As a boy in 1951, he worked part time in a newsstand outside Rowell's department store at Germantown and Chelten, where, from behind the counter, he'd sketch the displays in the shop window.
Now, that 12-year-old sketch artist is an internationally acclaimed illustrator with more than 100 children's books to his credit. You've likely seen his work on the cover of Nightjohn, by Gary Paulsen, or JD, by Mari Evans.
Jerry Pinkney, 70 and living in Westchester County, N.Y., will return to his roots to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 25th annual Celebration of Black Writing Festival, which begins tomorrow evening.
His watercolors have been honored with five Caldecott Honors, five Coretta Scott King Awards, four New York Times Best Illustrated Book Awards, and the Hamilton King Award.
He's had 30 one-man retrospective shows in this country and 100 international group shows. He's been commissioned by the National Park Service, the U.S. Postal Service, and NASA. His work is in the permanent collections of three museums, plus the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress. And his enchanting images illuminate the dreams of countless sleepy children.
But this will be Pinkney's first appearance at the Celebration of Black Writing Festival.
In a recent interview at his studio in Westchester County, he said he was delighted to be honored in his hometown - especially at a festival that's gained a reputation for its broad range of offerings.
"For years, I've been on the mailing list of Art Sanctuary [the organization, founded by writer Lorene Cary, that runs the festival], but I don't know if they realize that. They contacted my agent directly."
An engaging man with grandfatherly warmth, Pinkney grew up in Germantown. He struggled with what is now known as dyslexia ("Nobody seemed to have a name for it then"). But he found his confidence in the visual world - a point he emphasizes when speaking to young audiences:
"One of the things that drawing did for me was help my self-esteem. Because even though I lagged far behind my fellow students in reading and spelling, I could make pictures."
He studied design at Dobbins High, where he met his wife, Gloria Jean, and won a scholarship to the Philadelphia Museum College of Art (now the University of the Arts).
Pinkney dropped out of college in his junior year, when his first child was born. After several years of living and working in Boston, he moved his growing family closer to New York City in the hope of landing well-paying work with one of the journalistic magazines, such as Life and Look.
"I was really moved by the work I saw in those magazines," he says. "They were images that pulled at you."
While that work never developed, Pinkney says he's had remarkably good fortune - which he attributes to the encouragement of his parents; the aid of mentors such as cartoonist John Liney (Henry), who was a newsstand customer; the love of a good woman; and the liberating attitudes of 1960s America.
"My parents were proud, smart people who never graduated from elementary school," he says. "I was never pushed. I was never led. I was fortunate to marry a woman willing to accommodate the life of an artist. And it was the Sixties!"
"There was an energy then, and we fed off each other's excitement," says Pinkney. "You had the convergence of the civil rights movement and our awareness that African American lives were not mirrored in the textbooks of the day."
That cultural awakening would become a lasting influence. The first book he illustrated, in 1964, was Joyce Cooper Arkhurt's The Adventures of Spider: West African Folk Tales (It won Pinkney his first gold medal, from the Boston Art Directors Club).
Since then, he's illustrated standards (The Ugly Duckling, The Little Red Hen). But he's specialized in bringing the African American saga to life, in new stories and in retellings of traditional tales.
He collaborated with writer Julius Lester on Uncle Remus, The Jungle Book, and John Henry. The pair turned Little Black Sambo into Sam and the Tigers.
"Our goal was to reach as far back as we could into the African American experience and look at it from a different lens," he says.
With the 1998 publication of Black Cowboy, Wild Horses, they brought a relatively unknown part of the past to light.
He has illustrated more than a dozen novels (among them, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God) and designed 13 stamps in the U.S. Postal Service Black Heritage series.
The National Park Service commissioned Pinkney's work for the African Burial Ground Interpretive Center - a project marking the site where, in 1991, excavations for a new federal building in Lower Manhattan uncovered the graves of 17th-century free and enslaved Africans.
He has two new books coming out in the fall: The Lion and the Mouse recounts Aesop's fable with Pinkney's captivating pictures, but no words. And Sweethearts of Rhythm is the true story of an all-female swing band from Mississippi that toured the country from 1935 to 1945, told with Marilyn Nelson's poems and Pinkney's illustrations.
Pinkney says he's grateful never to have been pigeonholed, but at the same time he's been able to do "work that speaks to the richness and the wholeness of the African American community."
Celebration of Black Writing Festival
When: Tomorrow evening through Saturday.
Where: Much of the action will be on Cecil B. Moore Avenue at Broad Street. In case of rain, events will be moved to indoor locations at Temple University.
Admission: Free for many events.
Information: Online at www.artsanctuary.org or call 215-232-4485.
Live Radio Broadcast, WURD-AM (900): "Writing for Our Lives," Robin's Books, 5-7 p.m. 110A South 13th St. Information: 215-735-9600. Nigerian-born spoken-word artist Bassey Ikpi will perform afterward.
Tree House Books Open Mic, 6:30-8 p.m. 1430 W. Susquehanna Ave. Information: 215-236-1760 or www.treehousebooks. org. North Philadelphia's youngest black writers read their work.
Student Matinees, the Pearl Theatre, 1600 N. Broad St., 10 a.m. Admission $5. Author Lorenzo Pace, author/illustrator Jerry Pinkney, filmmaker Aaron Blandon, and author Walter Dean Myers will appear.
Lifetime Achievement Awards, Church of the Advocate, 18th and Diamond Streets, 6:30 p.m. Admission $20. Honorees include scholar Houston A. Baker Jr., writers Walter Dean Myers and Terry McMillan, and illustrator Jerry Pinkney. Special Award to Robert Bogle of the Philadelphia Tribune; Memorial tribute to writer and teacher Kristin Lattany by poet Sonia Sanchez.
Outdoor Festival, Cecil B. Moore Avenue and Broad Street. Activities include:
Drum-making workshop, 9 a.m.-noon, $250, materials included.
Teen Basketball Tournament, 9 a.m.-2 p.m. McGonigle Hall, 1800 N. Broad St. (at Montgomery Avenue). Registration $50 per team. Author Walter Dean Myers will present each team member with a free copy of his high school basketball novel, "Game."
Literary Symposium for teachers with scholar Houston A. Baker, 9 a.m.-noon, Carver Engineering & Science High School, 16th and Norris Streets.