The Pleasures of Picture Books
The artist Jerry Pinkney, whose work I’ve admired for more than half a century, illustrated over a hundred books, mostly large-format, beautifully printed picture-books for youngsters. Over the years, I’ve bought, for deserving children, a small stack of these very thin books, but I’ve bought none for myself. I now have a basket-ball team’s worth of grand-nieces and -nephews, so I’ve been indulging my fondness for giant Pinkney picture-books, because, after all, they’re presents for the kids, right? Until the beginning of the pandemic, I would go to the children’s section of the University of Washington Book Store and buy pretty much whatever Jerry Pinkney books they had. In isolation, I started buying the books online, at first delivering them in person, and then, due to the onset of virus variants, holding them for later delivery. They’re big, beautiful books, and of course I couldn’t resist taking a little read. What harm could that do? Eye-tracks are invisible, I thought.
Well, reader, it was a mistake. I’ve had a hard time giving these books up. I did give my six-year-old niece Jerry Pinkney’s recent retelling of The Little Mermaid, in which the mermaid child befriends a human girl and pines not for a handsome prince. But I had also bought, as a companion volume, Strange Animals of the Sea, a pop-up book that Mr. Pinkney did in 1987, the heyday of pop-ups. The book is no longer in print, so it’s used. (All the pop-ups work!) I am sorry to tell you that I have delayed giving my niece that book, telling myself that pop-ups are fragile, is she old enough, blah, blah, blah. Reader, wtf? Pop-ups are the most glorious kids’ books in the world, and this Pinkney pop-up book is ideal for a six-year-old. This could be the book that inspires her to become an oceanographer like her grandfather. In fifteen-twenty years, she could be the woman who saves the oceans.
Okay, reader, you’ve convinced me. I must give this funny, intelligent, careful child that book. I will order another copy of Strange Animals of the Sea for myself. (PS: I have just done so.)
One of the hallmarks of Mr. Pinkney’s work is the way color dominates. He uses watercolor, which you might think of as a meepish medium, all washes and seascapes. Not in Jerry Pinkney’s hands. He builds up layers of color to convey depth and texture, and to place fine details in art that can be startlingly realistic. (Moray eels! Octopuses! Huge, open-mouthed goosefish!) The most wonderful thing about watercolor, of course, is its transparency, its ability to allow light to hit the bright white paper underneath the paint and bounce back out. If the pigment is thinly laid, this can light up the colors like gemstones. In addition, watercolor has the ability, when allowed to flow at its own direction, to offer the artist serendipity and inspiration. Jerry Pinkney has worked in watercolor all his professional life: he understands it so well, and deploys it so creatively, that much of his work just fills me with awe.
Mr. Pinkney’s métier is fine traditional portraiture of people, animals, and animal-people, in detailed settings, in pencil and watercolor. He blocks out the overall design in pencil, and uses pencil or graphite to delineate details that express character and humor. The people and animals he draws are surprisingly real individuals, because he uses live models to set up the scenes. The illustrations often include details that enhance or expand the story, and they reward the reader who spends time exploring them.
My favorite Jerry Pinkney work is a set of four books, The Tales of Uncle Remus, retold by the estimable Julius Lester in a conversational voice much one like he’d use telling stories to his grandchildren––say, about the time Br’er Rabbit got caught in a snare trap.
“Good morning, Br’er Bear,” he sang out, merry as Santa Claus.
Br’er Bear looked all around.
Br’er Bear looked up and saw Br’er Rabbit hanging upside down. “Br’er Rabbit. How you do this morning?”
“Just fine, Br’er Bear. Couldn’t be better.”
“Don’t look like it to me. What you doing up there?”
“Making a dollar a minute,” said Br’er Rabbit.
Mr. Lester’s lively retelling releases the stories from the clutch of Disney and the condescension of dialect spelling. These tales were created by Black storytellers to amuse Black people, and the drawings reflect the lives of country people in wonderfully surrealistic ways: Farmer Rabbit and his wife milking a cow, for instance, or Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox, fully dressed, walking upright past a small scampering rabbit chased by an appropriately sized fox. Pinkney draws Br’er Rabbit and his friends as actual animals, not cartoons, and dresses them in realistic period dress, wearing vests and trousers, skirts and sweaters, kerchiefs and beat-up hats, clothing appropriate to the time and place and people the stories came from. Pinkney himself posed for photos wearing period costume, then drew illustrations from the photos. It would not be amiss to call the books profusely illustrated, with three complex full-color spreads and dozens of black and white pencil drawings in each volume. The dust jackets are wrap-around, full-color works of art: they would make wonderful murals. Ideally, this series should have been published in the same format as the picture books, instead of as a small trade hardcover. That would make a nice project for a billionaire who loves fantasy….
For the first half of his career, Mr. Pinkney illustrated stories that someone else was telling. Somewhere in the 1990s, though, he started telling the stories himself in his books, using few words and conveying the story almost entirely in pictures. This is very much like what he was already doing: he has often said that he saw his job as an illustrator to include adding something to the picture that wasn’t in the writing. In The Lion & the Mouse, a magnificent visual retelling of the Aesop fable about power and reciprocity, the art rules so completely that the book has dispensed with words entirely: even the dust jacket has no title or credit on the front, just on the spine. The lion, yellow and fierce, fully occupies his pages, and leafing through them is like walking in the African sun. The mouse is small and modest, but boldly seizes her share of the book, and her transition from victim to savior is accomplished without a word, just a squeak. This is a book that begs to be read out loud to a small child, and yet there are no words, just sounds. How can it be read? Just open it up: the book silently persuades you to tell the story yourself, in your own words, pointing out to your listeners all the wit in the illustrations––which, of course, is the most fun way to read books to kids. A few more of Mr. Pinkney’s books––The Grasshopper and the Ants, The Tortoise and the Hare, some of the fables––also have very little text, and detailed, hilarious illustrations. Puss in Boots has a few more words, but features the most adorable silver tabby shorthair wearing boots in all of children’s literature, and that’s a highly competitive genre niche.
Although much of Mr. Pinckney’s work is glorious picture-books for children, he has illustrated a few classic adult novels as well. In the Seventies and Eighties, he illustrated a series of reprints of modernist literary novels for the Franklin Library, including Updike’s Rabbit, Run, and Nabokov’s Lolita. (The drawings for Lolita are very charming Pinkney-esque pencil drawings with spot color, and perfectly SFW.) In 1991, he created ten delicate and evocative pencil-and-wash works for a new edition of Zora Neale Hurston’s masterwork Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Jerry Pinkney’s illustrations have commanded attention since the very first book he illustrated, The Adventures of Spider: West African Folktales, published in 1964, when he was just 25. A book for young children, this early work is design-driven, with swaths of bright color and bold detail, with the design itself carrying much of the emotional weight. He was awarded a Gold Medal at the 1964 Boston Art Directors Club, I believe for the Spider illustrations, which encouraged him to become a full-time illustrator, rather than a designer, which was potentially a far more lucrative career. His continued interest in design, as he developed his personal artistic style, means that his illustrations dominate the pages in a very sophisticated way: they are interesting on both the large scale of design and the more intimate scale of illustration. His work is readily recognizable as his, and I’ve often been surprised to find it in publications far outside children’s literature.
Re-reading Mr. Pinkney’s work has been a bit of a nostalgia trip for me, and maybe that’s why I’ve enjoyed revisiting it so much. He first came to my attention in the mid-1960s, when he was just starting to receive awards for his work. I was working part-time for my father in his Boston graphic design studio, which handled a lot of illustration then. It was a transitional time in commercial art: photography was displacing illustration, and it was getting harder for illustrators to make a living. Mr. Pinkney chose to work in traditional illustration at a time when the market for it was declining. Working in both commercial art and book illustration, he managed to make a living at it and support a growing family, and he continued to create both personal and artistic challenges for himself. He was a Black man, and he made a point of illustrating books of African tales or by African-American writers. He actively addressed Black issues and portrayed Black adults and children in much of his work, at a time when the white publishing industry considered that a very risky venture, especially in children’s books. There was a time, and it lasted into the twenty-first century, when it was a surprise to see Black characters in books telling European fairy tales. Inclusive kids’ books, like Sesame Street, featured animal characters because it was assumed (and probably a fact) that while readers were reluctant to buy kids’ books with Black protagonists, they were happy to buy books that featured talking animals. (And Mr. Pinkney, as I’ve said, can draw a very convincing community of talking animals.) Jerry Pinkney not only drew Little Red Riding Hood as a Black child, he marketed that book and many others to mainstream white audiences and became one of the most celebrated illustrators of children’s literature of the last fifty years. His most recent book, The Welcome Chair, was published in 2021, shortly before he passed away in October at the age of 81. There is a rewarding exhibit at the Normal Rockwell Museum, Jerry Pinkney: Imaginings, that offers a marvelous tour of his illustrations, including videos of Mr. Pinkney talking about his work and explaining his creative process.
I’m grateful to my nieces, and to their kids, for helping me stay in touch with Jerry Pinkney and his work over all these years, and to Ambling Along the Aqueduct for the chance to wallow in nostalgia and buy all these lovely books for myself. Yes, I’ve stopped hoarding the copies I bought for the kids. At least thirty of the hundred-plus titles Mr. Pinkney illustrated are still in print, and can be ordered from bookstores. More than fifty are available used or new, and you can find them in pretty much every public library. Check ’em out.
Note: The links I’ve provided above were chosen because they show off the books well and may allow you to explore the interiors. I’m not necessarily endorsing the sellers.
Eileen Gunn is the author of two story collections: Stable Strategies and Others (Tachyon Publications, 2004 and Hayakawa, 2007) and Questionable Practices (Small Beer Press, 2014). Her fiction has received the Nebula Award in the US and the Sense of Gender Award in Japan, and been nominated for the Hugo, Philip K. Dick, and World Fantasy awards and short-listed for the James Tiptree, Jr. award. Her non-fiction has appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Locus, Paradoxa, Science Fiction Eye, the New York Review of Science Fiction, and other magazines covering science fiction, technology, and culture. She is the author of The Difference Dictionary, a guide to and analysis of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s novel The Difference Engine. Gunn serves on the board of directors of the Locus Foundation, which publishes the genre newsmagazine Locus, and served for 22 years on the board of directors of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. After leaving the board, Gunn has served as instructor at Clarion West.