Andrea Davis Pinkney Interview Transcript
PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
Author Andrea Davis Pinkney was interviewed by Scholastic students.
How did you start writing books?
When I was a kid, my mom was an English teacher who was always bringing home books for me to read, and I wondered, “who were the people who wrote these books?” I soon learned that authors were the people who wrote books, and I discovered that I wanted to be an author. The way I got started was by writing stories on an old typewriter. And then one day, I wrote a story about Alvin Ailey, the dancer — when I was a grown-up. I sent the story to several publishers in New York City, and Hyperion Books for Children decided they wanted to publish my story about Alvin Ailey as a book. That was my first picture book — and that's how I got started.
How do you feel about being an author?
I love being an author because I can do my work any time, any place I want to. I can lay on the couch with a notebook in my hand and a pen and write my stories as I relax. But mostly I work on a computer, sitting up.
How long have you been writing professionally?
My first published piece appeared in the Sunday New York Times in 1986. It was an essay that I wrote about growing up as a child in a small town in Connecticut where there were very few black families. I got paid $75 for writing that story, and that made me a “professional” because someone had actually paid me to write something. And I've been writing professionally ever since!
Do you like working with Brian Pinkney?
First of all, I should be clear on who Brian Pinkney is. Some people think Brian is my brother. Some people think Brian Pinkney is my son; but the truth is I am married to Brian Pinkney. He is my husband. I absolutely positively love working with Brian Pinkney.
How did you decide to write books with your husband?
Well, since I'm a writer and my husband is an illustrator, one day we looked at each other and thought it would be a good idea to make a book together. Then, we figured that because we have so much fun doing so many things together, it would be fun to make books together. And we were right!
How long does it take you to write one book?
This is a very good question. It takes me, from beginning to end, from the time I think of the idea until you see a bound book, about two years. For example, I wrote a book called Ella Fitzgerald right after I came home from the hospital from having my son. My son is now 2 and a half. The book Ella Fitzgerald will be published this spring.
What was your first book?
My first book was a book entitled Alvin Ailey.
What is your favorite book that you have written?
My new favorite is the book that's coming out this spring entitled Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa. This is my favorite because it's all about the singer Ella Fitzgerald, who made scat singing popular. The story is told from the point of view of a cat whose name is Scat Cat Monroe.
Do you write books for grown-ups?
That's another good question. I've never written a book for grown-ups, but maybe I will someday.
Do you feel that you try to make a difference in people's live with your writing? If so, how?
I absolutely hope that my books make a positive difference in people's lives. A good example of this would be a book that I wrote entitled Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters. I hope that book introduces readers to some of the most important women in American history who helped bring about equal rights for African Americans. Some of the women in the book include Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks. If you'd like to know about these women, you can read the book!
How did you get to do the piece on Duke Ellington?
My husband, the illustrator Brian Pinkney, is a huge Duke Ellington fan. One day, we were sitting in a cafe eating lunch, and Brian said, “Hey, I know! We should do a book about Duke Ellington!” And I said, “Hey, what a great idea! Let's do it!” And we did.
Did Duke inspire your husband (Brian) to play music, and what is your husband's instrument?
When Brian Pinkney was a little boy, he wanted to be either a jazz drummer or an artist. When he was growing up, he played in many jazz bands and in the marching band at his school. He also was very good at art, so he decided to become an artist; but he never left his love of music. Duke Ellington's drummer, Sonny Greer, inspired him; when he was creating the book; that's what he was inspired by.
We just read Duke Ellington. We really liked the pictures. Does your husband always use the same scratchboard painting style, and how does he create them?
Brian Pinkney mostly uses the scratchboard technique. The way that is done is he starts with a white board that is covered with black ink. He then uses a very sharp tool — a nib — to scratch wavy ink to create an image. Once the image is drawn into the scratchboard, he then paints the scratched part with oil paints, Luma dyes, and acrylic paints.
How did he decide to be an illustrator, and did he go to art school or is he self-taught?
Brian Pinkney's dad is Jerry Pinkney, who is also a children's book illustrator. When Brian was growing up, he wanted to be just like his dad. That's how he decided to become an illustrator. Even though Brian's dad is an illustrator, Brian did go to art school. He's a graduate of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He also has a Master's degree in illustration from the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
Where did you meet Brian Pinkney and when did you get married?
I met Brian Pinkney when I worked at a magazine called Mechanics Illustrated. Brian Pinkney worked in the art department at a different magazine across the hall. That magazine was called Field & Stream. We got married in 1991. We just celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary.
Aside from the Duke Ellington idea, how do you get your ideas for the subject matter for your books?
The way I get ideas is that they pop into my head at the oddest times. One of the places that ideas come to me is while riding the subways in New York City.
What do you do in your spare time?
In my spare time, I love to visit antique stores to buy things for my house. Sometimes, I find the best stuff in junk shops. It's really fun when you can get a chair for $2.
Do you know that you inspire us? Do you ever think about this when you're writing? How does it make you feel?
What a nice thing to say! No, I didn't know that you were inspired by me! But that is one of the best compliments that anyone can receive. Thank you! When I'm writing, I do think of who might be reading the books, but it never necessarily occurs to me that someone may actually become inspired. In fact, I'm always a little surprised when I go into a bookstore and see one of my books on the shelves.
We just read Duke Ellington. What are you working on now? Do you ever write fictional books without illustrations or books not about African Americans?
My next book is entitled Ella Fitzgerald, which will be published this spring. I'm also working on a middle-grade novel. I've written several novels for young readers. All my books feature African-American characters.
Do you ever do school visits in NYC?
I sometimes do school visits in New York City, but because I work as a book editor during the day, it's not always easy for me to make an appearance at a school. Brian Pinkney does quite a few school visits in New York City. I'm always happy to join him on a school visit if it's close to home, and New York City is my home.
Can you tell me the name of one of your fiction novels?
My latest novel is entitled Silent Thunder. It's about a brother and sister, growing up on a Virginia plantation during the Civil War.
As young writers what advice can you give us?
Many writers keep a notebook with them at all times. I certainly do this. So, I would suggest that if you want to be a writer, you keep a notebook with you at all times. Write in that notebook every single day, even when you don't feel like it — even if you write “I don't feel like writing,” at least that's something.
How long did it take you to write the book Let It Shine?
I started the book Let It Shine when my daughter was a baby in the stroller. The book was published when my daughter was entering kindergarten. It took me five years!
Do you have any stories planned about your kids?
I don't have any stories planned about my children, but my children do appear in some of my books. For example, in the book Duke Ellington, there is an illustration of a family listening to the radio. The little girl sitting on the floor listening is my daughter. The man, the father, turning the dial on the radio is Brian Pinkney. In the book Ella Fitzgerald, there's a little girl jumping rope. That is also my daughter. In the book Ella Fitzgerald, my son was the model for Scat Cat Monroe.
How do you do your research? What methods do you suggest?
I always start my research at the library by reading tons of books; but I also like to get primary-source material. So, for example, when I was writing the book Alvin Ailey, I spent a long time talking to Alvin Ailey's mother, who told me all about her son's life when he was a little boy.
Why did you decide to go to Africa? How did the trip to Africa help you in writing?
I went to Africa because I was writing a magazine article about Ghana. The trip helped me do some research for a book that I wrote entitled Seven Candles for Kwanzaa. The illustrated borders in that book are inspired by African fabrics that Brian Pinkney and I purchased when we were there.
Besides yourself, who is your favorite author? What is your all-time favorite book?
Well, I'm not my favorite author. I have a lot of favorite authors! I like to read books by Avi, by Anne Rinaldi. I like to read books by Patricia McKissack and Virginia Hamilton. I have a new favorite book, which I just read entitled A Step From Heaven by An Na. It's a book about a Korean child who comes to the United States for the first time. The book just won the Michael L. Printz award.
Is JoJo in the story JoJo's Flying Side Kick your daughter?
That's a good question — but no, my daughter is not JoJo.
What made you write Solo Girl?
I wrote Solo Girl because I wanted to write a book for second and third graders. I also wrote the book because it has to do with an experience I had growing up.
Do you like writing fiction or nonfiction books better?
I like writing them both. I like writing nonfiction because I love to do research, and I like writing fiction because I like making up characters.
Do the writings of other African-American authors inspire you? How does this inspire you?
I get inspired by all kinds of writers, and very good writing encourages me to do my very best writing.
If you were not an author today, what would you be now? What suggestions would you like to give to those children who want to be authors in the future like you?
In addition to being an author, I'm also a children's book editor, and I love doing that. For anyone who wants to be an author, I would suggest writing every single day of your life. Authors write every single day.
Do you think that young black Americans should write about their experience as African Americans in this culture? Why do you think this is important?
I think authors should be free to write anything that inspires them.
When you write about African Americans, like Ella Fitzgerald, do you feel in some sense that you are writing about yourself too? Are any of your characters based on you?
I don't know if I feel that I'm writing about myself when I'm writing about someone else, but I'm certainly inspired by the creativity of the people I'm writing about. Yes, some of my fictional characters are loosely based on me, and things that have happened to me.
Are you a teacher or have you ever taught children?
No, I'm not a teacher, and I've never taught children. But I like teachers.
Do you plan to be a writer for the rest of your life, or do you think you'll change jobs?
One never knows what the future may bring! But for today, I love being a writer.
What was your favorite book when you were a child? Has it ever inspired you to write a book as a grown-up?
My favorite book as a child was Go, Dog. Go! by P.D. Easton. Mr. Easton's simple, funny text made me want to write books of my own.
You said your father was a great storyteller. What kind of stories did he tell?
My father can make up stories about the simplest things, and turn them into funny, engaging yarns. For example, he could tell a story about trying to find a parking space, or standing in line at the bank, and it always comes out good.
Did your parents ever write books?
No. My parents are not authors; but they certainly read the books I write! I need to sign off now because I have to go buy a Valentine for Brian Pinkney. But I've enjoyed this little chat, and thanks for such great questions!