February 2023

Just Jerry

illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
Review by
Just Jerry is a moving and vivid reminder that young people can have successful lives in the arts if they receive the tools and support they need.
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When Caldecott Medalist Jerry Pinkney died in late 2021, he left behind an inspiring legacy, including the illustrations for more than 100 published books. It turns out that he also left behind an unfinished memoir about his boyhood during the late 1940s and ’50s, when he grew up on an all-Black block on East Earlham Street in Philadelphia.

According to a note from Pinkney’s editor, Andrea Spooner, Pinkney had not yet completed the dozens of graphite drawings he had intended to incorporate into Just Jerry: How Drawing Shaped My Life when he died. But he had finished the text and created many preparatory sketches as well as specific instructions for the book’s design. Fortunately for readers, Pinkney’s publisher chose to move forward with publication, using the available materials to achieve Pinkney’s goal of creating a visually immersive effect while also giving the book a lively, improvisatory feel. As it so happens, using sketchbook pages to illustrate a memoir about a young person’s growing identity as a visual artist is particularly apt: The narrator, like the art, is a work in progress. 

Pinkney, who had five siblings, describes seizing any available area in his overstuffed childhood home for drawing, including a favorite spot under the piano. He recalls how visits to his New Jersey relatives inspired his lifelong love of nature, and how much he admired his father’s ability to build things with his hands. Pinkney also writes frankly about the obstacles in his path, including segregation at school and coping with a learning disability. (He was diagnosed with dyslexia as an adult.) 

The most powerful aspects of Pinkney’s story involve the adults who recognized his innate artistic talents and gave them space to flourish. An elementary school teacher appointed Pinkney “class artist” to alleviate his difficulties with reading, and the owner of the newsstand where Pinkney found his first job allowed him to sell his drawings along with newspapers and introduced him to his first artistic mentor. Even Pinkney’s father, who worried about his son’s ability to make a living as an artist, encouraged his talents by letting him draw on the walls of his bedroom. Just Jerry is a moving and vivid reminder that a life in art can be made possible through hard work and dedication, and by giving talented young people the tools and support they need to succeed.

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Just Jerry

Just Jerry

illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
ISBN 9780316383851

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