Jerry Pinkney (1939-2021)

A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation – written by Barry Wittenstein, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
Neal Porter Books, 2019

Many critics, artists, authors, and readers have written and spoken about the genius and humanity of Jerry Pinkney.  It would take an extended essay to even touch upon his gifts to the world of literature for children. Instead of attempting that today, I would like to just offer a few thoughts about only one recent, outstanding example of his work, A Place to Land. What is singular about this book, only one of many written for young readers about Martin Luther King Jr

Barry Wittenstein’s text shows great respect for young readers, offering specific information, not only platitudes. He places King at the center of other activists, within a detailed historical context.  Pinkney’s pictures create a dynamic portrait of King, quite different from the kind of flat hagiography sometimes used to depict heroes to young readers.  We see King surrounded by his civil rights associates, from Andrew Young to Bayard Rustin and others, at “a meeting of the minds” in the capital’s Willard Motel.  Each man’s name accompanies his figure, some circling their heads like a halo, others close to their gesturing hands.  There are no static images in Pinkney’s interpretation of King’s life and the life of the movement in which he played an outsized role.

In some pictures, King appears tired. In others, meditative, and, when working on his speech for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, somewhat frustrated. The speech is a triumph, but the struggle King articulated is clearly shown as unfinished and ongoing.  Pinkney’s concluding picture has King completing his speech, while, on the other half of the page, images of Shirley Chisolm, John Lewis, and Barack Obama represent continuity and progress.  As in all Pinkney’s work, color is a key element. The bright blue and white stars of the American flag contrast with a pastel background.  King himself is defined in clearly delineated, while those who will move forward in the future are sketched in lighter hues.  There are also pieces of collage which add journalistic realism to the impressionistic scenes: a fragment of the Declaration of Independence, a map of D.C., a shiny black rotary telephone.

Pinkney expresses in images how both individuals and masses of people bring about change.  The Lincoln Memorial, including a discernible, if small, Lincoln statue, is an image of monumental permanence. Facing the building, the pale blue light of the reflecting pool is surrounded by throngs and marchers and their signs, each too small to differentiate from one another. This stunningly beautiful scene of collective action, embodied within American history, is part of Pinkney’s legacy. His vision of the past and the future, his dedication to telling the stories of African-Americans, children, working people, and others, and his indelibly expressive interpretations of character, will never be forgotten.

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