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Jerry Pinkney, award-winning illustrator and Philly native, dies at 81

The children’s book illustrator was known for his richly textured images of Black life, fables and fairy tales.

This undated photo shows Jerry Pinkney.
This undated photo shows Jerry Pinkney.Read moreWoodmere Museum

Jerry Pinkney, a Philadelphia-born, prize-winning children’s book illustrator known for his richly textured images of Black life, fables and fairy tales in works ranging from The Lion and the Mouse to The Sunday Outing, has died.

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers announced that Mr. Pinkney died Wednesday at age 81 after a brief, non-COVID-related illness. Further details were not immediately available.

“Jerry was a devoted husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather whose impact influenced the creative endeavors of so many in our family,” his wife, the author Gloria Jean Pinkney, said in a statement.

Mr. Pinkney was a Germantown native who struggled with dyslexia but showed such talent for fine arts that he received a full scholarship from University of the Arts, then Philadelphia College of Art. He dropped out after 2 1/2 years to marry and start a family. He was soon hired by a greeting card company in Dedham, Mass., and went on to illustrate books for more than 50 years, beginning in 1964 with The Adventures of Spider: West African Folktales.

He worked mostly with watercolors, while also using pencils, colored pencils and ink.

His other credits include The Little Mermaid, John Henry, Black Cowboy and A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation. Valerie Flournoy, Virginia Hamilton and Julius Lester were among the writers he collaborated with.

In 2010, his wordless adaptation of the Aesop fable The Lion and the Mouse led to his receiving the Randolph Caldecott Medal for outstanding illustration. He was a five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for best work by a Black artist, served on the U.S. Stamp Advisory Committee and designed the first Black Heritage stamps, including those honoring the King, Harriet Tubman and Jackie Robinson.

In 2016, he received two lifetime achievement awards: the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award (since renamed the Children’s Literature Legacy Award) and the Coretta Scott King Virginia Hamilton Award. His work has been displayed at the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library and the Norman Rockwell Museum among other locations.

“Picture books would become my way to make my artistic gifts useful,” he said in his acceptance speech for the Hamilton award. "I thought of the book as a vessel that could hold my interests, passions, desires, and hopes for my children and their children. Between its covers, it would hold histories as well as futures, truths and flights of fancy, my mother’s smile and my father’s pride.

“Books also enlarged and enhanced my interest in Black culture, allowing me a way to express my artistic impulses while sharing the adventures of John Henry and the courage of Harriet Tubman.”

Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati, founder of the annual African American Children’s Book Fair in Philadelphia, said Mr. Pinkney, “was a perennial favorite” at the fair.

“He was a gentle giant. He was famous. He was a legend. He was an icon,” she said. “He had a name that resonated. Even if you didn’t know a lot about children’s books, you knew about that name.

He was always willing to sit down with younger artists who were new to the illustration field to offer advice about the industry, she said.

“He was secure in his profession, and he wasn’t afraid to share with the new kids on the block. He gave them advice that wasn’t available to Black illustrators. That’s rare in publishing, which is very competitive.”

When dealing with serious topics, Lloyd-Sgambati said, “He knew how to take people’s words and illustrate them to convey a message, and even if the message was intense, his brush strokes brought some beauty to that message.”

One of Mr. Pinkney’s most recent exhibitions in Philadelphia was at the Woodmere Museum in Chestnut Hill, where in 2019 he showed 60 years of his work.

William R. Valerio, director and CEO of the Woodmere Museum, described Mr. Pinkney as “one of the very greatest illustrators and watercolorists of American art. His ability to inspire young people was especially powerful and his generosity extraordinary. "

According to Little, Brown, Mr. Pinkney and his wife had been working on a memoir at the time of his death. Jerry Pinkney had teamed with Gloria Jean Pinkney, whom he had known since high school, on The Sunday Outing and Back Home, both based on Gloria’s childhood.

He is survived by his wife, daughter Troy, sons Brian, Scott, and Myles Pinkney, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Staff Writer Valerie Russ contributed to this article.