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Jerry Pinkney, children’s book illustrator who celebrated African American people and culture, dies at 81

Artist Jerry Pinkney poses with examples of his illustrations in 2016. (Dake Kang/AP)

Jerry Pinkney, an illustrator who brought new life to old fairy tales — and to children’s literature as a whole — with radiant picture books celebrating African American people and culture, died Oct. 20 at a hospital in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y. He was 81.

The cause was cardiac arrest, said his wife, Gloria Jean Pinkney.

Mr. Pinkney produced more than 100 children’s books over nearly 60 years, becoming one of the most decorated illustrators of his generation. His 2009 book “The Lion and the Mouse,” a wordless retelling of Aesop’s fable about a mighty creature’s unexpected reliance on a tiny one, received the Caldecott Medal honoring the year’s “most distinguished American picture book for children.” Five others by Mr. Pinkney were named Caldecott Honor books, a runner-up to the prize.

Mr. Pinkney’s work, considered broadly, fell into two sometimes overlapping categories. In the first, he reimagined familiar stories including the biblical account of Noah’s ark, the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the works of Rudyard Kipling in the vibrant watercolors that became his calling card.

In the other, Mr. Pinkney wielded his paintbrush to tell stories that had long been omitted from library bookshelves. These were stories about African American history — from the feats of Harriet Tubman to the oratory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — as well as scenes from everyday African American life that generations of Black children rarely if ever saw reflected in their picture books.

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Mr. Pinkney, who was African American and came of age in Philadelphia in the 1940s, was among those Black children who searched without success for people like them in his reading. He was chagrined to discover two decades later that his own children were still looking in vain.

As Mr. Pinkney began his career in the 1960s, and as the civil rights movement took hold, the publishing industry began to awaken to the need for children’s books representing African American perspectives and experiences.

“The Snowy Day” (1962) by Ezra Jack Keats, the Caldecott Medal-winning story of a boy named Peter and his adventures in an urban snowscape, is generally considered the first full-color mainstream picture book featuring a Black child. (Keats, the American-born son of Polish Jews, was White.)

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Mr. Pinkney’s first children’s book was “The Adventures of Spider: West African Folktales,” published in 1964, with text by Joyce Cooper Arkhurst. Its underlying themes — the magic of folklore and the value of Black stories — would remain constant throughout his career.

In Mr. Pinkney’s telling of “The Little Mermaid” (2020), the titular heroine seeks not the love of a land-dwelling prince but rather the friendship of a human girl who, like her, is Black. So, too, was the young lady in his “Little Red Riding Hood” (2007).

“My work is a personal testament to my own roots,” Mr. Pinkney once told the Philadelphia Tribune. “When I grew up, I heard these European fairy tales, but I didn’t see them as White, I saw them as African American.”

In “Black Cowboy, Wild Horses” (1998), he and Julius Lester, a frequent collaborator, introduced readers to Bob Lemmons, a real-life African American cowboy. They saw the book as an antidote to Hollywood imagery of the Wild West as a land of White heroes on horseback, when in fact, Mr. Pinkney noted, 1 in 3 cowboys were Black or Mexican.

One of his Caldecott Honor books, “John Henry” (1994), presented a rendering of the Black folk ballad about a heroic steel-driving railroad worker. Also working with Lester, Mr. Pinkney produced a multivolume collection of the tales of Uncle Remus and the picture book “Sam and the Tigers: A New Telling of ‘Little Black Sambo’ ” (1996). Those works, he said, were an effort to “reclaim” stories that historically had been used to racist effect.

“There is a conflict in me, but there is something overriding the mixed feeling,” the magazine Watercolor quoted him as saying. “I see storytelling itself as part of African American resistance.”

Mr. Pinkney worked primarily in watercolor and pencil, a combination that, in his hands, produced almost photographic realism while still allowing for imaginative flourishes. Reviewing “The Lion and the Mouse,” which he set in the African Serengeti, Kristi Jemtegaard wrote in The Washington Post that “readers unfamiliar with the tale will easily understand it from the carefully sequenced images; those who have already encountered it will experience it anew.”

“The final endpapers reveal two very different families,” she added, “rescued and rescuer, mighty and minuscule — out for an afternoon stroll together, the mouse babies tumbling along the lion’s back, the lion babies tumbling at his feet. Peaceful coexistence: at once benign and beautiful.”

The image embodied exactly what Mr. Pinkney said he sought to achieve in his work.

“What you find in my work is it being universal,” he told the Philadelphia Tribune. “I would love for people to see the universality of the stories.”

Jerry Pinkney, one of six children, was born in Philadelphia on Dec. 22, 1939. His father did painting and carpentry, among other occupations, and his mother cared for children.

Although he did not know it at the time, Mr. Pinkney was dyslexic and struggled to read. But he showed an early inclination toward art, which he said he used as an escape from the indignities of the prevailing racism of the time.

“With pencil and pad in hand, I could get lost,” he wrote in a 2016 essay for the radio station WHYY. “I brought to life what was inside my head, creating a world where I was not nervous, where there was no yelling, no loud music, no cursing neighbors, no dyslexia, no sweaty palms before reading in class, no Friday spelling tests, no bullying. . . . There were no police sirens in my illustrated world, either, or city curfews, or newspaper headlines exclaiming the lynching death of Emmett Till, just two years younger than me. Real life was scary, but in drawing, I felt safe.”

Mr. Pinkney studied at a vocational school and at what is now Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, shining shoes and selling newspapers to earn money for his supplies. He found a champion in cartoonist John Liney, who patronized the newsstand where he worked and showed Mr. Pinkney that artwork could provide a livelihood.

Mr. Pinkney illustrated greeting cards and textbooks and worked in advertising before pursuing book illustration full time.

In addition to his picture books, Mr. Pinkney provided the cover art for young-adult novels including “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” Mildred D. Taylor’s Newbery Medal-winning work about a Black family in Depression-era Mississippi, and “Nightjohn,” a novel about slavery in the American South by Gary Paulsen, the acclaimed young-adult novelist who died earlier this month.

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Mr. Pinkney also designed U.S. postage stamps, including a series celebrating figures in Black history, and served on the National Council on the Arts. His honors included the 2016 Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement, bestowed by the American Library Association.

Art and literature, for Mr. Pinkney, were family affairs. His wife of 61 years, of Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., is the author of several books for young readers. Their son Brian Pinkney, of Brooklyn, is a two-time Caldecott Honor recipient, and their son Myles Pinkney, of Highland Falls, N.Y., is a photographer.

Mr. Pinkney’s other survivors include a son, Scott Pinkney of Toronto; a daughter, Troy Bernardette Pinkney-Ragsdale of Manhattan; nine grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

The power of children’s literature, Mr. Pinkney once observed, was that it allowed the creator to change the way readers viewed the world. Those readers were not limited to children; they also included the parents, teachers, librarians and other grown-ups who read along with them.

In Aesop’s fable about the lion and the mouse, as many children know and many adults may have forgotten, the king of the jungle takes pity and lets a little mouse go free, only to find that the mouse and the mouse alone can help him when he is ensnared by a hunter.

“They become stand-ins for how we want to treat each other,” Mr. Pinkney said in an interview with the literacy project Reading Rockets. “So now, is this a message for children? Yes. Is this a message for adults? Yes.”

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