Jerry Pinkney’s Narrative Art

JERRY PINKNEY IS A NATIONAL TREASURE. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, his children’s book illustrations offer artists more food than the ritual tours of Chelsea. Implicit in the beauty of his work (sometimes commissioned on behalf of less distinguished texts) and the decency that informs it, is more culture than in whole square blocks of any art district you can name. Artists in search of a purpose should put down Art in America or Modern Painters and get their hands on whatever they can find illustrated by Pinkney. There is more to art and artmaking than “making it” in the New York art world.

Jerry Pinkney's Brer Rabbit


Cover of Brandywine Museum catalogue of Pinkney's art

Art and illustration are an indissoluble marriage. All art illustrates something, if only an artist’s sense of play or pretensions to philosophy. But for simplicity’s sake, consider illustration as art created for reproduction, mainly in books, advertisements and periodicals.

It is the storytelling role of illustration that most endears itself. Many of us came to books through pictures. The black and white line drawings of Black Beauty made the life of a Victorian carriage horse crucial to a kid in the Bronx. Before hand-held video games and the ubiquity of TV, books kept us company. And great illustrations helped make good readers. The sound of pages turning was the sound of a child’s own loneliness, transformed into something fertile and sustaining by stories and pictures.


Jerry Pinkney, "John Henry"


Today, children’s books are the last repository of great illustration. Earlier this year, Pinkney was honored—finally!—with the 2010 Caldecott Medal, the American Library Association’s highest award for illustration, for his wordless picture book The Lion and the Mouse. It tells Aesop’s tale of reciprocal kindness totally in images. Not a single word of text appears—unless you count mouse squeaks, owl hoots, and a great lion’s roar. Its silence stays true to the action of the story and its theme: acts of kindness are never in vain.

Pinkney’s own afterword is a gracious testament to the universality of the classics:

Of all Aesop’s fables, “The Lion and the Mouse” is one of my childhood favorites: the tale of a mouse who accidentally disturbs a lion from his rest, and the lion makes a life-changing decision to release his prey. When the mouse remembers her debt, she frees the lion from a poacher’s trap. For me, this story offers fare more than a simple moral of how the meek can trump the mighty.

. . . As a child I was inspired to see the majestic king of the jingle saved by the determination and hard work of a humble rodent; as an adult, I have come to appreciate how both animals are equally large at heart; the courageous mouse, and the lion who must rise above his beastly nature nature to set his small prey free.

My curiosity and reverence for animal life has grown over the years, and my concern for them grows in equal measure. It seemed fitting then, to stage this fable in the African Serengeti of Tanzania and Kenya with its wide horizon and abundant wildlife so awesome yet so fragile—not unlike the two sides of each of the heroes starring in this great tale for all times.

Jerry Pinkey's lion and the busy mouse


Last Thanksgiving, I bought a copy of The Lion and the Mouse as a present for children in the family. When time came to wrap it up and give it away, I kept it for myself. I could not bear to let go of it until I had another hard copy in hand.  This one is mine.

From November 13th, through May, 2011, fifty years of Jerry Pinkney’s art will be on view at the Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, MA. Read the extensive press release for a full roster of his awards, accolades and the range of his commissions.

Note: Little of Pinkney’s artistry is visible in these jpgs. They are too small and limited.  You can see the composition and the motif but not the extraordinary delicacy of his touch, his line, and the interweavings of color that make his luminous watercolors so sophisticated. Next time you are in Borders, look up his book.


© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey