On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Kojo For Kids welcomes artist Brian Pinkney to the show on Monday, January 18 at 12:30. Listen live by streaming the show on this page or by tuning in to 88.5 FM in the Washington, D.C. region. Kids can call in with questions at 800-433-8850.
On Martin Luther King Day, we talk to Brian Pinkney, an illustrator and author who has brought Dr. King, Sojourner Truth, Jackie Robinson and other heroes of Black history to life in books for young readers.
The author he works with most is his wife, Andrea Davis Pinkney, with whom he published “Martin Rising,” about the last months of King’s life. He’s also illustrated six books he himself has written, which feature Black kids having adventures, conquering their fears and finding new talents.
For his work, Pinkney has won two Caldecott Honors, four Coretta Scott King Honors and a Coretta Scott King Award. He’s looking forward to answering kids’ questions about Martin Luther King, making art and pursuing their passions.
This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 20 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until recently had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Brian Pinkney Illustrator and Author
KOJO NNAMDIThat was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King speaking in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968, shortly before his assassination. Today, we're going to talk about Dr. King and other famous people in black history. Our guest has made that history fly off the page. Brian Pinkney has illustrated award-winning children's books about Dr. King, Mahalia Jackson and Jackie Robinson, just to name a few of his subjects. And he's illustrated books he himself wrote. He's also here to talk about art and finding the creativity within yourself. Brian Pinkney, welcome to the program.
BRIAN PINKNEYThank you, Kojo. It's a pleasure being here today on Martin Luther King Day.
NNAMDIBrian Pinkeny is an artist who has won the Coretta Scott King Award and two Caldecott metals. He's illustrated more than 50 books, some of which he also wrote. We'll talk about your work and Martin Luther King in a minute. But first, tell us a little bit about when you were a kid. Where were you born and where did you grow up? Did you have brothers and sisters?
PINKNEYOh, very good question, and also very important. I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. My father is Jerry Pinkney, my mother is Gloria Jean Pinkney. My father is an illustrator and author, and my mother is an author. So, our home life was very creative and very artistic. I'll say that my father had an art studio in our house, and that's where he made all his illustrations. And we weren't allowed to disturb him. I have two brothers and a sister, but my father would let us visit him in his studio when he needed models for his children's books.
PINKNEYSo, my mother would use the -- I would dress up there. There was a costume closet. So, if he was illustrating a book about a little boy from Africa, my mother would dress us up like we were from Africa. And my father would read the story, and we'd act out the adventures in the book. And...
NNAMDIWell, that must've been fun.
PINKNEYIt was fun. I mean, every day was like Halloween, because we were always dressing up as something. And I got a firsthand view of what it was to be an artist. And, like my dad, I loved drawing, and I drew on every piece of paper I could find when I was a little kid, so much so that my teachers were a little concerned, because I preferred to draw than get some of my schoolwork done.
PINKNEYMy teachers did realize that one of the things that was true about me was I was a visual learner. And I like to make that point as part of the way that I learned was by making artwork and looking at artwork. And that's the mark of a true artist. So, my teachers would give me lots of extra credit projects where I got to make pictures, to help out my assignments.
NNAMDIWell, how did you go from being that, a young person who loved to draw and paint, to a professional artist and illustrator? Did you always know you wanted to be that?
PINKNEYYou know, I think, Kojo, I always knew it. I think watching my father -- there was probably many other things I wanted to be like a professional drummer and an astronaut and a scientist. But I knew that art was always going to be there. So, my father encouraged me. And, again, just by watching him, I would see how he would mix paints and how he would get assignments and how he would have to do things over and over again. And I would be angry like, why do they make you keep doing it over and over again?
PINKNEYAnd I saw, that's part of training is doing things over and over again, to get better and better. And my parents were -- they saw that I needed a space for myself, so they actually turned a walk-in closet into a studio for me, where they put a little drawing table and little art supplies. And that's where I made my art.
NNAMDIWell, given this pandemic, you'd be surprised at how many walk-in studios have become broadcast studios for my colleagues who work at this radio station.
PINKNEYI can imagine.
NNAMDIYou have illustrated the work of many authors, but the one you work with most extensively is extremely special to you. Can you tell us about her?
PINKNEYHer name is Andrea Davis Pinkney, and she is my wife. And, you know, we met early in the '80s, both working at jobs in New York City. And we would love to go on dates to art museums and things like that. And I was starting to illustrate, and the first thing she learned is that if you wanted to date me, you had to also model for the characters in my book. (laugh) So, we'd go on top of my roof. And I remember one book where Andrea had to lay across a table to look like a mermaid for a book I did, "Sukey and the Mermaid."
PINKNEYShe was a journalist at the time, and I thought, you know, she probably could write books for children. And she realized that, seeing the stories that I had. And she saw the need for more books about African-American heroes and sheroes, and started to work on manuscripts herself. And then we submitted them to different publishing companies, and that's how we got started as a couple, as a duo.
NNAMDI(overlapping) What's it like working with your wife? Do you share an office? Are you always checking in with each other to see if she likes your art or you like how her stories are coming out?
PINKNEYThat's a very good question, and I'll start by answering by saying, normally, in children's book publishing, authors and illustrators do not meet each other. The author writes the story, sends it to the publisher, and the publisher then sends it to the illustrator they think would be right for it. So, when my wife and I started working together, the first thing we understood was why publishers like to keep the author and the illustrator apart. (laugh) And we wanted to stay happily married and work together. We had to come up with some guidelines.
PINKNEYI would say my studio is about five miles from our home. Andrea has an office in our home, as well as she's an editor at Scholastic Publishing Company, and she works there, also. And we do is we have meetings. We actually have meetings Like, on Saturday, we'll sit down at the dining room table or, you know, when there's not a pandemic, we go to our local cafe and we lay out the manuscript and the stories and we comment on it in a very organized and very kind way. But Andrea and I both realized early on we had to come up with some guidelines to stay happily married and work together.
PINKNEYAnd I would just name those, because they're kind of helpful for people who may be in the situation. Whenever Andrea writes anything, she loves for me to read it, because she knows I have the overview, as an artist. But she insists that whatever I think of it, I must start out my comments with, honey, you're off to a great start. (laugh) And then I can go into more detail.
PINKNEYAnd likewise, one of the criteria that I have is that when Andrea looks at my artwork -- and she's also very visual. She has a very good eye for detail. If she sees something that doesn't look quite right to her, she can't say something like -- let's say in the book I did on "Alvin Ailey," she can't say something like Alvin Ailey's foot looks like a football, because that kind of hurts my feelings. She has to say, Alvin Ailey's foot looks unresolved. And I can kind of hear that. It's good. And I tell people, you know, like if your husband doesn't empty out the garage and it doesn't look quite right, you can say, honey, it looks unresolved. And that way he has a chance to go back, like I do, and kind of correct it.
NNAMDII guess my wife can tell me that honey, the trash looks unresolved.
NNAMDIToday is Martin Luther King Day. Your wife Andrea wrote, and you illustrated a book about Dr. King called "Martin Rising: Requiem For a King." Could you tell us about that book and tell us what the requiem is?
PINKNEYSo, a requiem is kind of -- it's a lot of poems, put together. And it's kind of devoted to the last days of Martin Luther King's life, when he led the marches and the protests in Memphis, Tennessee for the sanitation workers. And we thought that this should be told in a different way, and I'll speak for Andrea. When she does a book, she always wants to do something fresh and exciting and new.
PINKNEYSo, when she told me she wanted to do this requiem for a king, for Martin Luther King, I thought, what is this going to be? And she said, well, it'll be a few poems. Well, it ended up being more than a few poems. There are many, many, like 80 poems in this book, which is a lot of artwork. But it's beautifully told, and I thought, to illustrate this, I'm going to really have to -- what I do is I go into my cave, which is my studio, and really meditate on what will bring this book to life.
PINKNEYSo, in the case of these poems, which are beautiful, each one talks about a different moment. There's a main character in the book, Henny Penny, who is kind of a hen, kind of like the hen that predicted the sky was falling in the nursery rhyme, and this idea that she can tell that something is brewing in the air. So, I had to work with this idea of weather patterns, and this hen that was also kind of a cloud, but also maybe the older woman on the corner in your neighborhood that kind of is in everybody's business.
PINKNEYAnd then Martin Luther King, you know, appears throughout. And we really wanted to show him as a real person. You know, he's larger than life, but he's also a man and has feelings like a man, so we wanted to convey that, also, in the book.
NNAMDICan you give us a treat by reading from "Martin Rising," and could you tell us about the part that you're going to read?
PINKNEYSure. So, the piece that I want to read is a poem that was actually dedicated to Valentine's Day in 1968. And this was during the sanitation workers' strike. The black sanitation workers were not treated fairly. They weren't treated like the white sanitation workers. Their trucks were broken down. And the whole march started because two sanitation workers were actually crushed in the back of a truck that malfunctioned. So, they weren't getting paid as much, their rights weren't as fair. So, Martin Luther King started this strike.
PINKNEYBut this poem kind of speaks to Martin Luther King's words and his love for the power of love. So, it's called "The Valentine, February 14th, 1968." Martin once said, we must meet the forces of hate with the power of love. Martin once said, I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear. Martin was said, love is the key to the solution of the problems of the world. Martin was said, love your enemies. On this day of doily hearts and gold foil candy and the Supremes' "Baby Love" wishes, folks in Memphis are down on their knees proposing to equality, Be Mine.
NNAMDIAnd that is Brian Pinkney reading from the publication that he and his wife put together. It's called "Martin Rising." Allow me to go to nine-year-old Samantha, who is with Cooper Lane Elementary School. Samantha, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SAMANTHAHi. My question is, what made Martin Luther King, Jr. continue to protest and stand up for people after being arrested so many times?
PINKNEYWow, that was a good question. So, I think what made him continue to protest after being arrested so many times was he realized the importance of persistence, of moving forward with a dream that he had for all Americans to be treated equally. And even though he was arrested -- which wasn't a beautiful thing -- in a way, it showed to people the injustice, that by protesting he could be arrested. He thought, that's not going to hold me back. I will continue to push forward.
NNAMDISamantha, thank you very much for your call. We move on now to Daniel, who is also with Cooper Lane Elementary. Daniel, it's your turn. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANIELMy questions is, since Martin Luther King, Jr. was a part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who else was a part of the conference?
PINKNEYCould you ask that question again?
DANIELSince Martin Luther King, Jr. was a part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who else was a part of the conference?
PINKNEYOh, that's a very good question. I actually can't remember the people off the top of my head. I know Abernathy was one of the ministers that was also in Martin Luther King's kind of group of leaders.
PINKNEYAnd I think there were many, many, many people that probably we don't even have the names for that were part of that, because Martin Luther King had many, many people that were followers and agreed with him and wanted to kind of spread the word of equality.
NNAMDIYes. I remember Reverent Joseph Lowery was one of the leaders also of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And Martin Luther King formed the Southern Leadership Conference and lead it after -- as we had mentioned earlier in the show -- he had been pushed out of the National Baptist Convention. And the Southern Christian Leadership Conference would go on to become one of the more political religious organizations in the civil rights movement. Daniel, thank you very much for your call. Now, here is 12-year-old Elizabeth, also at Cooper Lane Elementary School. Hi, Elizabeth, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ELIZABETHHello. It's a big privilege to be with you guys. My question is, what sort of discrimination did he fight against?
PINKNEYWhat kind of discrimination did Martin Luther King fight against, or me?
ELIZABETHWhat did Martin Luther King sort of discrimination did he fight against?
PINKNEYOkay. So, in our book, "Martin Rising," the discrimination was against the sanitation workers in Memphis. And what he would do is, you know, identify different areas where people weren't treated equally and have marches there and rallies there to help bring attention to those places.
PINKNEYSo, some of the other things were voter rights. So, voting right registration, making sure that people all had equal rights to voting. Integration of, like, libraries. A lot of libraries were segregated. Integration of buses that, oftentimes, you know, mostly in the South, black people had to ride in the back of the bus. He didn't think that was fair. And in schools. You know, it was very important to show that, like, some schools weren't equal. Like, a lot of black schools had much less supplies than the white schools, and he felt that was unfair.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, but you raise an important question, Brian Pinkney. What kinds of discrimination have you had to deal with as an illustrator and a writer?
PINKNEYThat's a very good question. You know, I think the types of discrimination that I had to contend with probably were making sure that I spoke up for myself. And it's something I heard earlier in the program, like, making sure that I speak out for the things that I need and I want, so that discrimination does not happen. I think that I was brought up after the civil rights movement, at a time when a lot of doors were open to me as an artist. Going to art school, getting job opportunities that were open to African-Americans. So, it was a matter of keeping the door open, going in there and proving myself that I was, you know, up to the job and the tasks that came my way.
NNAMDIHere's eight-year-old Mason in Bowie, Maryland. Mason, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MASONMy question is, how do you get your inspiration, and how did you get so good at drawing?
PINKNEYVery good question. So, a lot of my inspiration came from watching my father, as I talked about. And then also looking at other books that I like, other artists that I like. Going to art museums. I liked comic books when I was a kid, so I looked at a lot of comic books. My father and my mother would take me to art museums where I'd see famous paintings by famous artists. And that always inspired me.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. I wanted to ask you about a book you illustrated, and your wife Andrea wrote, called "Boycott Blues: How Rosa Parks Inspired a Nation." Can you tell us a bit about the words of the book, which have a certain rhythm, and the illustrations which focus on certain colors?
PINKNEYOkay. So, "Boycott Blues" is about Rosa Parks and how she inspired our nation, was done in scratchboard, which is a technique which is actually a whiteboard covered with black ink. And with a very sharp tool I scratch my drawing in. And sometimes, I remember doing this as a kid where we have a board with, like, different colors underneath. But in this case, there's no color. I had to color last, by painting right on top.
PINKNEYThe colors are very blue, because the idea is that the story is written in the verse of the blues, which is a type of black music. It's very soulful. And "Boycott Blues" is actually told by a hound dog, who sings the blues and talks about Rosa Parks and what she did and what she went through. Again, the colors are very swirly, because I like putting swirls in my work. I think it shows a certain kind of energy that, for me, kind of like helps engage readers. And also, for me as an artist, it's the way that I see.
NNAMDISome years ago, you started to write books as well as illustrate them. How did you become an author?
PINKNEYOh, well, I became an author because there were stories that I wanted to tell. For example, my first book "Max Found Two Sticks," is about a boy that plays the drums. And one of the things I love to do is play the drums. And, you know, I played in marching bands and jazz bands and rock bands. And I thought, wouldn't it be great to illustrate a book about a boy that plays the drums?
PINKNEYBut I had one problem. I did not have a story for the book, nothing written down, and I didn't actually think I was a good writer. I think when I was a student in school, I didn't think I was a good writer. My spelling wasn't very good, my grammar wasn't very good, even though I had good ideas. So, I actually didn't think I should write. I thought my wife Andrea should write it. So, I said, honey, how'd you like to write a book about a boy that plays the drums. And she basically said, no. (laugh)
PINKNEYShe said she couldn't write it because it wasn't her story, and that I should write it. And I said, me? But I've never written a book before. And she said, I believe you can do it. And I thought, wow, my wife believes in me. I guess I should give it try. So, I bought a computer and started typing. And, you know, working with the sense of patterns, because it was about a drummer, so there's a lot of sound and repetitions, and that came very easy to me.
PINKNEYAnd then it was a matter of just, you know, starting with the pictures -- because I'm an artist first -- and then writing to the picture, describing what's happening in my artwork and finding patterns, because I also like patterns. So, patterns and language, which also has to do with patterns in drumming.
NNAMDIWe only have about a minute left.
PINKNEYOkay. Mm-hmm. And that's basically how I started that.
NNAMDIAnd, of course, the book was name "Max," and everybody's favorite drummer is Max Roach, so that was really...
PINKNEYAnd he grew up in Brooklyn, and all the scenes are from the neighborhood where I live in Brooklyn.
NNAMDIAbsolutely perfect. Brian Pinkney is an artist who has won the Coretta Scott King Award and two Caldecott metals. He's illustrated more than 50 books, some of which he also wrote. Brian, thank you so much for joining us.
PINKNEYThank you so much for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIToday's segment with the Reverend Dr. Yolanda Pierce was produced by Ines Renique, and our Kojo for Kids conversation with Brian Pinkney was produced by Lauren Markoe. Coming up tomorrow, we look ahead to an Inauguration like none we've ever seen. Pulitzer Prize winner Marc Fisher of the Washington Post and Professor Jen Golbeck join us to discuss it. And we'll be taking your calls. What are your thoughts, concerns, your hopes for the future? That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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