GREAT BARRINGTON — Caldecott and Coretta Scott King awards-winning illustrator and author Jerry Pinkney has had a hand in publishing more than 100 children's books, but he's equally able to win audiences over with the story about his own life.
As the Norman Rockwell Museum's current artist laureate, Pinkney is partnered with the third-grade classes of Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School through the museum's newest youth outreach initiative, the Berkshire County Student Passport Program.
Pinkey and his wife and fellow author, Gloria Jean Pinkney, visited Muddy Brook last month to share both their work and their life experiences with the third-graders and their teachers, and field their questions.
Jerry Pinkney said if he could offer one key word about his life and his advice to others, it would be "perseverance."
He grew up in a segregated neighborhood of row houses in the Germantown area of northwest Philadelphia, where "all our neighbors migrated from the South."
It was a time when black and white people didn't live together, he explained to the school children. "It was not until I was a junior in high school that I had friends that were white."
Anne Flynn, who is teaching the interdisciplinary unit with Shannon Guerrero, Lily Silk and Maegan Warner, said her students were "shocked to hear this history and how there are still places in our world today where this happens."
Finding his own pathway
As a schoolboy, Jerry also struggled with dyslexia — a condition making it very difficult for him to learn, process and write words — before there was a term for it. But, he said, his family was supportive of the talents he did have, especially drawing.
"I was always kind of a curious kid. I wanted to know about other people," he said.
He secretly befriended a white boy named Benny, and learned about his perspective and experiences. At home, which was crowded with eight among six modest rooms, including a single bathroom, Jerry resorted to finding peace in drawing.
"I drew all the time," he said, noting that his earliest drawings were not kept in a formal sketchbook, but rather in a collection of pieces of wallpaper samples and other paper scraps drawn on using pencils his grandfather brought him from the pencil factory he worked in.
"I was encouraged by my mother and father," said Pinkney. "[Drawing] gave me a place to go when there was a lot going on in the house."
While he said he never got a school visit from a professional artist, he told the classes how he did meet a professional, cartoonist John J. Liney, who worked on the "Henry" comic strip created in 1932 by Carl Anderson.
It was that brush with Liney and his studio that inspired him, in part, to keep up his drawing, and to not give up on being a writer.
Now at age 77, Pinkney can say that his hard work has paid off, and through lots of practice and thoughtful note taking, his writing skills have improved.
"His spelling has really improved. That's what happens when you do things over and over," said his wife, Gloria Jean, who met her husband while they were both in art school. "His writing now is really superior," she said.
Jerry says he's grown to be more comfortable with the written word, "I read a lot more and I write more these days."
Inspired by nature
But drawing and research of the natural world remain his passions.
"I love nature," he said. "You know how there are certain things you do that make you feel good? Nature makes me feel good."
The artist and author collects feathers and shells, enjoys outdoor strolls and showed the students pictures of his Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. studio filled with artifacts and taxidermy he borrows from naturalists and museums, which he uses to do drawing studies for his books.
"I think nature also allows you to use your imagination. I'm always wondering what animals are thinking," said Pinkney.
In the third-grade hallway at Muddy Brook, there are illustrations the students made using the same process as Pinkney, and using characters from his Caldecott-winner, "The Lion & the Mouse." Norman Rockwell Museum Education and Outreach Manager Patrick O'Donnell, who is also an illustrator and game designer, drew examples of how to draw the characters' heads and how to curve and shape lines of facial expressions. The students followed suit, creating thoughtful and whimsical interpretations of their own.
"All of you have gifts," Gloria Jean Pinkney said, encouraging the youngsters. Her own life experience includes becoming a children's book author only after their first granddaughter was born. She's also a minister who discovered singing at age 64.
"We're supposed to light up each others' lives," she said. "I have the light of life in me and you all have it too."
Finding their gifts
The teachers said that their students have taken the Pinkneys messages, and their visits and lessons with the Norman Rockwell Museum to heart.
Flynn said her students particularly love Jerry Pinkney's interpretation of "The Tortoise & the Hare," and the message of "slow and steady wins the race," "although we tell them it's not a race," the teacher said.
Everett Pacheco agreed that the fables — which Pinkney also read and studied as a child — were a class favorite. "I like the lessons of them," the third grader said.
Guerrero said that the students have been working on writing their own stories in the spirit of fables and the lessons they've learned and challenges they've overcome in their own lives. Their art and writing will be exhibited at the museum during a special March 11 Family Day for Muddy Brook.
Because these projects offer both a personal connection and different ways to interpret ideas, from writing to art, Flynn said that some of their most challenged students and struggling readers have become motivated and are "coming up with the biggest ideas."
Said Jerry Pinkney, "Part of persevering is getting over something, but the other parts are in learning and growing."