Illustrator Jerry Pinkney draws life into historic images of Martin King Luther King Jr. for children's book

Pinkney finds hard truths, hope in illustrations

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Children's book illustrator Jerry Pinkney is busy moving his studio. The distance isn't far — the new studio is just across his yard in his house — but the amount of material he has to sift through is massive, comprising work going back 60 years.

By coincidence, his latest book "A Place To Land," written by Barry Wittenstein, also takes place almost 60 years ago, depicting the night before Martin Luther King gave his "I have a dream" speech in Washington in 1963. At that time, Pinkney was working for Rust Craft Greeting Card Company in Dedham. He just recently found some of that old work while sorting through his studio in Croton-On-Hudson, N.Y.

"For me, Boston had its challenges in terms of inclusiveness," Pinkney said, "so I joined a group called the Boston Action Group. Our focus really was voter registration and also equal wages and employment in places where they had not hired people of color."

It was through this group that Pinkney interacted with marchers who had protested down South, and he drew inspiration from their stories.

"I was most moved by those stories of those people who put their lives on the line and risked everything for equal rights," he said. "Certainly voter registration and fair housing and employment were important. There's no question about that, but to hear from the mouths of those people who were on the front line was a powerful experience for me. At the same time as an artist there was beginning to become an awareness of that void of not seeing people of color in books you read or magazines or in media."

Pinkney has illustrated more than 100 children's books over his career, in addition to one-man exhibits of his work shown in museums throughout the country, including at the Norman Rockwell Museum. The Caldecott Medalist illustrator will give a talk at the Stockbridge museum on Saturday about his creative process as part of the Rockwell's Martin Luther King Weekend programming.

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Early in his career, Pinkney was used to getting assignments to draw white people, and so was astonished when opportunities arose to take on illustration work that focused on Black history and culture. Pinkney said he never thought that was a possibility, and he took it as an opportunity to discover what he was never taught during his childhood in Philadelphia.

"Philadelphia was a segregated city at the time, de-facto segregation," Pinkney said. "I went to an all-black elementary school, but black history or black studies wasn't a part of my education. I was quite confused about certain aspects of how people of color were treated, but not really aware of the full contributions and how people of color developed this country. That was unknown to me at the time."

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And so, Pinkney credits the Civil Rights Movement for not only expanding his knowledge, but giving him the opportunity to pass along what he was learning to other people seeking the same. Sometimes, that involves touching on some difficult subjects, like slavery, and that's had Pinkney thinking about how to present the complexity of Black history, covering the darker aspects while not depriving readers of the hopeful ones.

"You'll see that there's always, even when dealing with the harder topics, some sense that we're dealing with human beings and that out of this horrific situation something not necessarily positive happens, but more about the triumph of survival," he said. "You had hard times and you had the blues or jazz, you have all those things mixed in. So to me, yes, it's difficult and I go into it expecting it to be difficult and I'm willing to invest that aspect of my emotions because it's important."

One of Pinkney's concerns about "A Place To Land" was that it acknowledged what he considered a hard truth to include in a children's book — Dr. King's dream didn't exactly materialize. That caused Pinkney to struggle with how the book should address what that means for current events.

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"For me, it was important to speak about that — the work is still in front of us," said Pinkney. "And there was a time when I thought I wanted to really push it into the present and talk about Black Lives Matter. But then it would get didactic and I didn't want to do that. But you can see it would be hard not to finish reading that book and think about the times we live in."

The book accomplishes that by asking whether Dr. King's same words could be said today with the same relevancy. For Pinkney, the answer is undeniably yes. But reality becomes an engine that provided solutions for Pinkney's illustration work in the book, which he describes as telling a more expansive story that springs from Wittenstein's words.

"We have more graduates coming out of schools like Harvard or Yale, but at the same time, the chasm of inequality in terms of pay and housing, and then young men getting shot on our streets. But that's a landscape I know I have to live in. Hopefully, and this is what I strive for, those complex ideas that are rattling around in my head can be solutions to images."

Pinkney said that his goal was to, in pictures, capture the whole man that was Dr. Martin Luther King, rather than just the legend, and include moments of fear and playfulness alongside his better-known aspects. As Pinkney stresses, there's a human being behind the legend, and when readers encounter that person, that empathy becomes the root of expanding their knowledge.

"I can't certainly put myself in his place, but we all can imagine the historical weight, the weight of the times, and then the question whether this is all going to work," Pinkney said. "I mean, he didn't know any of that. And yet continued the speeches and the marches and the threats on his life. It's a powerful, powerful story to try to wrap your mind around."


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