Growing up in Houston in a family with four brothers, Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey found connection in storytelling from a young age. “When we were kids, our dad would tell the best stories,” Jarrett recalls. “Usually, they were funny. They were always riveting. And looking back, it seems like my childhood was mostly a series of experiments trying to figure out exactly how to do that in a way that worked for me.”
Jerome, Jarrett, and their brother Jason’s country band didn’t take off, and Jarrett says poetry “didn’t feel quite right,” so he turned to writing and illustrating children’s books when he was “16 or 17.”
Jerome, meanwhile, had wanted to write and illustrate all along, citing fun school experiences. “When I was 15, I got a bit more serious about it and bought some books on how to do so,” he says.
Though the brothers had been imagining the adventures of superhero Wonder Willis since elementary school, their first publication as co-writers was Creepy Things Are Scaring Me (HarperCollins), illustrated by Rosanne Litzinger, which came out in 2003 when they were teenagers. Seventeen years later came The Old Truck (Norton), the Pumphreys’ debut as co-author-illustrators.
The Old Truck’s development was collaborative at every step. Driving to Jarrett’s house in Austin from Houston, Jerome says he noticed “an old truck sitting out in the field as though it was set out to pasture,” which sparked his interest.
“I started thinking about the family that owned that truck, which got us thinking about our own family,” Jarrett notes, recounting that their great-grandmother had a farm in Louisiana, which she purchased with her earnings from picking cotton. Though she didn’t have an old truck, it’s “that spirit of grit and fortitude—and all the women in our family who exhibited it—that inspired The Old Truck.”
Jerome agrees, believing “different elements of the story resonate with different readers,” including “the message of persistence, the message of family, the strong Black female protagonist.”
Looking back, the brothers see their first title as “a much different book from a much different time written by much different brothers,” Jarrett says. “We just knew this one book was going to make us rich and famous. When that didn’t happen, of course, we both ended up getting jobs. And we started chasing other dreams.”
When Jerome, a graphic designer for the Walt Disney Company since 2016, moved back to Texas from Orlando, and Jarrett sold the orthodontics company he’d been running for the past decade, the brothers decided it was time to try collaborating on picture books again. “We’ve lived a lot more life since our first book,” Jarrett says. “I think the break served us well.”
By June 2018, the duo had a “pretty polished dummy book,” Jerome recalls. He’d previously submitted work to Steven Malk at Writers House; Malk loved the new manuscript and connected the brothers with Hannah Mann, an agency colleague. A quick phone call with Mann was enough to confirm the match, and a few months later, Simon Boughton at Norton Young Readers secured The Old Truck in a three-house auction.
“We could tell right away that he got what we were trying to do, which held true throughout the editorial process,” asserts Jarrett, praising Boughton’s “great insight” and “light touch.”
The brothers now live five minutes apart in Austin, but it was their emotional closeness that really facilitated smooth collaboration throughout. Jerome jokes, “You don’t have to be so careful about hurting feelings when you’re working with your brother.”
Jarrett agrees with a laugh. “If he didn’t like an idea I’d had for a composition or the way I drew something, he wasn’t shy about it.” Their “individual strengths and preferences” proved effective, Jarrett says. “We balance each other out.”
Jerome, who studied graphic design at the Art Institute of Austin, names Edward Bawden, Mary Blair, Donald Crews, Aaron Douglas, Roger Duvoisin, Hokusai, Henri Matisse, and Alice and Martin Provensen as artistic inspirations.
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats was also particularly inspiring, Jarrett adds, revealing that one of their favorite spreads in The Old Truck is an homage to that classic picture book. The brothers, too, “leave room for readers to connect the dots and room to put some of themselves and their own experiences.”
Calling The Snowy Day “beautifully universal,” Jarrett says, “That’s the kind of book we’ve always wanted to make. Books about race, about being Black, about Black history, and Black achievements are important and essential. But so are books about living life that just happen to feature Black people.”