Why Barry Wittenstein and Jerry Pinkney Want You To Read These Banned Books

Illustrious author Barry Wittenstein and award-winning illustrator Jerry Pinkney (A Place To Land), share the books that shaped them as readers and creators.  

Inspiration can originate from many places—a fleeting dream, an unexpected scene in a film, or the journey of a novel's main character. With their new book, A Place To Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation (Holiday House/Neal Porter Bks., Aug. 2019; Gr 2-5), Wittenstein and Pinkney captured how Martin Luther King Jr. crafted his famous "I Have a Dream Speech."

SLJ spoke to both creators about their reading lives and the books that shaped them as both readers and creatives.

Your favorite “banned book” and why:

Barry Wittenstein. Photo by author.

Barry Wittenstein: It’s difficult to choose just one. I’ll pick Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five about the firebombing of Dresden during World War II. It was a horrible event that Vonnegut couldn’t write about for some time, then only after he created a parallel universe starring Billy Pilgrim. I see that it was still banned somewhere in 2011. Ridiculous. Don’t ask me why.


Jerry Pinkney. Photo by Thomas Kristich.


Jerry Pinkney: The Giver by Lois Lowry. Provocative, teasing, and stretching one’s imagination. 


The first book you can remember you checked out from the library:

BW: Probably Dr. Seuss.

JP: As a child, I had much difficulty reading, so I didn’t. As an adult, I found out the cause of my reading challenges was dyslexia. It would not be until I attended high school when I checked out James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. And I haven’t stopped reading since.

One popular childhood book everyone loved but you hated or disliked:

JP: Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. As a young adult, I did not have the means to contextualize some of its verbiage.

A book strongly tied to a memory:

BW: My aunt Ruthie worked for Harper in the 1960s, and she sent me a copy of Charlotte’s Web. Ruth and her family lived in Manhattan, while I was stuck in the burbs of Long Island. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that she worked for a company that published the book! How cool was that? And especially in the 1960s, when women executives were few and far between. Ruthie could have been cast as Bella Abzug in a movie, and I’ll always remember her gift.

JP: Jazz by Toni Morrison.

A book typically marketed as an adult book that teenagers should read:

BW: Any and every book.

JP: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

One writer that you consistently turn to for inspiration:

BW: Well, Jonah Winter always amazes me and gets me out of my semi-writing rut. Notice I didn’t say “writer’s block,” which I don’t believe in. But that’s another topic for my next interview.... If there is a next interview!

JP: Toni Morrison.

Your favorite autobiography or biography:

BW: The Power Broker about Robert Moses by Robert Caro. As a native Long Islander, growing up, you couldn’t avoid the name. He built Jones Beach, Robert Moses State Park, and on and on. His influence impacted New York City and other cities
post–World War II. But who was this guy? Definitely com·pli·cat·ed. The Power Broker is a story of good and evil, of money, of greed, of racism, of urban America in the last century, the growth of suburbia, the policies that drove both the growth and decline of the American landscape. And Moses was at almost every plot point.

JP: A Hungry Heart: A Memoir by Gordon Parks.

The last nonfiction book you read that changed your perception (for better or for worse) of its subject:

BW: It’s not the last nonfiction book I’ve read—maybe it was the first–but nothing compares to Jim Bouton’s classic Ball Four. I’m a huge baseball fan, and it was the first book to rip the cover off the pristine image of Major League Baseball when it was published in the 1960s. And it essentially made Bouton a persona non grata in the game. It set the standard for behind-the-scenes looks at the carefully promoted image of professional athletes. Back in the day, it was a revelation. Today, maybe not so much. But the stories of Billy Martin and Mickey Mantle after hours are unforgettable. They did what?

JP: Lovesong by Julius Lester.

A book you love for the artwork/illustrations:

BW: You mean besides the artwork/illustrations that London Ladd, Chris Hsu, Keith Mallett, and Jerry Pinkney created for my own books? Lord! It’s like choosing ice cream flavors. One book that blew me out of the water when I first opened it was Raúl Colón’s Imagine. The paintings were jumping off the walls. Outstanding.

JP:  Rain Makes Applesauce by Julian Scheer and illustrated by Marvin Bileck.

A book you admired for its excellent display of research and incorporation of source materials:

BW: In kid’s literature, any book by Don Brown. Don wrote The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees, Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans, and The Great American Dust Bowl. His dedication to research and source materials is outstanding. Also, in adult lit, anything by Robert Caro, of course. One of my heroes.

JP: Dark Sky Rising by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

A work of historical fiction that made you pick up a nonfiction book to learn more about the real person or event:

BW: The first one that comes to mind is Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. I actually first saw the movie and then went back and read the book. Since my grandparents on both sides came to the United States in the early 1900s, the era has always interested me. The complicated history of America’s response to immigrants is still being played out today.

JP: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

Four books you’re currently reading and/or can’t wait to read and why:

1. Small in the City by Sydney Smith. I loved Town Is by the Sea, which he illustrated. Plus, I love the heartfelt concept of the kid addressing his lost pet.
2. Everything Trump Touches Dies by Rick Wilson. Wilson’s use of language is wonderfully colorful, a kind of intersection between intellectual and bawdy. George Will meets Charles Bukowski.
3. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: The Wild, Definitive Saga of Rock’s Greatest Supergroup by David Browne. I’ve developed a new fascination with CSN&Y. There’s a new documentary about David Crosby that has piqued my interest in them. They were great songwriters, and I want to understand their backstory better.
4. Night by Elie Wiesel. I read this many years ago, but it’s time to reread for many reasons. The current political climate, for one. The fact that it’s one of the most important books of the 20th century. It’s time.


1. The Color of Water by James McBride. Highly recommended.
2. Holy Envy by Barbara Brown Taylor. My interest in world religion.
3. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. Both my mother, father, and their families migrated from the South.
4. Evidence by Mary Oliver. I am always inspired and thrilled with her gifts of expressing the depth of beauty found in nature.

 A Place To Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation, was published August 27, 2019.

Click here to read SLJ's review.

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