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Jerry Pinkney, Acclaimed Children’s Book Illustrator, Dies at 81

Jerry Pinkney, whose evocative illustrations won acclaim in bringing more than 100 children’s books to life, many with Black characters or images of Black history and culture, died on Wednesday in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y. He was 81.

His daughter-in-law Andrea Davis Pinkney said his death, at Phelps Hospital, was caused by a heart attack. He lived nearby in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Mr. Pinkney was one of the most revered illustrators in the genre. His accolades include the Randolph Caldecott Medal, awarded for the year’s most distinguished American picture book for children; he received his in 2010 for “The Lion & the Mouse,” a treatment of the Aesop fable. That book was representative of his commitment to reflecting Black themes and culture in his work whenever possible: He made sure that his richly detailed illustrations set that classic story in the Serengeti, with the title characters surrounded by other African wildlife.

Mr. Pinkney, who sometimes wrote his own texts and sometimes collaborated with writers, specialized in adapting and updating such timeless tales, often in ways that made them more diverse. Just last year he published a version of “The Little Mermaid” in which he made it a story about friendship (rather than one about starry-eyed love), gave it an empowering spin and filled his illustrations with brown-skinned characters. The New York Times named it one of the best children’s picture books of the year.

Other books of his took on matters of race directly. In 1996, for instance, he illustrated Alan Schroeder’s text for “Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman” (a woman for whom Mr. Pinkney had created a United States Postal Service stamp in 1978).

“Pinkney’s striking watercolors enable the reader to live young Harriet’s trying life with her,” Kay Bourne wrote in The Bay State Banner of Massachusetts, “the harshness imposed on her alleviated by the child’s singular spirit in the face of the cruelty.”

Among the most daring challenges Mr. Pinkney took on was rehabilitating Sambo. As a child, he said, he was struck by “The Story of Little Black Sambo,” a turn-of-the-19th-century book about a boy who bests some tigers.

“It was the only book we had in our home in which a little Black boy was portrayed as a hero,” he recalled in a 1996 interview with The Detroit Free Press.

But that book had fallen out of favor by the time he had grown up, because of its caricatured depictions of Black characters and other racially insensitive elements. In 1996, Mr. Pinkney and Julius Lester, a writer with whom he collaborated on several books, took a fresh look at the tale.

“Sambo as a negative would always stay negative if it wasn’t changed,” Mr. Pinkney told The Free Press. “As a visual person, I felt a responsibility to change the image. The retelling of Sambo is, for me, a natural step in my process of dignifying African-American images.”

The resulting book, stripped of negative stereotypes, was “Sam and the Tigers.” Publisher’s Weekly called it “a hip and hilarious retelling that marries the essence of the original with an innovative vision of its own.” A grandchild was Mr. Pinkney’s model for the main character.

Another project was illustrating Barry Wittenstein’s text for the 2019 book “A Place to Land,” about the events and decisions leading up to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. To tackle that project he asked himself whether King’s sentiments still apply today. His answer, he told Booklist in 2019, was yes.

“Knowing that,” he said. “I understood that in my art I had to redirect the tone of Dr. King’s remarks to fit the challenges of this 21st century, to view the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech as a call to continue the struggle. As marching orders.”

Mr. Pinkney’s watercolors and other artworks were frequently exhibited at museums, including the Woodmere Art Museum in his native Philadelphia.

“Jerry used his talent as one of America’s great watercolorists to tell stories in pictures,” William R. Valerio, the museum’s director and chief executive, said by email, “with the goal of moving society to a better place.”

Jerry Pinkney was born in Philadelphia on Dec. 22, 1939. His mother, Williemae, was a domestic worker, and his father, James, was a house painter who also hung wallpaper; Jerry was drawing at an early age and sometimes did so on the backs of discarded wallpaper samples.

At 12 he worked at a newsstand, where he would sketch passers-by in idle moments. John Liney, the cartoonist who drew the comic strip “Henry,” noticed his talent.

“He was a customer and had a studio up the street,” Mr. Pinkney told The Philadelphia Tribune in 2013.

“What I loved doing, he was doing as a vocation,” he said — a revelation to this budding artist.

Mr. Liney became an early mentor.

Mr. Pinkney graduated from the commercial art course at Dobbins Vocational High School in Philadelphia, where he met Gloria Jean Maultsby. They married while he was earning a degree at what is now the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and they settled in Boston, where Mr. Pinkney worked as a graphic arts designer.

He illustrated his first book, “The Adventures of Spider: West African Folktales,” by Joyce Cooper Arkhurst, in 1964. But he continued to work in graphics and advertising for some years, including after the family moved to the New York City area. He said that receiving the prestigious Illustrator Award from the Coretta Scott King Book Awards in 1986 for “The Patchwork Quilt” elevated his profile considerably.

“That helped a lot,” he told The Toledo Blade of Ohio in 2005. “It pushed everything forward for me.”

That same organization gave him a lifetime achievement award in 2016.

Younger illustrators of color have been mentored and influenced by Mr. Pinkney, including Elbrite Brown, who has several books to his credit and teaches at the Creative Arts High School in Camden, N.J. He first met Mr. Pinkney in 1988 when, as a freshman at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, he attended a talk by him.

“This lecture opened my eyes in many ways and provided me with a way of seeing things I never saw before,” he said by email. Mr. Pinkney’s books had a similar effect.

“Whenever I opened one of his books I could see faces like mine, my family, my community,” Mr. Brown said, “and, through his use of watercolor, illustrated with a sense of class and dignity.”

Andrea Spooner, vice president and editorial director at Little Brown Books for Young Readers, which published various Pinkney titles, said, “It’s fair to say the industry today might look very different without his groundbreaking work.”

Among Mr. Pinkney’s collaborators over the years was his wife, Gloria Pinkney. He illustrated her text for, among other books, “Going Home” (1992) and “Sunday Outing” (1994), stories about a Black girl named Ernestine that drew on Ms. Pinkney’s Southern roots.

Ms. Pinkney survives him, along with a daughter, Troy Pinkney-Ragsdale; three sons, Brian, Scott and Myles; nine grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

When illustrating history, as with the King book, Mr. Pinkney said he tried to keep in mind that his young readers were living in the present.

“I think it’s so important to find a way to meet them where they are,” he told Booklist in the 2019 interview. “The language must be accessible to young people and presented in such a manner that they can find something that connects them to the content. This country was shaped by struggle, but I think it’s important to make sure the conversation ends on an upbeat note. Children need to hope.”

Dr. Valerio, the museum director, recalled working on an exhibition with Mr. Pinkney and being puzzled by the book he was working on at the time, “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” which seemed a departure from the racial themes he had tackled.

“He worked hard at telling these stories in a manner that was both truthful but also accessible to children and younger people,” Dr. Valerio said. “So my question was: Why ‘The Billy Goats Gruff’?

“Jerry’s answer was that he always wanted to change the end of that story. In Jerry’s version, the troll and the goats find common ground and figure out how to live on the mountain together. This optimistic view of creating a better world was the driver of everything Jerry touched.”

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