Children’s book illustrator Jerry Pinkney, who died on Oct. 20 at the age of 81, was a cultural touchstone. Whether he was illustrating tales about Reverend Martin Luther King or Black cowboys, I don’t know if anyone has accomplished bringing Black history and culture—and Black beauty—to life through illustrations with the consistency and vigor that Pinkney did, and for as long he did.
He produced more than 100 books over a nearly six decade-long career. Among his most stunning works was The Lion & The Mouse, an adaptation of the Aesop fable which in 2010 won the Randolph Caldecott Medal for outstanding illustration. If you were ever a Black child, you know who Pinkney is. He is a household name.
Pinkney’s illustrations always had a certain kind of whimsy to me, which is so rare when it comes to the representation of Black people. I think our lives are often thought of as heavily laden, like ‘oh God the weight of the world is on our shoulders.’ Pinkney’s work is showing us even, in our toughest moments, with a certain element of light that is really difficult to pull off.
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In 1996, Pinkney and author Julius Lester recreated the story of Sambo, for example—to fix it, almost. (Putting those two literary giants in a room together makes the hair on my arms stand up.) They retold the story in such an innovative way, with a hero named Sam in a world where everyone is named Sam. When I look at his illustrations, I don’t feel the weight of the history of Sambo. I know it’s there, but it doesn’t feel like that. It feels lighter.
Pinkney asked me once if I could come into his studio. That’s like Jay Z asking you to come by Roc Nation! His spirit and personality were just like his work. He was sweet and a family man. It always felt like he knew that he had the life of dreams—there wasn’t anything extra there.
He has surely inspired and spawned hundreds of Black artists. We talk about ‘legacy’ so cavalierly these days, but I think we have to acknowledge that Jerry Pinkney will go down as a legend. The thing about Black illustrations in children’s books is that they create a palette for children; the first art they see is in those books. They create taste.
Reynolds is an award-winning author and the current Library of Congress National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.
—As told to Sanya Mansoor
This appears in the November 08, 2021 issue of TIME.
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