On October 20th, 2021, the world lost a fantastic children’s author & illustrator. Jerry Pinkney was born in Philadelphia in 1939, the middle child out of five. Dyslexia plagued him in school, so he found drawing to be a comforting escape from the confusion of reading. As a teen, he continued to hone his artistic skills while working other jobs and eventually caught the eye of cartoonist John Liney who mentored Pinkney. After art school and marriage, Pinkney got a job making art for greeting cards. In 1960, the young artist illustrated his first children’s book, retelling the African Anansi stories. In 1980, he won his first award for children’s book illustration, and by 2010 Pinkney won his first and only Caldecott Medal for The Lion and The Mouse.
Pinkney’s art style doesn’t immediately look like the simpler illustration you see in most children’s books. As he experimented and developed his style, the artist settled on bold watercolors as his medium but included such intricate detail, something we don’t often associate with the more ethereal painting style. The majority of Pinkney’s subjects in his contemporary work were animals. He would often pose them like humans and include accurate clothing for the type of story he was illustrating. Much of his career in the 2000s and 2010s was retelling classic fairy tales and Aesop’s fables. The result are pages that could easily be enlarged as prints, framed, and placed in art galleries. Pinkney didn’t just illustrate children’s books; he made them into extraordinary art pieces.
The Lion and the Mouse (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
For ages: 4-8
I would be remiss in not talking about Pinkney’s most acclaimed book, winner of the 2010 Caldecott Medal, The Lion and The Mouse. Pinkney chose to be the “writer” of the text but made it wordless. That doesn’t mean he isn’t storytelling, as it is evident in the narrative being woven from page to page. While wordless texts may not satisfy the numerous English Language Arts standards on the surface, I believe they provide opportunities for writing and literacy through illustration. A book like this is the kind that helps children fall in love with the form. There is no pressure to decode complicated multisyllabic words or read with correct fluency. This is a book about the joys of Story, how we can learn from a book just through images and our imaginations. Pinkney plays with perspective so skillfully, placing the reader in both the point of view of the mighty lion and the minuscule mouse’s viewpoint, letting readers see how their views of the world change because of their sizes.
The Three Billy Goats Gruff (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
For ages: 5-9
I’ve always felt this fairy tale was one of the more underrated and is a classic in the right hands. Pinkney not only delivers on the art but also the writing, presenting a new conclusion to the story. Each goat is made to look distinctly different from the next, with the littlest goat wearing stubby horns and squeezing through the bridge gate. On the other hand, the largest goat sports longer horns and crashes through the gate, showcasing the diversity in power these animals have. The troll is shown in classic presentation with their descriptions in the original Norwegian myths. And it’s the troll where the story goes in a direction you might not expect, delivering an ending with more empathy than we usually see in retellings.
The Little Red Hen (Dial Books)
For ages: 5-9
The Little Red Hen is another folktale we don’t see much love for though it has been retold many times. Pinkney’s text doesn’t diverge too far from the structure we know, but he changes things up in the details and the cast. We get four farm animals unwilling to help the hard-working Hen: a dog, pig, rat, and goat, each distinctly illustrated in paintings and words. This is also one of the only books where Pinkney paints himself into the story. You can catch him as the kindly miller who helps Hen grind the wheat into flour and even provides her with a complimentary jar of berry jam. The text here is quite lengthy, especially compared to something like The Lion and The Mouse. That text provides very colorful commentary on the events of a story that students may already be familiar with. This book could serve as a great model for Voice in writing to help students struggling with that skill.