read. As African-American artists, that is a responsibility that is handed to us, that we have accepted. Yet I think our work should speak not only to African-American children, but to all children.

Our stories should be universal enough so that they touch all experiences, at the same time breathing into them what is different about the African-American culture. Attention has to be paid to color, but we're really trying to make people not see color but see character. So it's a real conflict. We're trying to stretch the imaginations of children and, at the same time, speak about the conditions of today.

G: For me, it's very important that all children be able to pick up a book and dream about their futures. The most wonderful thing about the stories we do is that they're universal; they're any child's story. I like for my stories to show how similar we all are. I think it's important to write about everyday life because, when children are unable to find themselves portrayed in their books, they may have a tendency to feel isolated, to feel that they are the only ones going through a difficult situation.

In our book Back Home, Ernestine and her family visit the burial place of Ernestine's grandmother, Zulah. When I included this in the story, I wasn't sure if it was fitting to have it there. After the book was published, I received a letter from a little boy telling me that was his favorite part of the story. He said he just wished Ernestine had spent more time there. I looked into it to find out why, and it was because he had just lost his grandmother.


Jerry, the themes you illustrate are universal, but you depict your characters as unique individuals, in highly realistic detail. How did you develop this style?

J: I got involved with textbooks a number of years ago when people became aware of representing all peoples. A simple way of doing this was to take a brown wash and place it over someone's face -- or a yellow wash, or whatever. What struck me at that time was how wrong that was -- that in doing so, we really weren't seeing that individual person.

I wanted black children to really begin to see themselves and all the different shades and shapes and sizes. That became a real important effort for me. I also wanted to show the beauty and the dignity in African-American people. In order to do that, realism was certainly the vehicle. That concern has grown, so that now I have done books that portray Native Americans as well as Latinos. I want to bring a sense that each person is a real person, for that viewer.


You are beginning to fill the need for African-American children's stories. What other gaps in children's literature would you like to see addressed?

G: I'm very concerned that children have books that talk about the family and family values. My great aunt raised me, and I really didn't have what I considered then to be a complete family. So I have created an extended family in my books: There is a great aunt, a mother and a father, and they have a close-knit neighborhood. These are all things that I feel are important for children.

J: There is a crying need for more books about Hispanic children -- rarely will you find literature dealing with Hispanic children of color. And even when we think about the subject matter of African Americans, we still find that there are certain areas that we haven't gone into. We don't find much in the area of myth in African- American literature; we don't find enough fantasy or humor in African-American literature for children. I think what we have to do -- and this extends into Asian or Latin American books, also -- is that when we introduce a literature into the mainstream, we do it in a complete way.


In addition to creating books, you two spend a lot of time visiting schools around the country. What messages are you bringing to young people?

J: For me, it's the ability to use your imagination, to transcend everyday life and see it as wonderful and magical. I would hope that all children find the magic in reading. I wake up with this wave of sadness over me at times, to see the conditions of the world today, and the racism --

G: -- and to see what the children are seeing on television and hearing on the radio. I happen to feel that books are a way to balance that. Perhaps there'll be a time when those things are erased, but right now they're here. I don't see it changing anytime soon, but we certainly can influence the books that children read. I would love for children, when they look at our books, to aspire to a quality of life. And I like to talk to children about not giving up their dreams and encourage them to take risks.


What difference can multicultural books make in the lives of children?

J: I grew up in an all-black neighborhood surrounded by an all-white neighborhood -- Jewish and Italian. It was a very interesting kind of spatial thing for me, because I had to walk into another community to go to school. I was always very interested in different people. My friends, growing up, were white as well as black.

Vinny was a very good friend of mine in junior high. We walked home together every day, but we made sure no one ever saw us. I think if the books at that time had been not only multicultural but multi-racial -- where people of different colors and different races got together naturally -- it would have impacted on some of the attitudes of my friends and Vinny's friends. You just didn't do that kind of thing.

One of my most popular books, Pretend You're a Cat, is a multicultural book. That book was inspired by our granddaughter's coming home from preschool and telling us she had a Buddha on top of her head instead of a ponytail. She had a friend at school from Pakistan who called her ponytail a Buddha. That's magical.

G: Our granddaughter's friends are every nationality. I don't think she sees any difference between herself and her friends. She has, right from the time she was little, been able to see herself in her books. And not only find herself, but find her friends. When I was little, I didn't see it, so I didn't expect it. It's a natural thing for her. She expects it.