Over 45 years, Jerry Pinkney has illustrated more than 100 children’s books that have garnered numerous awards, including five Caldecott Honor Books and five Coretta Scott King Awards. Little, Brown will publish his latest picture book, The Lion & the Mouse, a near-wordless adaptation of the renowned Aesop’s fable, which has a 75,000 copy first-printing. Pinkney also illustrated a book that’s due from Dial: The Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Band in the World by Marilyn Nelson, which centers on an all-female swing band that performed on the home front during World War II. The artist spoke to Bookshelf about these projects on a steamy summer afternoon.

You’ve illustrated so many classic tales, including The Ugly Duckling, Little Red Riding Hood and Aesop’s Fables. What is it that draws you to these timeless stories?

A while back I started to think about those stories that have stayed with me over the years. I think it’s very interesting that often I don’t remember when I first heard these stories that were read to me at home or at school when I was growing up in the 1940s, but what’s compelling to me is that they have been coursing through my veins for all these years. They are simply examples of great storytelling.

Storytelling that inspires you to give these tales new illustrations?

Yes. And what I’m trying to do with my work now is balance that part of my growing up—hearing and reading the classic stories—with my years of beginning to celebrate African-American culture and traditions. My books of late speak to those two worlds.

Why did you gravitate toward the fable of The Lion & the Mouse?

I think it has such a powerful moral to it. Since working on my collection, Aesop’s Fables [SeaStar Books, 2000], I’ve felt drawn back to these two seemingly opposite characters who are equally large at heart. And what child doesn’t respond to the lion—there’s something magic about a lion, the majestic king of the jungle. Then on the other side, there is the mouse. A mouse is tiny, but when one scurries across the floor, everyone goes running! There is a lot going on in this fable and I’d say that if you ask people to name their favorite fables of all, many times this one lands in the top five.

Why did you decide to interpret this fable without words, save several animal sounds?

Well, this is my first wordless book. When I first started working on it, my intent was to add text. But I knew this story so well, was so familiar with its rhythm and pace, that I could start doing thumbnails without a text in place. It was only after doing the visuals, and being satisfied with them, that I realized I’d actually told the story—without words.

And what led you to include the animal sounds—the “Grrr” of the lion and the “Squeak” of the mouse?

My own surroundings, my environment, lent a lot to this part. I live next to a nature preserve, and hear birds all day long. And at night I hear so many sounds—and I’m not sure exactly what’s causing some of them. These sounds surround me with a continuity and motion and energy. I’ve always been fascinated by them. It’s nature speaking.

Speaking of nature, why did you choose the African Serengeti as the backdrop for The Lion & the Mouse?

I think it was the lion that inspired that, and also my interest in Africa. When I decided that the Serengeti was the right place for this story, I was able to go into my library and find many books about that part of the world. The setting helped me give a back story to this fable and opened the book to other possibilities. I took little steps, added giraffes and elephants, and eventually the pictures revealed nature in its full-blown beauty. At the same time, I wanted to show this area as a fragile place that we need to pay attention to and save. After I finished the book, I discovered that some things I hadn’t really thought about had just happened in the pictures.

Would you say that creating an almost wordless book was an entirely different challenge for you?

I’d say the challenge came when I got the book to the point where I was ready to show it to others. I wasn’t sure that the book was going to work. And that feeling was new to me. I held my breath as I showed it to people, including Andrea Spooner, my editor at Little, Brown. She loved it. I believe I sent her two versions, one without any words at all and another in which I introduced the sounds. At one point I thought about introducing action words too, but Andrea felt the animal sounds were enough and that they opened the story up.

So you were pleased by your early readers’ response to the book?

Definitely. What’s interesting to me is that, what I thought in the very beginning might have been limiting the possibilities for the book—making it wordless—turned out to be completely the opposite. I realized when I saw people’s reactions that they were bringing their own stories to the book. Often when I create my books, I want readers to get what I’ve presented to them in the text and pictures and I don’t want them to waver from that. But here it’s just the opposite. Two people can have very different takes on one picture and both can be right. Readers in a sense provide their own words, and that helps them own a part of the story. I’m not sure I intended that, but it’s a very exciting part of this book for me.

How did you come to illustrate the other book you have coming out this fall, The Sweethearts of Rhythm, about a band that originated in the Piney Woods School, an historically African-American boarding school in Mississippi?

I’d known the author, Marilyn Nelson, through conferences and I love her work. The possibility of collaborating with someone I so respected was exciting to me. I hadn’t heard of this all-girls’ swing band, but I knew about the Piney Woods School and its mission. So I felt as though I had a bit of history with the subject. In many ways the years the book takes place, 1935 to 1945, was a challenging time for those of us in this country. I keep saying that what we need to do now, in these challenging times, is what they did then: get up and dance.

Is it gratifying to have two books that are so different from each other published in the same season?

Yes. Here’s one book that is young adult nonfiction—poetry actually—and the other a fable for younger children. I have a new great-granddaughter, whom I dedicated The Mouse & the Lion to, and that has made me all the more interested in how children read pictures and all the more connected to how a child interacts with a book. This wordless book has helped me find a new way to do what I do. I mentioned earlier about growing up and being fed African-American history and at the same time listening to my mother reading me The Ugly Duckling and other fables. In many ways these two book projects really speak to those impressionable years and take both of these strands in. That’s pretty rich stuff.