by Sharron L. McElmeel
Minor updates: November 2014

Mention the name Pinkney and readers immediately think Brian--or Jerry, Andrea, or Gloria. Soon they may think, too, of Myles. This family of children's book illustrators and authors goes back 25 years, when Jerry began illustrating. Gloria, for a fume, was Jerry's agent. She skill locates models for the photographs he uses in developing his illustrations, and she serves as first reader for manuscripts that publishers want him to illustrate. More recently, Gloria has begun to write books, also, which Jerry has illustrated.

Their son Brian grew up in a household filled with paint brushes, pencils, and two parents who nurtured his fledgling interest in art. He went to art school and began illustrating books for children. Brian married Andrea Davis, who was already an editor in the publishing industry, and they began to collaborate. Andrea has written and Brian illustrated several titles for children.

Myles, another son, will soon have his photographs published in two books.

Brian, the Illustrator and Author

Brian has said that he "always wanted to be an illustrator because my father is an illustrator, and I wanted to be just like him. I did everything he did." Brian was also encouraged by his mother, who created a studio for him in a walk-in closet.

"My mother," Brian says, "would frame the work of myself and my siblings and hang them next to my father's. My family validated my drawings."

Brian's desk was a miniature of his dad's; he used paint brushes and pencils that were too old or too small for Jerry to use. Though Jerry did not give Brian formal art lessons, Brian watched and learned from his dad, often stopping at his father's studio after school to discuss the school day and watch his father while he kept on working.

Brian Pinkney is a lot like his father. Both are now respected artists in the field of children's books. Both use models and photographs as part of their preparation for sketching and creating illustrations. Both Jerry and Brian attended art school in Philadelphia. Illustrations for Brian's first books, including The Boy and the Ghost, were rendered in watercolor, in a style strikingly similar to his father's. (He found out later that his father had turned the manuscript down.)

Later Brian turned to a style more energizing for him--scratchboard--and it is that technique Brian used for Burton Albert's Where Does the Trail Lead? Brian had spent many childhood days exploring the shores of New England, including Cape Cod, where the family spent many summers. When he read the poetic story about a young boy following a trail by the shore, he felt that it was "my childhood and suddenly I was back in time . . . in a daydream." Brian imagined himself as the child in the book.

Scratchboard--the Art Technique of Choice

Scratchboard is a technique that requires a white board to be coated with black ink, which is then "scratched" off with a sharp tool to reveal the white underneath, creaking images. Color tints are added after the scratchboard images are completed. Brian's early scratchboard illustrations were colored with oil pastels; now he often uses oil paints in conjunction with the scratchboard etching. Backgrounds are oil-painted, and the etched portions are wiped with oil paints, which seep into the etched scratch marks while the excess is wiped away.

Brian says he uses scratchboard "very expressively, scratching a lot, getting a lot of halftones. The work looks like engraving, . . . like sculpting the image as well as drawing it. My work has a lot of energy and requires a sense of movement."

Like his father, Brian uses models and photographs to help him compose his illustrations. Both Brian and Jerry often call upon family members to model for them. Brian's niece Gloria Nicole, the model for Suki in Suki and the Mermaid, insisted that she would not model for Suki unless she could also model for the mermaid. (Brian "conveniently" ran out of film, but Gloria Nicole does not know that. Andrea was actually the model for the Mermaid.)

As a child, Brian was always anxious to come home after attending an African dance concert or visiting a zoo to draw what he had seen. He studied Tae Kwon Do as a youngster (and at 13, painted a self-portrait showing himself as Kong Fu). He wanted to be a drummer when he grew up and did, in fact, play in marching, jazz, and rock bands. Even now, when he wants to take a break from writing or drawing, he drums on the back of his chair. His interest in drumming inspired Max Found Two Sticks (Simon & Schuster, 1994), in which Max echoes the city sounds around him by drumming on various objects--a bucket, hat boxes, and garbage cans.

"It took two years to write Max Found Two Sticks," Brian says. "It turned out to be about a half a page. So I turned the computer back on and hit the double space button."

The model for Max was Brian's four-year-old nephew, Leon, who was also Jerry's model for Sam in Sam and the Tiger by Julius Lester.

Brian's interest in Tae Kwon Do resulted in Jo-Jo's Flying Side Kick (Simon & Schuster, 1995), which features the art of Tae Kwon Do and Jo-Jo's quest for a yellow belt. Jo-Jo's Flying Side Kick took Brian about five years to write. The text was one page long. Gloria Nicole was the model for the little girl, and Jerry modeled for the role of the grandfather.

Many of Brian's stories and illustrations come from his childhood experiences, but he must still put a lot of research into the books. When he first read the manuscript for The Boy and the Ghost, he thought,"That's me. That's me as a little boy." He looked for a model that would be the little boy he had been. But since the story was set in the rural South, Brian researched that area, and as he researched, he began to form images. The book he and Andrea produced about Kwanzaa took him to Ghana to research fabrics and patterns.

For Dear Benjamin Banneker, Brian reached back into his childhood to a favorite painting, Van Gogh's Starry Night. Since Banneker studied the stars, one of Brian's illustrations emulated Van Gogh's painting. Andrea and Brian also found out that Benjamin Banneker once corresponded with Thomas Jefferson, whom Banneker thought a hypocrite since he wrote the Declaration of Independence but yet owned slaves. One of Brian's illustrations was to show Banneker writing a letter to Thomas Jefferson. For this drawing, Brian had to research the kind and size of glass that would have been in the windows during the early 1700s.

Research for this book was full of challenges. It was difficult for Brian and Andrea to find references to Benjamin Banneker. Knowing that the letter was dated August 17, 1791, they searched through old almanacs for the actual phase of the moon on that date. Was the moon waxing or waning? That would determine the shape Brian drew.

When Brian began to illustrate Faithful Friend, his fourth book with Robert San Souci, he and Andrea traveled twice to the island of Martinique to learn about the island setting and culture. For the photographs that he used for structuring his illustrations, Brian cast himself as Clement, his best friend as Hypolite, and Andrea as Pauline.

In his research on Bill Pickett, Brian found that in the 1920s cowboys mounted and dismounted from the riders left side, a fact reflected in his illustrations for that book. Of Picketts bulldogging technique, Brian says, "Sounds pretty disgusting to me."

Andrea, the Author

Andrea puts a great deal of research into writing her picture books, which Brian has illustrated. When the two of them worked on a book about Alvin Ailey, they studied the dance techniques of Katherine Dunham, whose modern style influenced Alvin in Ailey. Their dance mentor, they said, was "Ella Thompson Moore, one of the original Alvin Ailey dancers, a woman who danced with Alvin's company in its inception. We learned all the proper ways to dance Alvin's choreography, so that every turn of the hand and position of the foot that you see in the book is authentic Alvin Ailey."

Brian actually modeled for the photographs he used to draw the illustrations of Ailey. "Even though it's Alvin Ailey's face," he says, "it's my body." Andrea interviewed Alvin's mother, Lula Elizabeth Cooper, who told her about Alvin's early days in Texas and the music at the True Vine Baptist Church. The collaboration resulted in the Pinkneys' well-received biography Alvin Ailey.

One of their recent books, Bill Pickett: Rodeo Ridin' Cowboy, came about after Brian and Andrea had visited Denver on a business trip. During that trip, they had a free morning, so they decided to pay a visit to the Black American West Museum and Heritage Center. They arrived very early in the morning--the only ones there. A "real cowboy" gave them a private tour, in which they were "taken by the incredible artifacts and information about Black cowboys." One of those cowboys was Bill Pickett.

Andrea says, "Whenever I get an idea for a book, I get this kingly feeling inside. As Brian and I moved through the museum, we had this unspoken thing going on between us. We were both thinking the same thing at the same time: `Bill Pickett is our next book.'"

Andrea and Brian authenticate every detail of their work--not always an easy task. During their research for Dear Benjamin Banneker, they took a trip to the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Maryland.

Andrea recalls, "Our research showed that Benjamin's cabin was in the town of Oella, Maryland, nearby. We drove around like crazy looking for the homestead, and never found it."

Andrea, who always has a pen and paper with her, says, "I do some of my best writing on the subway, where I'm alone; no one bothers me, and I can think. Also, the constant grind of the subway wheels and the flurry of activity . . . is a wonderful stimulation."

She says she actually composes on the computer, but her ideas and prose usually start out "as chicken scratches--on an envelope, napkin, whatever. Once when I was at the pool swimming laps, I got a great idea, but had no paper. So I wrote with a pen on my plastic thong."

Longer books, such as her novel Hold Fast to Dreams, start with an outline. But, she says, "Books like Bill Pickett (are organized) chronologically on a yellow legal pad." The Pickett biography unfolded as the critical dates of his life passed.

"With stories that have historical relevance, like Dear Benjamin Banneker, I'm doing constant research (often for a period of years), and I'm constantly working out--with notes--how I want to tell the story."

Andrea Pinkney grew up in Gaithersburg. Maryland, and Wilston, Connecticut, where her mother was an English teacher. Exposure to books and reading was part of her life. Andrea's father "was (and skill is) an avid story-teller. We have an unspoken tradition in our family. That is, whenever we all gather for a holiday or family get-together, everyone swaps stories. Of course, no one can top my dad."

Andrea names her parents as the two biggest influences in her writing career: "Books from Mom, stories from Dad."

Their Creative Schedule

In June of 1996, Andrea and Brian Pinkney became the parents of a baby daughter, Chloe. Since the two of them share a home office/studio, we asked how Chloe's presence in the household has impacted their creative schedules. Andrea's response probably mirrors the response most writers with young children might give:

"Every moment is precious to me. I do the bulk of my writing and research at 5 a.m. and on Sundays." She is a children's book editor at Simon & Schuster, so her weekdays are filled.

"Sometimes," she says, "I take Chloe to the library with me. Our branch, Brooklyn Public, is right across the street. I take her in the stroller or baby carrier, and I have to work very quickly and efficiently, pulling books off the shelves, reading, and checking out books. Its really helped having a good friend who's a librarian. She often knows what I'm working on and will gather books for me."

Brian has always worked late at night. His schedule, he says, "hasn't changed all that much. I work at night when she is asleep."

Books in the Works

Andrea and Brian have written books about Kwanzaa, Benjamin Banneker, Alvin Ailey, and Bill Pickett. They have been approached about writing a biography of Mary McLeod Bethune, but more immediately on the horizon is Andrea's second novel, to be published in 1997 by Hyperion. This story, for late primary-aged readers, Andrea says is "about a girl named Cass who's been blessed with the gift of numbers. She's a real math whiz, but unfortunately she is a slow-footed child--a klutz."

Together, Andrea and Brian will unveil a series of four board books to be published by Harcourt Brace. The first two are titled I Smell Honey and Pretty Brown Face. Brian has a 1997 title, The Adventures of Sparrowboy, to be published by Simon & Schuster, which he both wrote and illustrated. The book, Brian says, "is about a boy with a paper route who becomes a super hero in his neighborhood. How? Read the book."

Jerry Pinkney

Jerry Pinkney was born in Philadelphia on December 22, 1939. He grew up to become an illustrator of children's books. He has illustrated The Talking Eggs by Robert San Souci, Home Place by Crescent Dragonwagon, The Patchwork Quilt by Valerie Flournoy, Sam and the Tigers by Julius Lester, The Sunday Outing by Gloria Pinkney, and dozens of other titles. As a child, he drew on a Philadelphia street corner while he tended his newspaper stand. A local artist, John Liney, saw him drawing and became his mentor. As an adult, he has become well-known for his watercolor illustrations, his lushly detailed depiction of folk characters, people in realistic settings, and animal characters. He has earned Caldecott honors, recognition from the Coretta Scott King Awards committee, and many other awards. Most of' his work is created with pencil and watercolor, but along with the watercolor he uses media such as pastels, color pencils, and Cray-Pas. Since his first book, The Adventures of Spider by Joyce Arkhurst, was published in 1964, he has created hundreds of pieces of art for books from his studio in the Croton-on-Hudson home in New York state that he shares with his wife, Gloria.

Gloria Jean Pinkney

Gloria Pinkney was born September 5, 1941, in Lumberton, North Carolina. Her high school years were spent in Philadelphia, where she met Jerry Pinkney, whom she married in 1960. Together they have raised four children: Troy Bernadette Johnson, Jerry Brian, Scott Cannon, and Myles Carter. Since early in Jerry's career, Gloria has not only assisted her husband by taking photographs and posing as a model for other photos he uses in designing his art, but she has developed her own reputation as an artist who has successfully created "Jewelry by Gloria Jean, Silversmith" and "Hats by Gloria Jean, Millinery Design." In the early 1990s, she wrote two children's books and has become a respected author. A family reunion in Lumberton focused Gloria on old memories and her own family history. From that awakening came Back Home (Dial, 1992) and its prequel, The Sunday Outing (Dial, 1994). Ernestine, the main character in these two books, was named for Gloria Jean's own mother, Ernestine Powell Maultsby. Ernestine's story will be continued in a novel that Gloria is currently working on and in which Ernestine (who has both a mother and a father in the picture books) will lose her mother. Gloria herself lost her mother when she was just eight years old. She was raised by her great-aunt in Philadelphia, where her mother had taken her when her parents had divorced. Shortly after her mothers death, her father came from California and took her back to North Carolina for a visit. It was memories of that visit when she was eight years old that were rekindled when Gloria returned at age 48 to North Carolina for a family reunion. Those memories resulted in the writing of Back Home and later Sunday Outing.

Andrea Davis Pinkney

Andrea R. Davis met Brian Pinkney in the early 1980s, when both worked for CBS magazines. Brian was an art assistant at Field and Stream, and Andrea was an editor for Home Mechanix. Andrea Davis and Brian Pinkney married on October 12, 1991. At the time of the Pinkneys' marriage Andrea was a senior editor of Contemporary Living at Essence Magazine and had already written feature articles for several publications, including Highlights for Children. and New York Times. Her article about Katherine Dunham earned her the 1992 Best Arts Feature Award by the Highlights for Children Foundation. Her books include a novel about a young girl who enters a new school as the only black student and four nonfiction books, which her husband, Brian, has illustrated. Those four books focus on Alvin Ailey, Bill Pickett, Benjamin Banneker, and the celebration of Kwanzaa. Andrea is a children's book editor at Simon & Schuster. A brief biography of Andrea Davis Pinkney is available on the Scholastic website at

Brian Pinkney

Brian Pinkney was born in Boston, on August 28, 1951. Later his family moved to Croton-on-Hudson, New York, where his parents skill live. He and his three siblings enjoyed musical instruments and spent time creating music and art works and building things. In school Brian often earned extra credit by creaking posters and art work to accompany assignments. He created posters depicting things he was interested in learning about--a tadpole turning into a frog, the bones of the human body. An admirer of Leonardo da Vinci (because da Vinci was an artist, musician, and inventor), Brian made illustrations of da Vinci's inventions and drew a portrait of him. "Because he (de Vinci) was left-handed, he wrote all of his notes backward," Brian says. "I started writing all of my notes backward, too." However, when it came time to study for a test, Brian found that he could not read the backwards notes. He had to hold his notebook up to a mirror. Learn more about Brian Pinkney on his website at

Myles Pinkney

Myles was the youngest of Jerry and Gloria Pinkney's four children: Troy Bernadette Johnson, Jerry Brian, Scott Cannon, and Myles Carter. Just as Brian is involved in creative endeavors, so are the other three--Troy in art therapy, Scott in design, and Myles in photography. Myles will also be entering the world of children's books when his photographs appear in an autobiography of Patricia McKissack, Can You Imagine?, to be published by Richard C. Owen Publishers, in 1997, and his photographs of African-American children will illustrate a book of poetry about children, It's Raining Laughter, by Nikki Grimes. The book will be published by Dial Books for Young Readers in 1997. Note the website at IS NOT the website of this illustrator - artist, Myles C. Pinkney and his wife Sandra does not appear to have a dedicted website.

Classroom Activities

  1. Get a complete listing of the Pinkneys' books by keying in their names on the Library of Congress's Z39.50 Gateway access to their catalog of holdings on the Internet. The URL is:
  2. Compare and contrast the art techniques of Jerry, Brian, and Myles Pinkney.

a. Research information and learn about Jerry Pinkney's watercolor technique. After making sketches, encourage students to watercolor their sketches using watercolors.

b. Brian tells of a technique he used during his elementary days--a technique very much like the scratch board he now uses. Use crayons to put a heavy layer of color on a sheet of paper. Then overlay the color with a thick layer of black crayon or black tempera paint. Once the black crayon or paint covers the colors, use a toothpick or the point of a nut-pick or similar object to scratch away lines to create the design desired. Try this method of etching" an illustration. Older students can actually obtain scratchboard and experiment with the technique Brian uses now.

c. Obtain a disposable camera and allow. students to experiment with composition, shadows? and light to compose photographs of things and people around them.

  1. Compare Brian's scratchboard illustrations with those created by Barbara Cooney for Chanticleer and the Fox (Crowell, 1958) or any of several titles illustrated by Leonard Everett Fisher, including The First Book Edition of Casey at the Bat by Ernest L. Thayer (Watts, 1965) or his Colonial American Craftsman Series.
  2. Compare and contrast The Boy and the Ghost by Robert San Souci, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (Simon & Schuster, 1989), with Esteban and the Ghost by Sibyl Hancock (Dutton, 1983) and The Bump in the Night by Anne Rockwell (Greenwillow, 1979).
  3. Gloria Pinkney's stories are family stories. Read her stones and compare them to the family stories of Cynthia Rylant, Mem Fox, and Allan Say.
  4. Andrea Pinkney has investigated and written about several notable African Americans. Encourage students each to identify and investigate a person who is important in that student's life and to write a story about that person.


Sharron L. McElmeel is director of McBookwords (a literacy organization) and an instructor of children's literature and young adult literature at the University of Wisconsin Stout's online education programs. She often writes and speaks about authors/illustrators and their books.

This article first appeared in  Library Talk (first publication rights only) Copyright for all other uses copyright by Sharron L. McElmeel.  The contents of this article may not be copied or e-mailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder`s express written permission. However, users may print, download, or e-mail articles for individual use. First appeared:  Library Talk, May/Jun2001, Vol. 14 Issue 3, p26, 2p    Current Source:

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