The Choice to Make a Difference: Music Trumps Racism

by Ann Parker, Pima Community College, Tucson, Arizona

This month’s blog will share the discussion of three wonderful children’s book creators (Jacqueline Woodson, Jerry Pinkney, and Vaunda M. Nelson) at the 2013 Tucson Festival of Books in March, 2013. The presentation was entitled “The Choice to Make a Difference.” In it, the authors each discussed the creation of one of their books and answered questions from the audience about writing and illustrating books. In this first blog, Jerry Pinkney shares his work on a book he illustrated entitled Sweethearts of Rhythm.

Jerry Pinkney is a children’s book illustrator with over 35 titles to his name, including several books that he adapted from fairy tales and other stories. He won the Caldecott Medal in 2010 for The Lion and the Mouse, which he adapted from the fable by Aesop. He has won five Caldecott Honor awards, five Coretta Scott King awards, four New York Times Best Illustrated awards, and the Boston Globe-Horn Book award. In addition to his work illustrating children’s books, Mr. Pinkney is a recognized fine artist and has served as an art professor at several higher education institutions.

Jerry spoke about his work on Sweethearts of Rhythm (2009), a book of poems written by Marilyn Nelson that tells the story of the interracial all-girl jazz band that originally formed in a boarding school in Mississippi and became recognized as a popular swing band as they toured throughout the US and Europe from 1937 to 1946. According to Jerry, the girls came from a school in the South that taught life skills. These schools were found throughout the South, and would often create performing groups who would travel around the country to raise funds for the school. While primarily made up of African-American girls, the Sweethearts of Rhythm also accepted white musicians, although they would have to powder their faces in order to perform with the African-American musicians.

Jerry used a PowerPoint in his presentation in order to show the process he used to illustrate the book, and also to share photographs from the time period. He showed several rough pencil sketches he made for the cover, saying his goal was to show the female musicians in the act of playing. This was the first time in many years that Jerry decided to use collage as the medium; he said, “I wanted to interpret the music through the visual [illustrations], so I thought collage would be the best way to approach this idea.” He said of Marilyn Nelson, the author, “The poems she wrote are amazing; they are totally the voice of the instruments.” He wanted to illustrate that voice through his art.

Jerry went on to describe the time period of the book. “This is 1935-45 – a turbulent time in the country – you had World War II, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and Jim Crow, and dance was the Band-Aid, and everybody danced. It was an amazing, energetic time, so you can see in the opening illustrations that I wanted to give the instruments a voice and to interpret the instrument. I xeroxed pieces of the poem and applied it to the watercolor as part of the illustration.”

Jerry showed photographs of the Sweethearts of Rhythm musicians standing in front of their bus, a picture of the devastation wrought by the Dust Bowl, a sign about Jim Crow laws, and a photograph of WWII soldiers. One illustration showed a Japanese family with their suitcases in hand as they waited to enter an internment camp; Jerry described how he used real photos of luggage with watercolor to create the collage. He then showed a photo of an African-American man farming a Victory Garden, the small plots of vegetables people grew to supplement the food supply during wartime, and said, “I knew about Victory Gardens, but I didn’t know that Blacks had them. If you research World War II, you didn’t learn that. That is what is so rich about [researching] history, how much you learn, how much you grow as a person.”

He went on to describe the musicians in the group: “The women were beautiful, amazing, and of course they traveled the South. Here’s a photo of Tiny; she played the trumpet and would mimic Satchmo [Louie Armstrong, who would puff out his cheeks as he blew on his trumpet]. I didn’t have many images of the musicians themselves, so I was trying to rework from a small profile, and my wife said, ‘Since you have so little to work with, don’t try to use their likenesses,’ but how could I not use Tiny’s [face for the illustration]?”

Jerry wrapped up his portion by showing photos of the Harlem Cotton Club, a popular night club where white folks would go to dance; a group of sailors, and another photo of the Sweethearts of Rhythm. He concluded, “It was a magical time.”

Jacqueline Woodson replied, “I love what Jerry said about how, when you are writing history, you learn so much about history and I think that’s the case about writing. Even though I write fiction when I sit down to write a book I have so many questions about the world and writing helps me make sense of the world.”

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