By Gwen Vanderhage, MLIS
“Art is something that makes you breathe with a different kind of happiness.” ~ Anni Albers
In some families, there runs a thread of common traits, common interests, or particular talent. We see it with athletes like the Manning family, political dynasties, or some of the legendary acting families like the Barrymores. There are also family partnerships and dynasties in the world of children’s picture books. Three of the most successful picture book families happen to be African American and mixed. These are families who contribute mightily to the diversity shelves with their personal and universal stories.
Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers
Walter Dean Myers is best known for his gripping teen novels exploring African American identity and urban life, as well as his powerful historical novels and biographies. He also authored many picture books. Christopher Myers, his son, was immersed in the craft of publishing from an early age and always dreamed of illustrating his father’s books. Before he was a teenager, Christopher began winning art contests and even had his art published in a children’s magazine. The two became collaborators when Christopher Myers was in college; he received a 1998 Caldecott Honor for their first picture book together, “Harlem.” Ultimately, the two would collaborate on five picture books, all of them featuring poetry written by Walter Dean Myers. Christopher Myers illustrated several of his father’s novels, as well.
Both illustrators brought exceptional talent and detail to their books. What’s more, they took immense pride in each other’s work and had real affection for each other, which is immediately obvious in reading interviews of them, or seeing them in person at book events — as I was lucky enough to do. In his chapter about their family in “Pass It Down,” Leonard Marcus writes about how both of them were worried about letting the other down in their collaborations. Christopher held his father’s writing in high regard, while Walter had great respect for his son’s art and never wanted him to feel judged when they worked together.
Since Walter Dean Myers’ death in 2014, Christopher Myers has been an outspoken advocate for the need to see diverse people and viewpoints in publishing. He is the creative director of the Make Me a World imprint at Random House, which published its first books this fall, to great acclaim. He has also been an ambassador of his father’s legacy. In his acceptance speech for his father’s Children’s Literature Legacy Award (American Library Association, 2019), he said:
You told us about young people like you were, ambitious and fearful, guarded and loving, intimidated and brave. Mixed-up and beautiful. You told me that the reward of a story was in the growth of a character, that no one cared about superheroes unless they had a weakness, a vulnerability that was a strength. That is what every child, in classrooms and prisons, riding subways or walking through cornfields, recognizes in these books you’d written and themselves. Kids who have been painted with masks, like thug or good-for-nothing, threat or fear; first you saw in them, yourself, and then articulated all that vulnerability, lightness, sweetness, and love.
This family that speaks to the importance of seeking out stories and voices, and telling your own, has made the Myers legacy one for all readers.
Donald Crews, Ann Jonas, and Nina Crews
Donald Crews and Ann Jonas met at art school in the 1950s and shared careers and family from then on. In the 1960s, the two found most of their work in jacket design for books, before Donald published his first picture book, “We Read: A to Z.” It wasn’t until after Crews received a Caldecott Honor for his now-classic “Freight Train” that Ann began publishing ground-breaking picture books of her own. She was inspired by her two daughters, Nina and Amy, and included them as characters or models in most of her books. Nina Crews, now an adult and celebrated picture book maker in her own right, remembers being around her parents’ art and supplies all her life. In their family, creativity was celebrated in everything they did. They visited museums often, Ann made her daughters’ clothes, and the parents built their children toys like a play kitchen and dollhouse. This environment allowed for freedom of experimentation, and while Nina has followed in her parents’ footsteps, her artistic style is entirely her own. Nina Crews’ work mixes photography and collage, and features her father and her sister’s children as models.
The Pinkney Family
Jerry Pinkney is one of the most celebrated American children’s illustrators working today. He won the 2010 Caldecott Medal for his interpretation of Aesop’s “The Lion and the Mouse” and has won numerous Caldecott honors, Coretta Scott King awards, and lifetime achievement awards from those same bodies, in addition to awards and honors outside of the American Library Association. Working from his home studio, Jerry Pinkney has spent a lifetime sharing his art with his family. His wife, Gloria Pinkney, was a milliner, silversmith, and storyteller before becoming an author. Together, they strove to fill their home with inspiration — common areas full of art supplies, dance and drama classes, and no television. The children made toys out of balsa wood or pipe cleaners; they dressed up in costumes and modeled for their father’s paintings. Eventually, all of the Pinkneys’ four children became artists in different disciplines.
Brian Pinkney was the most interested in his father’s artistic process and wanted to do whatever his father was doing. Brian published his first picture book in 1983, just after graduating college. While he was finding work as an illustrator, Brian was dissatisfied with painting and started working with scratchboard drawing. Over the years, his own style has become more recognizable and different from his father’s. He has written picture books of his own, while mainly illustrating the words of others. He has his own shelf of medals, Coretta Scott King Illustrator Awards and two Caldecott honors.
Gloria Jean has gone on to author her own picture books, most of them illustrated by her husband or sons Brian and Myles.
Myles Pinkney is a photographer who has contributed to books by his mother and has collaborated on picture books with his wife, Sandra L. Pinkney. Their book “Shades of Black” won an NAACP Image Award.
Andrea Davis Pinkney is a best-selling and award-winning author who married into the Pinkney family. She has received Coretta Scott King Author Awards and authored the books for which her husband, Brian Pinkney, earned Caldecott honors. The two have collaborated on 20 children’s books, in addition to their own critically-acclaimed projects.
The third generation of Pinkney artists is beginning to make their way in the publishing world this year. Granddaughter Charnelle Pinkney Barlow (daughter of Myles and Sandra) has her first book out in January 2020. In “Just Like a Mama,” Charnelle illustrates a text by Alice Faye Duncan. Charnelle’s art can be found on Instagram, where she has also been featuring her textile prints and designs @callmechartreuse.
Family talents and values really do make a lasting impact. My own family features several generations of teachers and readers. I know that my childhood experiences — from my mom reading aloud, to library trips when staying with my grandmother, and the crates of new books my reading specialist aunt would drive over to share — these all made a critical impact on the children’s librarian I am today. Do you have a family passion or talent passed on to you? Tell us about it in the comments.
“2019 Children’s Literature Legacy Award Acceptance by Christopher Myers on Behalf of Walter Dean Myers” — Horn Book, June 24, 2019
Pass It Down: Five Picture-Book Families Make Their Mark — by Leonard S. Marcus
“The Pinkney Family: In the Tradition” — Horn Book, January 10, 1996
“The Pinkneys are a Picture Book Perfect, Author-Illustrator Couple” — NPR, August 11, 2019
Seeing Into Tomorrow: Haiku by Richard Wright — written by Richard Wright and illustrated by Nina Crews
“A Visit with Charnelle Pinkney Barlow” — Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, September 30, 2019
After spending many years as a children’s librarian and collection development specialist at Denver Public Library, Gwen joined Brodart to share her passion for children’s literature with as many different libraries as possible. Click here for more.