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Jerry Pinkney and Erin E. Stead: A Caldecott Conversation

How better to understand the Caldecott than by chatting with an artist who has won the prestigious award?

Today we’re lucky enough to have two. Jerry Pinkney and Erin E. Stead (the 2010 and 2011 winner, respectively) agreed to do just that. One a living legend, the other a newcomer with a bright future; both with an intense love for the form and bound together as Caldecott winners, it made the most sense for them to interview each other.

So that’s what happened. Over the course of a few weeks this past fall, Mrs. Stead and Mr. Pinkney traded questions and responses. The results give insight into their work, the creative process, and the impact of the Caldecott.

And we get to sit in.

Jerry Pinkney: I have been illustrating books for more than forty-six years, winning the Randolph Caldecott Medal in 2010, and am fully aware of the Medal process and implications of winning this prestigious award. How has your 2011 Caldecott win for A Sick Day For Amos McGee effected your new works and how you see your future as an maturing artist?

Erin E. Stead: This question is the hardest so I am saving it for last.

I’m still new at this, but I have come to know my tendencies and quirks when I am in the beginning, middle, or end of making a picture book.  Besides thumbnails, rough sketches, and dummy making, do you have any other routines or habits when working on a book?

Pinkney: The subject and/or content drives the way I begin projects. When a story is set in a place that is new to me, research is where I begin. Often where a story is placed will offer up clues to developing central characters.  If adapting a classic folk tale, fairy tale, or fable the most important things is for me to find my way of envisioning a story through a different and unique lens. Projects that force me to rethink my way of working will often enhance the creative process.  Therefore my start is like a gathering of those building blocks that will support the end results. Then thumbnails, more thumbnails, and dummy books, all the while revising, rethinking, then on to the finished art.

I was struck by your sensitive handling of your characters, especially the personification of animals, your subtle pallet with lines carrying much of the emotions within the drawings, and the use of textured patterns adding a decorative element to each page design. Have you used this method of working prior to this book?

Stead: Yes and no. I was lucky because my husband was my author for this book, and he knew what kind of pictures I drew in my own personal work (or what came naturally to me). Therefore, the characters were very easy for me to get to know. The color is applied with woodblock printing and, in retrospect, I wish I had previously used that method much more than I had before setting out to make a book for the very first time.

How do you feel when you start a book? How do you feel when you finish the artwork for a book?

Pinkney: I seem to be at my best when I’m not sure which direction a book will take. I tend to be a little bit anxious at this point, sketching and more sketching, always working toward that “aha” moment.  When that hits, with that spark, I begin to settle in. Then it’s all about image making.

Stead: Do you do any unconventional research for your images and what might that be?

Pinkney: If there is anything unusual about my research it is the use of children’s stuffed animals to help in the personification of central characters. In the case of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, I actually borrowed a mounted taxidermy chipmunk which I sketched in my studio.

I found that there is nothing like the real thing.  I am looking more and more to exploring new sources of reference in combination with books, films, and the internet.  When I was teaching art one of the things that I emphasized to my students was good research skills.

There is this overall design sensibility at work in Amos McGee, have you at any time studied visual design?

Stead: I studied painting and illustration in school. I think when you study illustration, formal design is at least in your periphery (hopefully). Philip, my husband, studied graphic design in college. I think we worked as a team applying some of that design sense to the book. I picked the typeface, Phil placed the text. Before starting a book, I try to find decorative and design elements, color palettes, and photos that set a certain mood. I surround myself with those things at first and then, when I really get going, I end up abandoning most of them.

Pinkney: Did the story and subject matter with interactions of the animals and Amos McGee determine the style of your pictures?

Stead: Phil would tell you that the truth is actually the opposite. Since he wrote the story with my pictures in mind, I suppose the style of my pictures influenced the subject matter. Since I am not blessed as a writer, I am very lucky that Phil writes stories for me.

You’ve illustrated books written by your wife (I also know a little bit about working with my spouse).  How was that different than illustrating for another author’s text or your own?

Pinkney: In the books where I have collaborated with my wife Gloria Jean, I was privy to the story first. Gloria is an extraordinarily animated storyteller.  I had heard her childhood stories that became the themes for Back Home and The Sunday Outing,  where I became a sounding board in her writing process.

In many ways we collaborated in a traditional way. After her manuscripts were acquired by a publisher, my role began in interpreting her text. Then Gloria became a sounding board for my illustrations.

Can you speak to your collaboration with your spouse, Philip?

Stead: Since Philip and I are both illustrators, most of our days are spent in the studio together working on pictures. We often drift over to one another’s desk and look at each other’s work. We help one another get unstuck often. We often say that we’re not sure how people do this job alone. I like having a studio mate to make sure I don’t get too far off track. Even though I am not a writer, there’s often a back and forth about the stories that Phil is working on (whether they are for me or for him). Still, with all of that teamwork, we are very respectful of our individual stories and drawings. We never draw on one another’s work, and I try not to get too impatient when Phil is at the beginning stages of a story and isn’t ready to share it yet.

I know we are all supposed to love each one of our books like individual snowflakes, but do you have any favorite books that you’ve worked on for any reason?

Pinkney: Most of the books which I have illustrated carry with them something that makes that particular project unique.  It may very well lie somewhere within the process of creating the art. For example, working with models, and what they lend to the book. It also may be what I learned about a subject that has made my personal life much richer. Also there are those books that when I look back cause me to feel that I was at my best artistically. When pressed to answer your question regarding a few titles, those books are John Henry, The Sunday Outing, The Lion and the Mouse, and The Old African.

Can you share what you are working on at the present time?

Stead: Making a book takes me about a year, and then after the art is turned in it takes another year for that book to be published. This February I have a book coming out, And Then It’s Spring, written by my former bookstore co-worker and current friend, Julie Fogliano.

She writes beautiful little poems. At the moment, I am working on our second book together, which should be out Spring of 2013 (as long as I finish it). It is about trying to spot a whale. Philip and I have our second collaboration coming out next September. It is about a bear who would rather tell a story than hibernate.

Pinkney: Influences and the things that inspire us to do things that we do are ever so important to the creative process. What inspires you, and which artists influence your work?

Stead: It’s difficult to say exactly what I am inspired by because I feel like it can be almost anything. I love animals, Northern Michigan, the cities of Detroit, Ann Arbor, Baltimore, and New York, baseball on the radio, and baking. I have good friends, and many of them are other artists and illustrators that I admire. I am influenced by and admire the work of Evaline Ness, Ezra Jack Keats, Martin and Alice Provensen, Robert Motherwell, and William Kentridge (to name a few).

You are speaking about Ezra Jack Keats at The Jewish Museum and have written about him in the past. I think as an illustrator and anyone who was once a child, it is hard not to be influenced by him. Is there any other illustrators or artist who you admire?

Pinkney: The power of art to influence is its ability to inspire. It is interesting to see how the study of other illustrators and fine artists affect the artistic choices in what I create. Over the years I have embraced illustrators like NC Wyeth, Howard Pyle, Arthur Rackham, and Marvin Bilack, graphic artists Charles White, painter and collage artists, Romare Bearden, Winslow Homer, and the Ashcan artists. All have played significant roles in my life of image making.  I could continue this list of artists for a long time, but I will stop here. It’s easy to see that art moves me.

Stead: Back to your first question. Obviously, I feel extremely lucky about this past year. Beyond that, I don’t think I understood what it felt like to be humbled by good fortune before the award. At least, not with the magnitude that the Caldecott Medal gave me.

Beginning your career as an illustrator is no easy task. When Phil and I first set out to make books, we had a very clear and stubborn idea that we would try to only make the books we wanted to make, exactly how we wanted to make them (within reason). We are very controlling about our projects. Luckily we have an editor who is understanding of this or at least forgiving. Starting out, it was not always easy to stick to that path. I think the award has made that decision a little easier (for now). It feels like there is more freedom to make books that are true to us. I’m not sure if there is anything concrete about that feeling. It simply seems as though a small cloud of worry has been lifted.

As for the rest of your thoughtful question in regards to my future, I have to honestly say I am not sure. For now, sitting at my desk, trying to make pictures, I have to put the award very far from my mind. I just want to make good pictures. And I want to get better at it.

Do you have any advice for a shy illustrator with a fairly brand new career?

Pinkney: Choose each project because there is something in it that speaks to you in a personal way and sparks creative thinking.

I hope this has been as much fun for you as it has been for me. All the best for what I see as a continual bright and healthy artistic future for you.


I’d like to thank Erin E. Stead and Jerry Pinkney for participating. Additional thanks to Ames O’Neill and Julie Danielson for their help in making this interview possible.

Watch Jerry Pinkney discuss The Lion & the Mouse:

Visit Jerry Pinkney’s website.

See inside Jerry Pinkney’s latest book, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star:

Watch Erin E. Stead discuss A Sick Day for Amos McGee:

Visit Erin E. Stead’s website.

Go behind the scenes of A Sick Day for Amos McGee.

Listen to an outstanding interview with Erin E. Stead and Philip Stead at From Scratch.

About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.


  1. What a wonderful interview! Meaning no offense to Erin, but I thought there was a definite tone of teacher to apprentice (while mutually respectful) that was really telling about where they both are in their careers. Thanks for sharing this with us!

    • I loved that aspect of this interview. The contrast between Mr. Pinkney’s long career, and Mrs. Stead’s relatively new one made for an interesting dynamic.

  2. WOW! Amazing conversation — it’s like standing in a corner, eavesdropping on these two outstanding Creatives. Thanks for the post, Travis!

    • Thanks Aaron. It was interesting to me to see what questions they posed to each other, as they are both in the same line of work. I think they were able to get more specific, which is fun to read.

  3. This is such a great idea that I am about to tear up. So wonderful, Travis. DO MORE! DO MORE! And thanks to both Erin and Jerry for their thoughtful responses. That was fascinating to read.

  4. What an amazing read – thanks for bringing it all together, Travis!

  5. Simply brilliant! Thanks so much for the work that went into this. It was wonderful to read and watch. Thanks