Author and illustrator Jerry Pinkney traces his career’s roots back to a six-room house on Earlham Street in Germantown.
Pinkney stood before the audience at Germantown Friends School’s inaugural Community Writers Series event on Wednesday night and used childhood nostalgia to explain how his trajectory traveled from carpenter’s son to award-winning artist.
More than 130 people attended the event, held at the Friends Free Library, to hear Pinkney discuss his “environment, tools and process” after a lead-in that included a three-song A cappella concert by GFS students.
A ‘southern community up north’
Weaving together history, race and Philadelphia geography, Pinkney spent an hour tying personal recollections of growing up “not three blocks” from the library to his later books.
His family moved to Philadelphia from the South before he was born, and southern-cultural heritage was a huge influence, including that of a grandfather who raised chickens in the backyard.
“Grandmother claimed that the chickens would come in the house and have a conversation with her,” said Pinkney, relating this to his work’s focus on the personification of animals.
“The schools were integrated, but my parents made the choice to send me to an all-black school,” continued Pinkney, noting that learning history in that environment was a “powerful lens” through which to view the world.
Growing up in the 1940s, Pinkney cited the lack of black role models in children’s literature and television as having a negative impact.
“Don’t ask me what my favorite book is because I’ll tell you: It’s ‘John Henry.’ He was such an important hero growing up,” said Pinkney of the folk legend and song about a black railway man who races a steam hammer to complete a stretch of rail.
Buy a paper, get a drawing
Pinkney also discussed the merger of art and commerce through meeting cartoonist and neighbor John Liney at the newspaper stand where the author worked (and used to draw) as a teenager.
“The seed of possibility was planted,” recalled Pinkney. “No one in my family was an artist. It was my first time connecting with a commercial artist.”
Today, his first book, “The Adventures of Spider,” has been continually in print for almost 50 years.
“So, twice a year I walk to my mailbox and there’s a check,” the author joked.
The Community Writers Series will continue in the spring with musician and author Wesley Stace, whose fourth novel “Wonderkid” will be published next year.
“This audience is probably 50-percent Germantown,” said GFS Head of School Dana Okeson Weeks of a turnout that “just shows the desire for something like this.”