Award-Winning Illustrator Jerry Pinkney Remembered for His Kindness, Legacy of Work

Friends and colleagues remember Caldecott-winning illustrator Jerry Pinkney, who died this week at age 81.

For those in the children’s literature world, Wednesday was yet another day of mourning and remembrance. This time, the loss was Caldecott-winning illustrator Jerry Pinkney, who died Wednesday at age 81.

Jerry Pinkney Photo: Jacob Blickenstaff

On Facebook, Richard Michelson of R. Michelson Galleries broke the news with this post: I am in total shock to say that my dear friend Jerry Pinkney has passed away. … Jerry was not only the greatest illustrator of our time, but the nicest person I have ever met–and I said that throughout the many years of our friendship. ... Jerry was slated to be at R. Michelson Galleries on November 20th to kick off our Caldecott to Coretta Scott exhibition of Black Illustrators. It will now be an exhibition in his honor. Peace, my friend.”

It is yet another huge loss to the children's literature world. Pinkney was an industry giant—like so many of those who have gone before him in recent months, including Gary Paulsen, Eric Carle, Beverly Cleary, Floyd Cooper, Lois Ehlert, Eloise Greenfield, Norton Juster, and Kathleen Krull. Pinkney was the patriarch of a family of children’s literature creators, including wife Gloria Jean, son Brian, and daughter-in-law Andrea Davis Pinkney. His first book was The Adventures of Spider: West African Folk Tales, published in 1964. Over the next 50-plus years, he wrote or illustrated (or both) more than 100 children's titles and won numerous awards and honors for his work.

The 2010 Caldecott winner for The Lion and The Mouse, he also earned Pinkney won the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award five times, the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor four times, and was awarded the 2016 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for lifetime achievement (now known as the Children’s Literature Legacy Award) and the 2016 Coretta Scott King Virginia Hamilton Award for lifetime achievement. He illustrated the original iconic cover of Mildred Taylor’s Newbery Award-winner Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. He also illustrated the first eight Black History stamps for the US Postal Service and served on the US Stamp Advisory Committee. He was a member of the National Endowment for the Arts, the first children's book illustrator elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, was elected into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame, and was the most exhibited illustrator in American museums.

He most recently illustrated Rosemary Wells' The Welcome Chair, which will be released Nov. 2.

As people learned of his death, they marveled at his impact on children's literature and the world.

Carole Boston Weatherford tweeted, "When a lion runs and looks back, it's not that he is afraid, rather he is trying to see the distance he has covered—African Proverb. Jerry Pinkney covered a wide range, broke new ground & paved the way for BIPOC creators who followed. Rest in pictures, Lion."

In a Facebook post, creator Don Tate called Pinkney a "giant of a man" and "The GOAT."

Illustrator Shadra Strickland posted, "We are saying goodbye to another giant of kidlit. Jerry Pinkney was one of the artists who made me want to illustrate picture books. I've been blessed to have spent time with him over the years and will remember him for his amazing drawing, professionalism, and that delightful twinkle in his eye. R.I.P. Jerry. Thank you."

On Twitter, Jason Reynolds wrote, "Jerry Pinkney…a legend. Wow. This is a big one. Thanks for everything and I wish I would’ve made it to the studio. One can only dream of this kind of impact on the world. Rest well."

[Watch: Jerry Pinkney at SLJ Day of Dialog 2009]

Pinkney's resume was intimidating, catalog of work legendary, but his impact was felt well beyond the artistry on the pages.

Sheldon Folgeman Agency literary agent Amy Stern tweeted, “However many good things you hear about Jerry this week--and I'm sure there will be many--know that it's just scratching the surface. Jerry was a brilliant artist, but he was also one of the kindest people I've ever met."

The sentiment seemed to be the common thread of all those who remembered him. Graphic novel creator Jarrett J. Krosoczka described Pinkney as “Kindness personified.”

For SLJ's Picture Book Palooza, Pinkney recorded a session about his work and The Welcome Chair. He graciously detailed his process, showed some original sketches and final artwork. He discussed the frustration and difficulty of having to change his process because of the pandemic and explained why he wanted to illustrate Wells' immigrant story, which shared a common goal of every new project he accepted.

“You want to grow in terms of the subject and project, learning about things, learning about subjects, learning about places,” he said. “You can do two things with it: You can take it into the next project, and as you leave this space, I can take it into other spaces.”

[Read: A New Little Mermaid for Our Times, Courtesy of Jerry Pinkney]

Pinkney sought challenges, new stories, new media. During the pandemic, he picked up pastels and created portraits of his family members as he tried to work through the uncertainty and sadness. He sketched and challenged himself with a new medium to process that “gnawing feeling” in the pit of his stomach and to “make sense” of the people around him, which included his daughter Troy and great-granddaughter Zion who moved in with him and Gloria Jean for eight months.

His attitude toward life and supportive nature is reflected in his advice to children that publisher Little, Brown Books for Young Readers included in its official obituary.

“For the young person who is struggling in school, never forget there are many different ways to learn," he said. "Be curious. Do not be afraid to try. Do not be disappointed when making mistakes. You will discover your own unique way of understanding the things being taught. Learn from mistakes. Everything that happens to you will frame who you are, and who you will become. Your path to success will follow.”

Read Pinkney's full obituary from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers below.


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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (, @karayorio) is senior news editor at School Library Journal.

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