November 17, 2017

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No More “Yucky Spinach” | The Nonfiction of Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney

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“Most authors and illustrators never meet face-to-face, but the Pinkneys ‘…share the same house, the same kids, the same toothpaste…’” (New York Daily News, April 12, 2011). This creative team, with hobbies as diverse as singing, dancing, drumming, and drawing, has collaborated on numerous award-winning nonfiction titles documenting the lives of notable African Americans and the Civil Rights Movement. Both author and illustrator immerse themselves in each new project with passion and energy, from listening to jazz recordings to taking dance classes.

Hand in Hand“I am sick of nonfiction that is yucky spinach!” Andrea Davis Pinkney told her audience at the 2013 National Book Festival. Have no fear…the Pinkneys serve up works as tasty as homemade pie. In Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America (Disney/Jump at the Sun, 2012; Gr 5-8), the 2013 Coretta Scott King Award winner, each chapter offers a slice of a notable life. “These are the stories of ten bold men/who built a chain called hand in hand./Each a link in this mighty strand:/Reaching/Pulling/Believing/Achieving/Working toward freedom/Hand in hand.”

Each 20-30 page biography is introduced by a powerful, original poem and one of Brian Pinkney’s full-page ink-and-watercolor portraits. A timeline begins in 1731 with the birth of Benjamin Banneker and ends in 2009 when Barack Hussein Obama becomes the first black president. The portraits evolved from a series of sketches of traditional African masks. Classroom connections and activities abound: students may want to enact scenes from the the book or view African masks at a local museum or online. Offer them black crayon to outline their own masks, then watercolors to create striking crayon-resist replicas.

Martin & MahaliaIn Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Song (Little, Brown, 2013; Gr 2-4), children are invited to “Let the map lead the way./Let the dove fly ahead./On the path./To the dream./To the words./And the songs./Take the road. Come along./With Martin and Mahalia.” Another stirring picture book read-aloud, Martin and Mahalia tells the story of how a boy from Georgia who knew how to speak and a girl from Louisiana who knew how to sing grew up to inspire Americans, black and white, with their gifts and convictions. “Martin urged Mahalia to sing while he preached so that the movement could stay on course. AND, OH, DID SHE SING!”

From the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom they preached and sang to “LIFT their gospel gifts higher./GROW them bigger./SHOUT them louder./Make Americans even PROUDER.” Brian Pinkney’s fluid watercolor paintings of the subjects and their followers reflect the road to freedom with words, maps, arrows, and always the white dove to lead the way. References to Jim Crow, the bus boycott, and “I have a dream” speech make this title an ideal choice to celebrate  heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. Sing “We Shall Overcome” with Jackson, watch clips of King’s rousing historic speech, and ask students to create an annotated/illustrated civil rights map of the United States marking Atlanta, Topeka, Montgomery, Little Rick, Greensboro, Birmingham, Washington D.C., and Memphis—towns and cities mentioned in the book’s time line.

Boycott BluesBetween 2008 and 2010, the Pinkneys collaborated on Boycott Blues: How Rosa Parks Inspired a Nation (HarperCollins/Greenwillow, 2008; Gr 3-6), Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp Stride (Disney/Jump at the Sun, 2009; K-Gr 3), and Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down (Little, Brown, 2010; Gr 3-6), three powerful read-alouds perfect for Black History Month. The first title, told in the voice of an old hound dog singing the blues, introduces the Montgomery bus boycott. “It was December 1, 1955, when the blues came to call—the same day Jim Crow flew in waving his bony wings.”

Andrea Davis Pinkney’s poetic narrative teaches youngsters about the birth of the Civil Rights Movement in a fluid, compelling song of injustice, hard times, and perseverance. The vibrant scratchboard illustrations move across the spreads echoing the tireless movement of those boycotting—clapping in church; pounding the pavement in wind, rain, or heat; riding bicycles and scooters. “Now segregation was a loser’s croon. And child, child we rejoiced. Our low-down tune changed to a celebration song.” Cluster this title with Aaron Reynolds’s Back of the Bus (Philomel, 2009) or Nikki Giovanni’s Rosa (Holt, 2005).

Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp StrideThe second title, a Coretta Scott King and Jane Addams honor book, sings the life of Sojourner Truth. “In search of freedom, Belle ran. She fled like tomorrow wasn’t ever gonna come. She covered some ground, child. She got gone. She refused to stop until she saw hope.” Truth’s story is more than that of an enslaved woman finding freedom—she was also a strong advocate of women’s rights. “Sojourner put one big-black-beautiful foot in front of the other and she stomped on the floorboards of ignorance that were underneath. To her, the arguments made by the men were the beetles from her past. She couldn’t wait to stomp-stomp-stomp all over them.”

Share this title alongside Catherine Clinton’s When Harriet Met Sojourner (HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen, 2007) and Anne Rockwell’s Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth (Knopf, 2000) as a transition to women’s history month.

Sit-InWinner of the Jane Addams Book Award, Sit-In tells the story of the Greensboro Four with the conceit of a recipe: “Combine black with white to make sweet justice…integration was better than any chef’s special. Integration was finer than homemade cake. Integration was a recipe that would take time.” Throughout this rhythmic read-aloud is the simple refrain, “A doughnut and coffee, with cream on the side.”

After reading, celebrate the protesters’ quiet determination and heroic restraint with a class party, and serve doughnuts. Have Carole Boston Weatherford’s Freedom on the Menu (Dial, 2005) on hand to share and discuss; the subdued student protest in the face of the ugly, abusive responses it prompted is another title that will spark discussion.

“You ever hear of the jazz-playin’ man, the man with the cats who could swing with his band?” In the Caldecott Honor Book Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and his Orchestra (Hyperion, 1998; Gr 1-5), readers not only learn about the jazz great, but also about each member of the band. “Each instrument raised its own voice. One by one, each cat took the floor and wiped it clean with his own special way of playing.”

Duke EllingtonBrian Pinkney’s signature scratchboard illustrations capture the sounds and colors of the music. One of the artist’s favorite spreads depicts New York City’s A train coming out of a drum on “tracks” of musical notes. Pinkney, who plays drums himself, admits that when he gets to his studio, “I pull out my drumsticks and start playing…playing is the most important part of the creative process.”

“To the composer, the sounds of the musicians were like the colors of a paint box” (back book jacket). Ask students to color or paint while listening to some of Duke’s music—let the notes inspire their own colors and designs. Pair with Carole Boston Weatherford’s The Sound That Jazz Makes (Walker, 2000; Gr 2-6)) to provide students with a history of the music—from its roots in rhythmic African drumming to the banjos heard in the fields to the shouts and claps of gospel to the beat of hip-hop in the street.

Dear Benjamin BannekerDear Benjamin Banneker (HarcourtBrace,1994; Gr 2-5), shares the life and times of the first African American astronomer. Born a free man in Maryland in 1731, Banneker wondered as a child, “Why do the stars change their place in the sky from night to night? What makes the moon shine full, then, weeks later, disappear? How does the sun know to rise just before the day?”

The adult Banneker was a tobacco farmer by day, and by night, a self-taught astronomer. No one believed a black man could study the stars, let alone write an almanac, but he did. He was also bold enough to write to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson calling him a hypocrite for owning slaves after writing the historic words, “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence.

While the style is more conventional than Andrea Davis Pinkney’s later nonfiction, students studying astronomy, Colonial history, or African American history will find this well-researched book accessible and engaging. Brian Pinkney’s scratchboard paintings in oils are rich, luxurious representations of colonial life. Quill pen in hand, Banneker composed his letter by candlelight in his log cabin.

Pass around a current edition of The Farmer’s Almanac for youngsters to peruse, and ask them to study the night sky for a month as they keep an illustrated journal of their observations. Pair with Alice McGill’s Molly Bannaky (Houghton Mifflin,1999), a story about this pioneer of science’s grandmother.

Alvin AileyDedicated to “my husband and dance partner,” the Pinkneys’ first collaboration, Alvin Ailey (Hyperion, 1993; Gr 3-6) follows the evolution of one of the greatest African American dancers. Young Alvin first stomped his feet at the True Vine Baptist Church in Texas, but when he saw Katherine Dunham’s modern dance with its West Indian beat, he was hooked. At age 18 he began studying dance at the Lester Horton Dance Theater School in Los Angeles; “At first, Alvin kept time to Lester’s beat and followed Lester’s moves. Then Alvin’s own rhythm took over, and he started creating his own steps. Alvin’s tempo worked from his belly to his elbows, then oozed through his thighs and feet.”

At 27, Ailey moved to New York City where he studied ballet as well as modern dance with Martha Graham. He soon had his own company, which danced to the blues and gospel music. The Pinkneys interviewed numerous people who had known or danced with Ailey, including his mother, while gathering material for this book. They also took dance lessons in the Dunham technique as well as with one of the original Ailey dancers. School Library Journal wrote, “Brian Pinkney’s marvelously detailed scratchboard drawings are tinted with pastels to show the sweep and flow of dancers caught in the act of leaping, twirling, and soaring through the air.” Show students footage of Ailey, then play some Billie Holiday and encourage students to move to the music. Pair with Valerie Gladstone’s A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student (Holt, 2009), a photo-essay about Iman Bright, a 13-year-old African American dancer.

Classes nearing the end of their study of the Pinkneys may want to culminate the unit by researching a topic that inspires them and create their own accompanying scratchboard illustrations. (Scratch art black-coated boards are available from art stores and supply catalogs catering to schools.) After surfacing an image with white lines, children can add color. During an interview, Brian Pinkney once commented, “I make sure I’m always inspired.” Exposure to to beautifully written and illustrated books such as the Pinkneys’ will ensure a well of inspiration for our students.

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