Husband-and-wife collaborators Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney have published a rich treasury of words and images, both as individuals and as an author and artist team. Andrea is the award-winning author of numerous books for children and young adults, including The Red Pencil and A Poem for Peter, as well as several collaborations with Brian, including Martin Rising: Requiem for a King and Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America. Her work has received multiple Coretta Scott King Book Award citations. She is a four-time nominee for the NAACP Image Award, has received both the Regina Medal and the Arbuthnot Honor Award, and has been inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame. Brian has illustrated many books for children, including the 1999 Caldecott Honor book Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra by Andrea Davis Pinkney, and he has written and illustrated several of his own books. Brian has received the Coretta Scott King Book Award for Illustration and three Coretta Scott King Book Award Honor medals. We asked Andrea and Brian to interview each other about their latest collaboration, Loretta Little Looks Back: Three Voices Go Tell It, an illustrated novel depicting the cross-generational story of a Black family enduring political and economic oppression under Jim Crow.
Andrea Davis Pinkney: Hey honey, can you believe it? We’ve been collaborating for 30 years. Here we are, three decades and nearly 60 books later, and we’re still happily married. When you add two Millennial kids, loads of laundry, a broken dishwasher, and some gray hairs to the mix, I guess that’s pretty good.
Brian Pinkney: I know, it’s been quite a ride, and it’s always changing. We’ve really refined the ways we work best together, along with raising a family and housework.
Andrea: In the early days of blending our creative and married lives, there were some swerves in the road. We’ve learned a lot through trial and error. There haven’t been any boring moments, that’s for sure!
Brian: Our work process has evolved and changed over the years. Each project is a new adventure, so there’s always room for a fresh approach. One thing that’s stayed the same is that I see you wake up and go to your laptop each morning at 4 a.m., and I never know what you’re writing until you bop me on the head with a manuscript, and say, “Hey, hon, does this resonate with you?” I’ll admit, when you handed me the 240 pages of Loretta Little Looks Back: Three Voices Go Tell It, I was completely surprised and immediately taken by its form, structure, and storytelling. It was like you serving up a delicious new stew, and asking me to taste it. In this case, as soon as I dove in, I was captured by the delicious mix of elements you’ve stirred together.
Andrea: [Laughing] That’s an interesting metaphor, given that I don’t cook.
Brian: But in this case, you whipped up something savory and amazing—the story of Loretta, Roly, and Aggie B., members of the Little family, who each present vivid accounts of their young lives, spanning three generations. I loved how their separate stories—beginning in a cotton field in 1927 and ending with the presidential election of 1968—overlap and come together to create one unforgettable journey.
Andrea: Before I even wrote a word, the whole idea flickered at me like a bolt of lightning.
Brian: The idea—that’s just the what of everything you’ve done to present the lives and times of these people. It’s the how that took me by the hand, and brought me along. It’s your fictional first-person narratives that intrigued me the most—a mix of spoken-word poems, folk myths, gospel rhythms and blues influences, all rolled up to tell a remarkable story. You’ve woven an immersive tapestry that illuminates the dignity of sharecroppers in the rural South through storytelling’s oral tradition. The novel is presented in a series of theatrical monologues called “go-tell-its” that paint a portrait of America's struggle for civil rights as seen through the eyes of the kids who lived it.
Andrea: In some respects, I feel like the novel wrote itself. These characters just started talking to me in their raw, unvarnished vernacular that sprang from the voices of my very own family members who worked land, and were grassroots civil rights organizers. They had so much dignity, and took so much pride in themselves and our people. When I was a kid, I heard these stories on my family’s porches and at the supper table, and now they were spilling onto the pages to make this book. And, no kidding, each and every character—ranging from 12-year-old Aggie B. to civil rights notables like Fannie Lou Hamer whose brassy delivery is part of the mix—they all came together, walked up to my consciousness, and said: Please ask Brian to punctuate our stories with his paintings! On one particular crack-of-dawn writing session, when the “go-ask-Brian” chorus was in full swing—
Brian: [laughing] Was that the morning you woke me up, flapping manuscript pages in my face?
Andrea: [also laughing] You remember…
Brian: What I also remember, having read your novel’s early drafts, is that I’d been dreaming about Loretta and her family tree, and thinking about the most intriguing way to depict this cast of characters, given the novel’s unique format. I don’t think I ever admitted it, but I was actually starting to see your narratives with my illustrations before you even asked me.
Andrea: It’s like we were having the same thoughts at the same time, without knowing it.
Brian: One of the most compelling elements that swirled around my mind was the unexpected mystical gift that gets passed down through the generations, from one family member to the next, and that ignites their experience of what it means to reach for freedom. All of this is set against a backdrop of history, and African Americans claiming the right to vote. So I had to come up with a way to blend your magical realism with historical truths. That’s when I immersed myself in images of sharecroppers from Mississippi, then put the heavy research aside to meditate on what it must’ve felt like to walk in their shoes.
Andrea: The artwork feels like it’s come from a wellspring deep within you.
Brian: Yes, I had to access something that can’t be put into words. The feeling of home. Living on land you’ve cultivated and that you love but, because of racism, is also oppressive in so many ways. I kept asking myself how I’d depict lives filled with both beauty and ugliness, co-existing side-by-side. While sketching, and letting your characters talk to me, I dove into the conflicting emotions of trying to free yourself from the degradation so many sharecroppers faced, while, at the same time, taking pride in the heritage of harvesting land that you and your entire family had turned from thirsty soil into abundant crops through hard work and grit. That’s where your surrealist elements met up with my paintbrush, Andrea. Like your characters talking to you, my artist’s hand—and the paints and brushes I used—took on an energy and life all their own to tell the visual story of this family’s hardships and triumphs through powers greater than themselves.
Andrea: I’m always so impressed and surprised with how you change and adapt your style in new ways with each book we work on together. The last book we collaborated on was Martin Rising: Requiem for a King, in which your watercolors were filled with metaphor. And with so many of our picture book biographies and narrative nonfiction you’ve brought a range of artistic gifts to bear—scratchboard, brushwork, African influences. Honey, your versatility is pure awesomeness.
Brian: For this book, I wanted my artwork to be both calligraphic and descriptive. To feel the mood of the times. To give viewers a sense of the simultaneous complexity of poetry and hardship. The artwork is rendered in gray acrylic paint and black ink brush-line, with touches of white acrylic. This technique enabled me to be spontaneous and thoughtful at the same time. I concluded that I could best punctuate the emotional resonance of the recollections through the use of metaphor. To bring the dialogues into greater dramatic focus, I drew inspiration from the gels used in theatrical lighting that bring dimension and emotion to settings and to characters as they deliver their lines.
Andrea: Your images tell the interior story of what these people are saying to us. They show us what’s in the hearts and souls of these children.
Brian: That’s what I was going for. I wanted to honor the vivid intensity of the narratives, so I crafted the paintings in acrylics and India ink, on Strathmore watercolor paper. The testimonies are illuminated through the bold calligraphic strokes of my da Vinci Maestro paintbrushes, paired with the softer lines rendered by the quills of my Japanese Sumie brushes, which inspired me to create images that are both conceptual and expressive, spontaneous and thoughtful.
Andrea: Spontaneous and thoughtful–Brian, that’s so you. Do you remember when you showed me the luminous cover painting depicting young Loretta Little?
Brian: I do. You hugged me and said, “She’s a knowing soul.”
Andrea: What you’ve done with that cover is extraordinary. I had no idea how you were going to reflect a cross-generational tale that takes place over a period of 40 years.
Brian: [Laughs] I had no idea either. Until I went back and read the opening lines of the book. When we first meet Loretta, she walks up, looks us in the eye, stares hard, and says: “Putting it simple, this is me talking to you. About my life. About my times. And now I’m coming ahead with a go-tell-it!” That’s when I made a decision to let this feisty, brassy girl whose storytelling sparks the narrative be the one who greets us on the cover. And so, for the jacket, Loretta’s probing gaze draws strength from the resilience of those who came before her, while at the same time looks ahead into the eyes of hope. She’s a child with perspective—and vision.
Andrea: This book feels really important now, with everything going on in the world, and especially with the upcoming election. Your artwork offers kids a visual language that invites them into conversations about race, and about the determination of Black people that has led us to this moment in history, and that will continue long after the election is over. It’s ironic. In the book’s last chapter, Loretta and her family step out, hands on hips, up close, in-your-face, and give readers a call to action. At the same time, right outside our front door in Brooklyn there are 12-year-old protesters holding signs, chanting their commitment to compassionate social action, just like the kids in our book that’s set decades ago. It’s not even history repeating itself. It’s history’s continuum being carried out on today’s sidewalks and streets. Roly, Loretta, and Aggie B. could be friends with kids out there doing their thing right now.
Brian: It’s true. Who could’ve imagined that, when we embarked on Loretta Little five years ago, we’d be plunged into the swill of so many thoughtful conversations about race and the importance of voting, and Black Lives Matter, and how these stands are braided together. We didn’t plan it that way, but your story gives us a front-row seat to the dramatic events that led to Black people claiming the right to vote, and standing up for their own humanity in the face of micro-aggressions and police brutality. Kids need to know that people who looked like us couldn’t always go to the polls. And also, that for decades Black people have suffered brutal attacks motivated by hatred. There’s a section in the novel where young Aggie B. and her aunt attend a gathering where members of SNCC ask for volunteers to go to Indianola, Mississippi, to register to vote. I love how the novel presents this when Loretta volunteers: “I raised my hand so high, I thought my palm and fingers would fly off the top of my wrist.” As soon as I read that, I decided I’d depict this pivotal moment in the life of this child by painting an exaggerated hand, raised, and filling the entire page. This was inspired by the work of artists like Charles White whose large-scale images expressed American democracy, and also the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat whose bold abstract images explored racism. The social justice themes in the work of Harlem painter Jacob Lawrence also inspired the images for Loretta Little.
Andrea: That powerful raised hand painting is one of my favorites in the book. As for voting and race-talk, the truth is, we’ve always been having these conversations with our kids and with so many middle-schoolers as we travel and speak in schools. But something feels different now, more than ever. I can’t help but wonder if Roly, Aggie B. and Loretta–and the historical figures that appear in the story, both Black and White–got together and made a decision to step onto the stage of this monologue novel to help young people unpack and talk about what racism is and does, and how racial harmony can become a reality.
Brian: I’ll never forget the author visit I did at a school, where I asked the students where ideas come from. All the kids were calling out things like, “Ideas come from movies, and TV, and your head.” There was one kid who spoke very quietly, almost like a whisper. I had to go up close to hear him. He said, “Ideas come from your heart.”
Loretta Little Looks Back: Three Voices Go Tell It by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney. Little, Brown, Sept. 29 $17.99 ISBN 978-0-316-53677-6