Renowned children’s book illustrator Jerry Pinkney, winner of the Caldecott Medal and five Caldecott Honor citations, widely acclaimed for his picture books honoring his Black heritage as well as for his richly detailed works reimagining well-loved fairy and folktales, died on October 20 following a brief non-Covid-related illness. He was 81.

Jerry Pinkney was born December 22, 1939 in Philadelphia to James H. and Williemae Pinkney, the fourth of six children. In an autobiographical essay for Something About the Author, he recalled growing up “on an all-black block” in the Germantown section of the city on a street bustling with activity and many other children.

Pinkney took an interest in drawing very early on, imitating his two older brothers who would draw images from comic books and photographic magazines like Life. He first believed that drawing and art might one day play a big role in his life when he received encouragement from his teachers and classmates whenever he created drawings for his elementary school projects.

When his junior high didn’t offer art classes, Pinkney took private lessons on Saturdays or after school. He even practiced his art while at his newsstand job, where he would sketch passersby or storefronts. When John Liney, creator of the “Little Henry” comic strip noticed Pinkney drawing one day, he invited him to his nearby studio where he showed Pinkney around and offered him some art supplies.

A few years later, Pinkney met the entrance requirements for the commercial art program at Dobbins Vocational High School where he thrived in the structured curriculum under the supportive guidance of teachers that included a Black artist. Upon graduation in 1957, Pinkney earned a four-year scholarship to the Philadelphia Museum College of Art, becoming the first in his family to go to college.

In the early part of his third year at PCA in 1960, Pinkney married his longtime girlfriend Gloria. Shortly after their first child was born, Pinkney left art school and worked as a freelancer and a floral arrangement designer at a local flower shop. Fortuitously, one of Pinkney’s PCA professors contacted him with news about an open position for a card designer at Rustcraft Greeting Card Company in Dedham, Mass. Pinkney landed the job with his portfolio and moved to Boston where Gloria and their infant daughter soon joined him. During their time in Boston, the Pinkney family quickly grew to include four children.

At Rustrcraft, Pinkney met a network of talented artists, designers, and craftspeople and learned about printing, which was done onsite. He further explored visual media by taking courses in lithography and painting in oils. Pinkney eventually left Rustcraft for a better paying job at Barker-Black Studio, where he did illustration and design work. It was at this juncture that Pinkney came to illustrate his first children’s book, The Adventures of Spider: West African Tales by Joyce Cooper Arkhurst (Little, Brown, 1964). He additionally took on textbook illustration projects. But after two years at Barker-Black, Pinkney and two fellow artists there left the company to start their own firm, Kaleidoscope Studios, where they had more autonomy over their work.

Pinkney volunteered for some voter registration programs through the Boston Action Group and attended meetings where people shared their stories of what it had been like to work in the civil rights movement in the South. Pinkney noted in SATA that these experiences “helped affect and shape my attitudes.”

By 1968, Pinkney was ready for another challenge and he left Kaleidoscope to form Jerry Pinkney Studios. Two years later, he settled his studio and his family in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., so he could pursue more illustration work in the larger New York market. Though he would spend much of his time on more lucrative advertising work to support his family, Pinkney was publishing one or two books a year “because I loved it,” he wrote in his autobiography. “The marriage of typography and illustration was always very important to me and the picture-book area provided me with the opportunity to illustrate and design. I controlled everything, and I especially enjoyed doing that. It was for the love—totally for the love—of seeing the book printed.”

A growing awareness of Black writers in the late 1960s and early 1970s had publishers seeking out Black illustrators for their work, and Pinkney soon found himself with an opportunity to take on more projects “that related directly to that time and directly to my culture,” he said in SATA. One of the early shifts in that direction was the book jacket for Mildred D. Taylor’s Newbery-winning novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Dial, 1976).

Thanks to Pinkney’s growing reputation as an illustrator, he garnered a number of commissioned projects in the 1970s. Among his favorites were a series of African American historical calendars for Seagrams, album covers for RCA Records, and a line of limited-edition books for Franklin Library that included Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Pinkney also received a commission to create the initial eight postage stamps for the U.S. Postal Service’s Black Heritage series, a portrait of Jesse Jackson for the U.S. Information Agency, and several posters and brochures for other U.S. government agencies. He served on the U.S. Stamp Advisory Committee as well.

In the early 1980s, Pinkney received a picture-book manuscript that proved a pivotal project: The Patchwork Quilt by Valerie Flournoy (Dial, 1985). He valued the “the chance to do something contemporary that dealt directly with the black family at a time when the black family was in crisis,” he wrote in his autobiography. “This was an incredible opportunity to address the fact that there are many successful African American families.” It was also the first time that he used live models who could get involved with the story instead of relying on posed photos of his own family. The book won Pinkney the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, a prize he received five more times in addition to receiving four Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor designations.

In 1987 Pinkney collaborated with author Julius Lester for The Tales of Uncle Remus (Dial). For that project Pinkney took another new approach to the art by dressing up in baggy clothes to model and pose as the animals. Lester and Pinkney became friends and collaborated on a number of titles, including John Henry (Dial, 1994), a 1995 Caldecott Honor Book.

Pinkney pointed to Mirandy and Brother Wind by Patricia McKissack (Knopf, 1988), a 1989 Caldecott Honor Book, as the project that ultimately convinced him to fully focus on a picture-book career.

As his body of work blossomed, Pinkney continued to depict positive images of Black life and was also drawn to classic tales. After illustrating numerous tales retold by others, Pinkney began reinterpreting tales himself in 1997 with Rikki-Tikki-Tavi by Rudyard Kipling (Morrow). In this vein he adapted a near-wordless version of The Lion & the Mouse by Aesop (Little, Brown, 2009) for which he won the 2010 Caldecott Medal. In an interview with PW at the time of the book’s release, Pinkney spoke of his inspiration. “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.”

Pinkney went on to illustrate more than 100 books, including collaborations with his wife Gloria Jean Pinkney, and children Brian Pinkney and Myles Pinkney, and Troy Pinkney-Ragsdale, as well as daughter-in-law Andrea Davis Pinkney. The picture book The Welcome Chair by Rosemary Wells is due out next month from S&S’s Paula Wiseman Books. At the time of his death, he was working on at least two projects, A Walk in the Woods, a picture book written by Nikki Grimes, for Holiday House’s Neal Porter Books, and a memoir, written with Gloria, detailing his childhood struggles with a learning disability, and his path to becoming an artist against the odds; it will be published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Among Pinkney’s many accolades are the 2016 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for lifetime achievement (now known as the Children’s Literature Legacy Award) and the 2016 Coretta Scott King Virginia Hamilton Award for lifetime achievement. In 2003 Pinkney was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve as a member of the National Council on the Arts. He was the first children’s book illustrator elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame, and was the most exhibited illustrator in American museums.

“Jerry was a devoted husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather whose impact influenced the creative endeavors of so many in our family,” Gloria Jean Pinkney said in a statement.

Megan Tingley, executive v-p and publisher at LBYR, said, “Jerry’s indefatigable attention to, and love of his craft was unmatched, and he never stopped asking for his work to be pushed and challenged. Everyone he worked with was touched by his infectious delight in the act of creation, which never waned, and his generous spirit of kindness and collaboration.”

Andrea Spooner, v-p and editorial director at LBYR, shared this remembrance, “Jerry Pinkney was a true artistic legend of the children’s book industry for more than half a century, and it’s fair to say the industry today might look very different without his groundbreaking work. As someone who worked with Jerry for more than 25 years, I can say that every interaction with him was a meaningful one. He brought great joy, excellence, genuine personal connection, and dignity into every aspect of his work and being, and we will all miss him dearly.”

Neal Porter, v-p and publisher of Neal Porter Books at Holiday House, paid tribute to his author and friend. “Jerry Pinkney was a man of limitless talent and unfailing kindness and generosity; it was a privilege to have him in my life. The book we were working on at the time of his death was, in part, about the legacy that an artist leaves behind, and in Jerry’s case that legacy knows no bounds.”