Just Jerry: How Drawing Shaped My Life

Title: Just Jerry: How Drawing Shaped My Life
Author: Jerry Pinkney
Date: January, 2023, Little Brown Books for Young Readers
African American; memoir

Let’s start with the cover. Pinkney’s books are highlighted in each letter of this middle grade memoir, serving to highlighting some of his remarkable work. Just below them is a drawing of Pinkney as a child, glancing at one of his sketchbooks with a look of pleasure on his face. The sepia toned endpapers are filled with his pieces of his sketches, setting the mood, era, and color palette for the book. In the text, Pinkney explains how he began this story so many years ago, how he’d hoped to layout the book and why he wanted to write it.

Jerry Pinkney was an African American artist and illustrator. Jason Reynolds paid tribute to him in Time Magazine saying, “He has surely inspired and spawned hundreds of Black artists. We talk about ‘legacy’ so cavalierly these days, but I think we have to acknowledge that Jerry Pinkney will go down as a legend. The thing about Black illustrations in children’s books is that they create a palette for children; the first art they see is in those books. They create taste.” Reynolds, and others, note that Pinkney was a family man. What I’ve noticed is that for him, ‘family’ extended to the world of African American children’s book creators.

That enduring sense of family is extended into Just Jerry where young Jerry’s world is formed in the house where he lived with his family, on the block he and his family shared with his grandparents, and in the neighborhood he shared with Bobby, Elsworth, Vinny, John Liney, and Matt Schainberg.

As much as his family formed his identity, so did his race and his disability.

The memoir begins in 1949 when Pinkney was 9 years old. In many ways it was a very different world than now. In writing about his world at the time, Pinkney relied upon his memory to re-create the world as he knew it and he writes from that perspective. In doing so, he makes readers aware of the systemic oppression that surrounded him, and of the day-to-day encounters that shaped him. While both race and economics defined where his family would live and work, the relationships with Blacks and Whites that his family maintained throughout the neighborhood created his opportunities and shaped his sense of self-worth. His work expresses that the power to overcome oppression exists in how we love others and ourselves. Tending to his craft was his self-love, and people admired him for that.

In the Editor’s Note the book designers tell us that, “it was Jerry’s hope that this book would also be friendly to readers with dyslexia, and to that end, the body text is set in a font specifically designed for that purpose. We have also found many opportunities to shorten and vary line lengths to help readers keep track as they read” (np).

The story makes Pinkney’s success feel like destiny because there’s no mention of disappointments or missed opportunities. Still, I think young readers will be inspired to pursue their talents in much the same way that many received encouragement from Pinkney in real life. Older readers, such as myself, will appreciate the nostalgia and will be reminded how precious young people are. This book defines a palate.


One thought on “Just Jerry: How Drawing Shaped My Life

  1. What a wonderful final gift; leave it to Jerry Pinkney to seal his own legacy. A magnificent tool to use in an author/Illustrator study.


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