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Originally published Friday, January 29, 2010 at 7:02 PM

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Kids' books: For Jerry Pinkney, Caldecott win is 'very confirming'

Up close with the winner of the Caldecott Medal for best-illustrated children's book of the year.

Scripps Howard News Service

It was a moment laden with history: On this year's Martin Luther King holiday, Jerry Pinkney became the first individual African-American to win the Caldecott Medal for his book "The Lion & the Mouse" (Little, Brown, $16.99).

Established in 1938 by the American Library Association, the Caldecott Medal — given to the best-illustrated children's book of the year — has been won twice by an interracial couple, illustrators Leo and Diane Dillon.

But Pinkney, 70, is the first individual African-American to win the award, a fact that was curiously underplayed in most news reports. In fact, there was no mention of it in the official news release from the American Library Association about the 2010 Caldecott and Newbery medal winners.

Nina Lindsay, the children's-collection management librarian at the Oakland, Calif., Public Library and one of two main bloggers for the "Heavy Medal" blog (www.schoollibraryjournal.com/blog/560000656.html), was among those who noted the absence of stories about Pinkney's achievement.

In a blog post titled "What Breaking News?" published last week, Lindsay wondered why The New York Times article on the awards focused mostly on the 2010 Newbery Medal winner, "When You Reach Me" (Random House, $15.99), as the best-written children's book, when "the bigger news to me is that Jerry Pinkney is the first individual African-American to get a Caldecott Medal."

Some children's-literature experts have long lamented the fact that no individual African-American had won the Caldecott until this year. (Several African-Americans have won the Newbery Medal, the last one being Christopher Paul Curtis, who won the 2000 Newbery Medal for "Bud, Not Buddy.")

In a column published last year in The Horn Book magazine, author Nikki Grimes wrote: "Wouldn't it be wonderful for our first black president to be able to invite the first black Caldecott medalist to the White House?"

Pinkney, meanwhile, called the news that he had become the first individual African-American to win the Caldecott Medal "very confirming."

"I've always thought about myself and about my work as being a role model and a teacher," Pinkney said in a telephone interview from his home outside New York City just after he won the Caldecott. "When I talk to students, I tell them to find a thing that they love and are passionate about and stick to it, no matter what."

Children's-book expert Anita Silvey believes that the fact that Pinkney finally has won the Caldecott Medal will inspire many others.

"Since 1964, he has created over a hundred picture books ... and yet he has never won the industry's highest award. So now in his 46th year as a children's-book creator, the prize has finally come to him," Silvey said. "That has already inspired many illustrators to keep working and keep trying, even if their efforts have been overlooked so far."

Over the years, Pinkney has won five Caldecott Honors, which is why he didn't count on winning a Caldecott Medal for "The Lion & the Mouse," despite the numerous accolades for the book from reviewers, librarians and young readers.

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The buzz surrounding the book was considerable, and many experts agreed with Pittsburgh children's-literature consultant Amy Kellman that if "The Lion & the Mouse" didn't win the Caldecott Medal, "there is no justice."

Pinkney said, however, that he wasn't necessarily expecting to win.

"This book has attracted so much attention among readers — that in itself is what it's all about,"Pinkney said.

In "The Lion & the Mouse," Pinkney retells one of Aesop's most popular fables, the story of how a lion lets a mouse go only to have the mouse later save his life. For his nearly wordless version, Pinkney chose to set the story in the African Serengeti and he added another emotional layer by giving the mouse a family.

"Pinkney's stunning watercolors add new dimensions to an ancient tale in a book which is sure to become a beloved classic," said Rita Auerbach, chairman of the 2010 Caldecott committee.

Pinkney actually is part of a family dynasty of children's-book creators. His wife, Gloria Jean, writes children's books. Sons Myles and Brian illustrate children's books written by their wives, Sandra Pinkney (Myles) and Andrea Davis Pinkney (Brian).

While Pinkney is pleased at having made Caldecott history, he's got plenty of projects to keep him busy. His next children's book will be his version of "Three Little Kittens," inspired by his great-granddaughter.

Pinkney also has other creative outlets. He has created artwork for National Park Service projects, designed several stamps and does commissioned art. He also regularly presents one-man shows of his artwork.

Winning the Caldecott will make his life even busier, Pinkney understands.

"But it's all about balance," he added. "It's very fulfilling."

Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.

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