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The Pinkneys Are A Picture Book Perfect, Author-Illustrator Couple

Originally published on December 13, 2019 1:42 pm

Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney are literally the couple that met at the copy machine. They attended business events, went out to lunch, and from there, "we started sharing about our lives," Brian says. He was an illustrator, she was a writer, and "We thought, wow, we could really do some amazing things together."

The Pinkneys have now been together for 30 years, and in that time, they've collaborated on nearly 20 children books. Their latest is Martin Rising: Requiem for a King, a series of documentary poems chronicling the final days of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life — written by Andrea and illustrated by Brian.

Brian Pinkney says he wanted the illustrations for Martin Rising to be poetic — "almost like visual poetry."

The early days of their relationship were ... interesting, Andrea says. Brian had been working on a book about a mermaid and he needed someone to model for him. "I had her lay across a dining room table so I could get the angle just right — like she was swimming underwater," he recalls.

"Can you imagine? ..." Andrea says. "I didn't know what I was getting myself into at that point."

Brian had a model for what a creative family looked like — his father is Caldecott medal winning illustrator Jerry Pinkney. His mother, Gloria Jean Pinkney, is a silversmith, a milliner and a children's book author. "I would see my parents — how they got along, and how they communicated together — and it looked like I could probably do that," Brian says.

Author Andrea Davis Pinkney and illustrator Brian Pinkney have been a couple for 30 years, and worked on nearly 20 books together.
Christine Simmons / Scholastic

Over the years, Andrea and Brian have fine-tuned their creative process. Every Saturday, they meet in their favorite diner from noon to 3pm. There, they spread their papers out on the table, and talk through sketches. The Saturday meeting is sacred, Andrea says — it's the one time each week that they set aside to collaborate face-to-face on their work. And at the end of those three hours?

"When it's done, it's done," she says. "Come Saturday evening there's no more discussing of the work. We know we've just got to wait 'till the following weekend."

No feedback at the Tuesday morning breakfast table. No strategizing while brushing teeth Wednesday night — "we like to keep it separate," Brian says.

"We have a family, and we could conceivably be talking about work 24/7, so we had to put kind of a nice, healthy boundary around it," Andrea adds.

They've also developed boundaries that govern the way they work individually. Brian's studio is not in their New York City home — it's in a totally different neighborhood, and Andrea says she's only visited that studio twice over the years (and one of those times she waited outside in the car.)

It's about "sovereignty," Brian explains; Andrea deserves the opportunity to work on her projects by herself, and he needs the freedom to interpret her stories in his own way.

"I never know what my husband's going to do," Andrea explains. As she writes, she may have a picture in her head of how an illustration will look, but then Brian shows her his paintings — "and they are of a nature that I never could have imagined," Andrea says. "That's why he needs to be off in the studio by himself — not listening to me tell him what I think they should look like."

When the time comes to give feedback, they've learned a lot through trial and error. First, at the Saturday meeting, there is no cross-talk and no interrupting. They take turns each week kicking off the conversation. And when Andrea gives feedback on sketches, she has to choose her words thoughtfully.

Brian offers the example of their book about Alvin Ailey — "If Andrea's looking at one of my sketches and something doesn't look quite right, she can't say ... 'Alvin Ailey's foot looks like a football,' because that kind of hurts my feelings ..." Brian says. "She has to say something like: 'Alvin Ailey's foot looks unresolved.' "

Andrea says she speaks to her husband as she would any professional, collaborative partner. "I would never say to a colleague, 'That's the worst idea I've ever heard,' " she says. The goal is to give one another the same courtesy they'd give to any coworker.

Andrea and Brian are coworkers for the long haul. They've collaborated on baby board books, biography picture books, and narrative non-fiction books for older kids. Inspiration for Martin Rising struck when they attended a party together on Martin Luther King Day. "We were on the dance floor in a big loft," Andrea recalls. And someone started playing King's "I Have a Dream" speech on top of the music.

"I'm looking out at all of these families, and friends, and teachers, and librarians, and children, and grandparents — and they are really getting down to Martin Luther King's words," Andrea says. "And I turn to my husband and I said: 'Martin Rising.' And we ... both got these goose bumps and we knew that that was going to be our next book."

Most author/illustrator teams would not dream up new books together. Some might not even meet each other in person. "They don't go to Starbucks. They don't hang out ..." Andrea says. "We have a very unique situation because we are married and we share the same tube of toothpaste and box of cereal. It's a little untraditional in the picture book-making model."

And traditional or not, this book-making model is working. The Pinkneys are currently collaborating on their next project; they can't share exactly what it is, but Andrea says it's about civil rights and voting.

Brian says he can't imagine how Andrea comes up with the stories he illustrates. "The words and the metaphors that you come up with ... are so beautiful, and rich, and visual. ... [They] inspire me," Brian tells his partner in work and life.

"It's fun to work with the one you love," Andrea says.

"Happy Birthday, Daddy" from Martin Rising: Requiem For A King

Samantha Balaban and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this story for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


This summer, we want to delve into the relationship between authors and illustrators. How do they work together or separately to perfectly translate text into pictures? Author Andrea Davis Pinkney and illustrator Brian Pinkney have worked together for years and received Caldecott honors and Coretta Scott King honors for their work. They also happen to be married.

ANDREA DAVIS PINKNEY: We're that couple that literally met at the copy machine. Two places - the copy machine and the water cooler. And it all kind of stemmed from there.

BRIAN PINKNEY: And we started collaborating pretty early on. I was an illustrator, aspiring illustrator. And I had her start modeling me for some of my children's books. I needed a mermaid. So I had her lay across a dining room table so I could get the angle just right like, she was swimming underwater.

A PINKNEY: That was an interesting first date, if you can imagine. You know, I didn't know what I was getting myself into at that point. And now I'm glad I did.

B PINKNEY: Well, it did go in a beautiful way because Andrea did start modeling for me for many of my books and then started writing her own books that I could illustrate for her, which is really kind of cool.

A PINKNEY: And what we didn't realize at the time - or at least I didn't - was that, typically, authors and illustrators never meet each other. They don't collaborate traditionally. They don't go to Starbucks. They don't hang out and talk about the books. And we have a very unique situation because we are married, and we share the same tube of toothpaste and box of cereal. So it's a little untraditional in the picture-book-making model.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Together, Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney have worked on more than a dozen children's books about historical events like "Sit-In" and "Boycott Blues" and people, like Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Alvin Ailey. And you could say even though they aren't the typical author-illustrator pair, they've worked out a system. First, Andrea writes a manuscript. After she gives it to Brian, he goes to work on the illustrations in his studio far, far away. Then on Saturdays, they have a work date.

A PINKNEY: We have a favorite diner that we go to. The waiters know us. They don't even bring a menu 'cause they know we're gonna be sitting there for hours with our papers spread out. And that's when we talk about the work. That's when we do collaborate.

B PINKNEY: Yeah. We also have little rules we set up - how we communicate with each other, too, so we can stay happily married. For example, one of the rules I came up with - that if Andrea's looking at one of my sketches and something doesn't look quite right, she can't say something like, in the case of the book about Alvin Ailey, Alvin Ailey's foot looks like a football because that kind of hurts my feelings. So I say she has to say something like Alvin Ailey's foot looks unresolved.

A PINKNEY: Right. We've learned a lot through trial and error.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The wife and husband's latest work together is called "Martin Rising: Requiem For A King." It's the story, written in a series of poems, of the final months of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life.

A PINKNEY: I really know the kinds of things that my husband likes. So in the case of the book "Martin Rising," I know that my husband loves history. We both love civil rights. And I knew that if I were to craft that in a way that would allow Brian to think metaphorically, that might be something that would be appealing to him.

B PINKNEY: So the illustrations for the docupoems in "Martin Rising" - I wanted them to be very poetic also, almost like visual poetry. So I would look at some of my mentors in art history like Marc Chagall and Norman Lewis and come up with the visual metaphors to bring Andrea's poems and the real events that happened in Memphis to life.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In one of the poems called "Chaos," Andrea writes, (reading) The sky's on fire. The sky's torn loose, burned off its hinges. And Brian, in swirling pink and orange watercolors, paints a hazy sky cut through with jagged black lines. Andrea says that, even after all these years, Brian still surprises her.

A PINKNEY: We have collaborated on a lot of picture book biographies, a lot of picture books that are also nonfiction topics about real people, real things that happened in history. We've also collaborated on a book called "Sit-In," which is about the Greensboro, N.C., sit-ins of 1960. And it was so funny when we embarked upon that book because Brian said to me, how am I going to illustrate this? Andrea, they're just sitting. And I said, well, honey, go to your studio, and I'm sure you'll think of something. And he did. In that book, the lunch counter takes on a life of its own. It becomes a character in the book and walks us through the story. And that topsy-turvy lunch counter at times looks like a rollercoaster. At times, it looks like a road, and that's something that I never could have imagined. I wrote a book about four college students sitting in nonviolent protest, and my husband brought a whole new dimension to it.

B PINKNEY: Wow. Andrea, thank you.

A PINKNEY: You're welcome.

B PINKNEY: I love how you describe my artwork. I forget what I did.


B PINKNEY: Yes. And it happens for me also when I read your language afterwards. I can't imagine how you came up with the words and the metaphors that you come up with that are so beautiful and rich and visual in a way that helped inspire me.

A PINKNEY: It's fun to work with the one you love.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was author Andrea Davis Pinkney and illustrator Brian Pinkney talking about their work together.

(SOUNDBITE OF KRIS BOWERS' "WATER BOY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.