I can recall my very first reader like it was yesterday -- the phrase "See Spot run" and the image of a galloping dog with floppy ears is indelibly engraved in my memory. The pictures in these primers were as important as the words, helping to anchor in my young mind the meaning of each grouping of vowels and consonants. Last month, Jerry Pinckney became the first individual African American illustrator to win the Caldecott Medal, the American Library Association’s highest honor, for his adaptation of one of Aesop's fables, The Lion and the Mouse.

This would be a story in itself, if it were not for the fact that Jerry Pinckney’s wife Gloria, his sons Brian and Miles, and his daughters-in-law Andrea and Sandra are all involved in the field of children’s literature as either writers, illustrators, or photographers. The Pinckney clan originated in Philadelphia, where patriarch Jerry began life as a dyslexic student who carried a sketch pad around with him everywhere he went. A chance meeting with professional cartoonist John Liney gave Pinckney an entirely different outlook on life.  "I realized that some people got up in the morning and drew images. That was their job."

Pinckney won a scholarship at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art, where he met and married his wife Gloria. After beginning his career in Boston, he joined other artists in opening a studio collective before branching out on his own. Since 1964 he has illustrated more than 100 picture books.He has also designed a dozen postage stamps for the U.S. Postal Service Black Heritage Series. According to Pinkney, "I wanted to show that an African American artist could make it on a national level in the graphic arts.”

The awards Pinkney has won in his lifetime:

  • The Caldecott Medal
  • Several Caldecott Honor Book
  • Several Coretta Scott King Awards
  • The Drexel Citation for Children's Literature
  • The Virginia Hamilton Literary Award

Pinckney is a very accessible artist, who has revealed in numerous print and on-line interviews how he works. "I don't see things until I draw them. When I put a line down, the only thing I know is how it should feel, and I know when it doesn't feel right. I work with a pencil in one hand and an eraser in the other, not knowing what I have until I put it down," he told Elizabeth Kennedy of About.com

In an interview with Rick Margolis for the School Library Journal, Pinckney described how he visualized his subjects, which are often animals:

Rick Margolis: "You own more than 100 books on nature and animals. But the first thing you often do when you’re drawing an animal is to pretend you’re that creature."

Jerry Pinckney: "Sometimes I’ll stand in front of a mirror and go through a series of expressions or body movements. Then I’ll take that back to the drawing table and try to incorporate that mood or feeling. Oftentimes, I’m asked about what makes my personification of animals different from other artists’. I’ve tried to make sure the anatomy is close to what a lion or a mouse looks like, but I want their expressions and sometimes their posture to almost mimic human posture."

At 70, this life-long artist shows no sign of slowing down. His commitment to depicting multicultural images in his work has contributed immeasurably to the racial equality movement's impact on the formative years of our nation's youth. An amazing individual whose passion for his work has inspired his entire family to join him in the creative arts, Jerry Pinckney looks to continue creating his beautiful illustrations for years to come.