Jerry Pinkney’s legacy: honesty with children about the precariousness of life — and the power of generosity.
In 2016, one of my students’ publications, SafeKidsStories.com, spearheaded an initiative that resulted in Philadelphia’s first Jerry Pinkney Day. It was July 19. The Mayor and his Office of Art, Culture, and the Creative Economy led the day. Jerry and Gloria came to Philadelphia and met with children everywhere, in libraries, the Art Museum, the University of the Arts, and at a later date, the Woodmere Museum.
Around the corner from the Joseph E. Coleman Northwest Regional Library, where Jerry met with summer campers and painted a lion for them as they talked and laughed together, was the tiny house where he grew up in a family of eight. He’d written a touching blog about that childhood for us and illustrated it with a pencil sketch of himself, drawing: his safe place.
I brought what was inside my head to life, creating a new world, where I was not nervous, where there was no yelling, no loud music, no cursing neighbors, no dyslexia, no sweaty palms before having to read in class, no Friday spelling tests, no bullying. No more trying so hard to please my father, who withheld even the smallest nod of recognition for my efforts. There were no police sirens in my illustrated world, either, or city curfews, or newspaper headlines detailing the lynching death of Emmett Till, just two years younger than I was. Real life was scary, but in drawing, I felt safe. To this day, as the world gets more complicated, with more stress on me, my family, my community, and our world, I can retreat to my safe place: the imagination and the act of making pictures.
We shared that with children and teachers. But what will stay with all of us, always are the books, the gorgeous books, and the mercy and generosity, the wonder and insistence on beauty. From that magical week, here’s my reflection on a class spent with third- and forth-graders and a wastrel grasshopper and anal-compulsive ants — with Jerry Pinkney’s loving twist.
In Jerry Pinkney’s luxurious picture book, The Grasshopper and the Ants, a two-page fold-up panel shows the wintry danger that poor Grasshopper, that buck-wild party-insect, has gotten himself into. He sits on top of his drum and his little red concertina accordion. He holds his banjo over his head, and a couple inches of snow tops the instrument. He stares blankly, no options, no hope. In the background, closed to him, is a Dutch door built into the big-knuckled root of a tree. The window spills yellow warmth out onto the snow.
Then, below the panel, we see underground in spectacular imaginative detail: a Franklin stove with kindling next to it, ants in a nursery, ants eating supper, spinning yarn for wee-little crib blankets, operating a pulley, with an acorn top as a basket to lift stored leaves, and in the corner, ant eggs, watched over, warm and safe. It’s brown and yellow and yellowy beige, except for pops of color — those nursery blankets, the yarn, red and green bowls on the table.
I’d never read this one of Pinkney’s more than 100 books, translated into 16 languages, and honored with Caldecott and Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Hans Christian Anderson medals and awards. I only grabbed it the night before my Pinkney workshop at the Childs Elementary School summer school because the bookstore was out of the ones I knew. For that reason, the fold-out page surprises me as much as it did the children. They gasp, and so did I, and we pause. Because Pinkney’s painting includes so much narrative detail, I ask our SafeKidsStories summer intern Claire Moulder to take it around to groups to enjoy close up. They delight at each new article they find and the story it tells. The branches on the two twigs in the snow only have three berries left on them. Oh, no! Snow is still falling outside, and if you look carefully, as they did, you can see, just barely, tracks in the snow where Grasshopper has dragged himself over to the yellow light of the window to look into the warm house that he had seen them stocking all summer, but hadn’t really paid attention to.
This has been an art day at Childs. The children made decorated hands with Claymobile first thing, then ate a brunch-time snack, then came back to learn about Mr. Pinkney, as we call him, with me. As young as they are, these third- and fourth-grade readers understand that a fold-out page indicates a special moment in the narrative. They know that Grasshopper’s freezing, and that winter is long and unyielding. There’s a little more buzz than usual, but it’s on topic, so I shut up and watch them and listen for a minute, wishing I’d brought a copy for every child, and thinking of the difference between hunching over a book in groups of three or looking together at a projector. Great art makes one think of materials and ways of perceiving.
The smallest boy, who was sitting next to our intern, now seems alone. All of them have paper and pencil, and are encouraged to draw whatever comes to mind as they read and listen and look. He turns his head to the ceiling and makes a little songy-hum, then starts to draw. He is wearing a bright red shirt. Red, he has said, is his favorite color.
It’s a fallow moment, and I’m trying to figure what will knit up the energies, the attentions: the boy who wants to comment on everything, another who asks, twice, if he’s allowed to draw anything — anything? — or just what’s in the book? One girl with glasses and dimples wants markers, because she has a special flower that needs color.
One of the teachers suggests that this would be a time for them to predict what’s going to happen. I recognize this as a discussion technique. When they predict what’s to happen, they engage. And right now, they are scattered. Me, too: when I stop reading, my own mind goes all distractible, like it did when I was a second-grader in a school that looked and sounded and smelled just like this one, with diamond patterns traced into the dark poured concrete in the wide hallways, and dark tiles along the walls. That year the girl in front of me peed in her chair. She waved her arm to ask the teacher to let her go to the bathroom, but the teacher told her to wait. She couldn’t — I knew it. And I knew that the teacher knew, too.
That was more than 50 years ago. But this school, these children, bring it back.
Then one girl objects to the the depiction of the anthill. “That’s not the way a real anthill looks,” she says. “That’s fake!”
“Fake.” I roll the word around with my head. What’s she saying? Is she talking about her experience and the nature of truth? How we know things? How adults represent what she knows at variance from facts she’s observed? And why that fact? As a child behind me notes, grasshoppers don’t wear hats, either. Or play the banjo.
“You could call it fake, I guess,” I say. “But maybe Mr. Pinkney’s telling us something.”
Other children are happy to interpret. They love reading the pictures. That shows how cold it is, and how hard the ants worked. They are still working, taking care of the eggs and the babies!
“I know what a real anthill looks like.” Right then and there, the objector begins to draw a brutalist anthill portrayal. No windows or teapots or acorn caps qua caps!
Others note more liberties Mr. Pinkney has taken. It’s a kid-vocabulary version of a sophisticated discussion about liberalism and whimsy, taste, attention, metaphor and humor.
Then for predictions. The teacher and I exchange looks. What do they think will happen to Grasshopper?
One boy thinks that the Grasshopper will get serious now, finally, because he’s in trouble, and that he’ll get to work fast to build himself a lean-to and find food.
But there’s no food…
Another boy thinks that the Ants will let that fool G-hopper in. And then he can share in their bounty. Phew! Close call, but saved!
Well, yes, they could if they wanted to…
A girl in the back has been frowning. She has my aunt’s name, and my mind plays with that fact throughout the class. She has said something to the teacher sitting next to her, and the teacher encourages her to raise her hand and say it out: “He’s going to die,” she says quietly. Then louder, “He’s going to freeze and die.”
Whoa! The kids look scared.
“OK, Children, we’ve got three predictions.” I hold up my hand and count off the options: “One: he gets it together and makes a miracle happen in the snow. Two: the ants behave with love and charity and bring him in. And three — “
They do not want Number Three. Auntie in the back is still working her eyebrows. She’s carrying a lot of weight on her thin little shoulders. She makes me remember how Pinkney uses the phrase “carrying weight” or “carrying a burden” in his interviews and essays when he refers to the bulk-pack of anger, fear, self-hate, grief, ignorance, rage, and frustration that American racism heaps, in different combinations and sizes, onto the shoulders of its citizens. He talks about the joy of making “marks on a page” that can somehow both lighten the load for him and for people who look at those marks and delight in them. When Auntie-girl was reading, the lines in her forehead smoothed, and she smiled. Now, she’s afraid again, anxious.
A teacher asks the children, as if to prepare them, “Now, do you really think they should let him in? They worked so hard, and all he did was play? You think he should get their food?”
I can see their minds working. When I left the house, I told my daughter that I wasn’t sure of the ages of the children, so I was going prepared as if for Sunday School. “You got your story; you got your themes; you got glorious littles, and then they decide where the wonder is. School, church, camp: same thing.” Now I’m worried. In Sunday School, what you do is to find the Love. But this is secular school, and it’s a folktale, not some agreed-upon gospel. I cannot ask: What would Love have us do?
In any event, although the question leads, the children are reluctant to follow. He played too much. Yep, trudat. He was a wastrel. But the ants, as one can see from the picture, have plenty. The whole fake little anthill is brimming with material comfort.
I hear a child, suspecting the worst say quietly, “They got a lotta food in there.”
Then one more picture of the grasshopper in the snow, but from a different angle. We see a few more twigs, a few more berries … he’s looking toward something. The blank hypothermic daze has been replaced with attention, and there’s a light, magic mist dancing pin-and-blue from the corner of the picture. But, from a distance, it’s still dire, and the other teachers eye me meaningfully. I got the children all riled up, and now, uh-oh. Just saying. Could be bad…
But, oh, my goodness! Turn the page — and there’s the Queen Bee, leafy crown with two berries, a lavender shawl, and, with outstretched front ant legs, she holds and offering:
“A cup of tea?” asked Queen Ant.
“How kind of you,” said Grasshopper.
The kids go wild. Me, too.
I promised to show Mr. Pinkney this picture and others.
They draw pictures that they tell intern Claire she must show to Mr. Pinkney. That they liked the pictures of the ant who made a lot of babies. That they liked that even though the grasshopper was having lots of fun, the ants let them in. But mostly that they loved the pictures, and that they, too, love to draw.
All week, we’ve Tweeted about kids and art and education.
Thank you, Mr. Pinkney.