Andrea Davis Pinkey: Jerry, let me say right off that I was delighted to be asked to have this dialogue with you. Even as your daughter-in-law, I'm still one of your biggest fans. Although we talk frequently, it's hard to keep up with all of the wonderful things you're doing. So the chance to take a moment to connect is a true pleasure.
Jerry Pinkey: Thank you, Andrea. I’ve been a fan of yours as well. You’ve added your own unique voice to this magical publishing world.
Andrea: In the time I've known you, I've marveled at your creative process, which, over the course of your fifty-year career, seems ever-evolving. Is there a "typical" time frame for illustrating each of your books? How long does it take to create all of the art for a story?
Jerry: In the past, most of my projects took about six months from start to finish. However, these days it’s much harder to stick to that time frame because of the nature of the books I’m focusing on. I strive to select projects that offer that “mysterious something” that gives the book the potential to grow and evolve during the creative process, while I’m trying to find the right direction for it. I initiate many of my new book projects by working with my editors, which provides me with more room to stretch ideas. I’ve discovered that it doesn’t necessarily mean more time at my drawing board, but more time for concepts to percolate and take shape. As a result I’ve been completing about one book per year.
Andrea: One of the aspects of your books that I love is that they include so much visual storytelling. To me, it seems that you’re thinking very carefully about the compositions and characterizations. Do you sketch a lot of rough drafts before starting your paintings?
Jerry: Yes, the number of exploratory drawings seems to grow by great measure with each new project. These early sketches are a way of exploring and searching for a sequence and rhythm. I’m also considering the relationship of art to text and how to visually interpret the story. At this stage, composition often evolves. I quite enjoy seeing how many ways I can view a subject or action by turning something inside out. As the drawings develop I think about the characterizations, not necessarily in facial expressions yet, but though body language. When I’m satisfied with the right amount of pictures to tell a story, as well as the trim size, I prepare a dummy book .Then I rework and refine these drawings. Recent projects have required two revised dummy books before proceeding to the final art.
Andrea: What’s your favorite part of the process of making a new book? Are there some aspects that are easier? Where do the challenges lie?
Jerry: When adapting a project that has been illustrated many times before, I have to find that fresh perspective, a new lens that allows me to take ownership in re-imagining a narrative. For me, this part of the project could best be described as a roller coaster ride, with a pushing and pulling to get me to a place where ideas will gel. This stage can be exhilarating and frustrating. I see what I do as work. If it appears to be easy, I know that I’m not reaching deep enough into my imagination pool. However, after I get to the point where the final art satisfies the needs of the text, then it’s my time to play, adding more detail here and more contrast there until the painting takes on a life of its own.
Andrea: You have a new book coming out this October, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, a visual depiction of the classic lullaby. I’ve just received a copy, and the book is gorgeous! I guess it would be corny to say that the paintings twinkle, but it’s true -- the illustrations seem to illuminate the paper they’re printed on. What led to your inspiration for turning this song, which his sung to every child, into a picture book?
Jerry: The idea was presented to me by Andrea Spooner, my editor at Little, Brown. She asked if I would consider creating a bedtime book. She encouraged me to think in terms of an entirely different approach, an original visual narrative--“a flight of the imagination”--using the lyrics of a lullaby as a kind of “soundtrack”. I was inspired to stretch my imagination, and so we researched various bedtime stories, songs and poems to consider that are in the public domain. It took exploring and dissecting other classic lullabies before I turned back to Twinkle, Twinkle, and eventually, the song took center stage. With that decision I began to search for the spark that would set my creative juices flowing.
Andrea: In some respects, illustrating a lullaby would seem simple because you can choose to interpret the lyrics any way you wish. It would appear that this freedom is a gift to an artist. At the same time, though, because there’s no concrete storyline, a lullaby presents challenges. Can you describe some of the challenges you worked through in creating pictures that express such open-ended lyrics? Also, what were some of the freer aspects?
Jerry: Most narratives have a beginning, middle, and end as well as some sense of place. This wasn’t the case with Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Yet, it was at the top of Andrea Spooner’s list because it was so open-ended. It was the lack of being able to rely on a literal interpretation that would become a starting point to revisiting this classic. My “a-ha” moment came with the line in the refrain, “How I wonder what you are.” I would attempt to answer that question in my art.
Andrea: Is there a reason you made the main character a chipmunk?
Jerry: I’ve been fascinated with chipmunks ever since our family moved to a wooded area in Westchester County. My home and studio look out on stone walls where chipmunks nest. I’ve watched as they dart in and out, oftentimes wondering where they were off to in such a purposeful way. What were they in search of? Intrigued and amused, I’d often thought about working on a project about my furry neighbors. Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star gave me that opportunity to cast the chipmunk in the lead role. The chipmunk’s boundless energy would be interpreted as the curiosity that leads him to search for the little star.
Andrea: Most illustrators conduct research for their books, even when the narrative is whimsical. What resources did you use to help you illustrate the animals and setting for Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star?
Jerry: Research for the chipmunk and supporting characters wasn’t difficult. There are a large number of volumes and films in my personal library. Also I made good use of the Croton Free Library and The Tea Town Nature Conservation Center, where I was able to take out a chipmunk mount on loan. No photo can take the place of drawing the real creature. Like the library, the staff at Tea Town was generous with their time in assisting me in getting the wildlife and their environment just right.
I rarely use the Internet for research, but in this case it was helpful in providing me ideas for star shapes in nature which could be woven into my intended narrative. For example, the star shape designs of morning glories were used to set into motion the chipmunk’s journey. My personal observations also played a major role in the book. Many days standing in the fields behind our home at dusk, I waited and watched for that magical moment when the fireflies would appear.
Andrea: Research aside, your illustrations of animals are often playful -- they exude such joy! Where do you derive the inspiration for bringing such genuine cuteness to your animal paintings?
Jerry: During my frequent walks in the nearby woods I watch wildlife, such as a red fox crossing the road or a deer bounding out of sight. Some days it feels like the animals and I are communicating for a brief moment, and there’s an overwhelming sense of being at one with nature. These moments serve as my inspiration. In my works where the animal is a stand-in for a human, it’s about striking the balance between the natural beauty of a creature, and my need to personify the animal to fit the narrative.
Andrea: Jerry, so many of us are still thrilled about the success of your Caldecott-winning picture book The Lion and the Mouse. I’ve always thought of you as my “Daddy Lion” -- you’re a mighty great man, and the book just proves that you’re a mighty great artist. In The Lion and the Mouse, you rely on art more than text to tell the story. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this kind of storytelling?
Jerry: Because The Lion and the Mouse did not begin as a wordless picture book, I was blind to its challenges. My intent was to develop a visual storyboard for the fable. Then I planned to add text once I was satisfied with my sketches. It was only after working on thumbnails that I began asking myself, “Isa text going to enhance the narrative, or just be redundant?” The pictures seemed to find their own voice; that’s when my creative process is at its best. So I didn’t really have to consider the advantages and disadvantages of doing it one way or the other. For me, it’s all about discovery, following notions, and letting them be my guide.
Andrea: This has been quite an amazing time for you! You’ve won the Caldecott Medal, which was a very sweet cherry on top of a cake that already includes five Caldecott Honor medals, five Coretta Scott King Awards, and four Coretta Scott King Honor medals. And, you were recently inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame. Wow, Daddy Lion, that quite a list of accolades! What’s next for you?
Jerry: My mind is always at work revisiting childhood stories and memories to see if there is something to jump-start a new project. Right now I’m working on two new projects which I’m adapting. As long as subjects inspire me and as long as I’m curious, there will be stories for me to reinterpret. Here in my studio there are plenty of blank sheets of paper and sketchpads waiting to be filled.
Andrea: Well, that’s certainly enough to keep your plate full. Thanks for being the mighty illustrator you are!
* "Pinkney's sumptuous elaboration of the familiar lullaby...takes on the same epic scope as his Caldecott winning The Lion and the Mouse.... Just another superb outing from a fixed star twinkling in the children's literature firmament."―Kirkus Reviews, starred review
* "From jacket to cover to endpapers, every element in the book contributes to the dreamlike vision of a curious adventurer exploring the natural world. This appropriate theme for young children finds expression in a series of vividly imagined, gracefully composed, and beautifully detailed illustrations."―Booklist, starred review
* "A stellar performance from a book-making virtuoso."―School Library Journal, starred review
"Pinkney's lush artwork is simultaneously naturalistic and whimsical.... [His] flora and fauna are exquisite, as is his palette, dominated by rich earth tones and brilliant blues. Soothing and magical, this one should conjure some sweet dreams."―Publishers Weekly
"Pinkney... brings a... sumptuous, color-saturated aesthetic to this reimagining of the familiar bedtime lullaby.... a free-form journey from woodland to dreamland."―The New York Times