Children’s Authors Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey on Finding Hope While Taking Things Slow
Wondering how to talk to kids? Try pictures.
In a year where the simplest back to school decisions are up in the air – do we even need backpacks anymore? – books might be the most reliable part of a child's education. Luckily for Austinite parents, tucked into the less obvious folds of our city's art scene is a wealth of picture book authors, including brothers Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey.
Their 2020 book The Old Truck, a recent Mayor's Book Club pick, follows a Southern farming family, honoring each generation's dreams and what they pass down to their children. Jarrett and Jerome wrote and illustrated it together in admiration of the Black women in their own family. Years ago, their great-grandmother worked extreme hours picking cotton at low wages in Louisiana to eventually buy herself a farm.
"The book was inspired by not only her, but also our grandmothers [and] our mom," Jarrett said. "There was this spirit that they exhibited of perseverance. Perseverance, dreaming big, and achieving the goals that they set for themselves." Their great-grandmother's land is still in the family, and as authors, the Pumphrey brothers aim to create something that outlives them in the same way.
The text of the book is simple, leaving room for families to imagine together what the titular vehicle stands for – what does it mean for an old truck to "chase the stars"? "Visually, the truck stays in the same place throughout the whole book. There's a repetition of images as you go through," Jerome said. That visual rhythm, created with a unique style of stamped illustration, allows the Pumphreys to create a sense of stability in the book even amidst the life cycles it charts, as a young girl repairs the family truck and grows up to have a daughter of her own. That comforting sameness in the face of change speaks to the hopefulness and hard work they learned from their family.
A similar approach guides Share Your Rainbow: 18 Artists Draw Their Hope for the Future, a collaborative picture book the Pumphreys had a hand in. (Fellow Austinite Divya Srinivasan also contributed.) Released as an e-book in July with physical copies available on August 11, the book collects "rainbows," or little moments to maintain hope for in the days beyond the pandemic. Jarrett and Jerome's contribution reads, "I can't wait to ride a rainbow," depicting a carefree group of kids on a colorful roller coaster, their hands in the air. "The illustration we did almost came from my daughter's mouth. She really wants to go to Disney World," Jerome said. "We created artwork that expressed that emotion or that rainbow that we'd be looking forward to."
The book doesn't explicitly mention the coronavirus, but with scenes about returning to public spaces and getting to hold hands with your friends again, the context is clear. Paired with a good cause – 100% of the book's profits will go to World Central Kitchen's coronavirus relief effort – Share Your Rainbow is designed as a tool to start approachable conversations about the pandemic with children. "Our wish list keeps growing of where we're going to go when all of this is over," Jerome said. "It's a summer our families would have done something together." Both parents of two, Jarrett and Jerome are toeing the delicate line between getting their kids excited about the future while being patient about the day-to-day uncertainties, like when their schools will open again.
Since they work from home, the Pumphreys are better able to adapt to kids starting the school year still at home. "We're going with the flow, and hopefully everyone can be safe and it can work out," Jarrett said. "But I'm very much aware that's not the case for everyone. Some people have jobs they need to get back to, and having their kids home might be problematic."
Since there's no one-size-fits-all advice when it comes to planning for this new semester, the Pumphreys just maintain respect and empathy for the children at the center of these decisions. While every parent weathers the crisis differently, they hope to create work that helps young readers process the complexities they're experiencing. "We often talk to each other about something being too deep or too nuanced. [But] what I've learned is, kids – they're so smart. They get it," Jarrett said. "They'll point out things that their parents are totally missing."