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Illustrator Spotlight: The Pumphrey Brothers

If you’ve ever driven through Texas, you will understand in a heartbeat the vision behind Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey’s latest book, The Old Truck. 

Endless sun-worn fields. Impossibly long spans of sky. Flashes of vibrant green: corn in season. Time-tested wooden barns, somehow still standing. Cows. Chickens. And, of course, old pickup trucks. 

Some of our Club Sprout members are receiving The Old Truck this month. The Pumphrey brothers also created the artwork for our Where the Heart Resides theme. 

Behind the Inspiration

This isn’t the brothers’ first venture into the children’s literature landscape, but it has been a while since they were newly-published authors of Creepy Things are Scaring Me! In 2003.

“We had planned on that book being a huge success,” Jarrett said with a deep laugh. “We were going to sell millions of copies; we were going to be rich and famous; we’d never have to get real jobs. That obviously did not happen.”

Real jobs it was. They grew up and forged careers—Jarrett as an entrepreneur, Jerome as a designer. But both Houston natives eventually settled back to their Texan roots, this time in Austin, and that was when they began crafting their story about a family, a farm, and a truck. 

How Does a Collaborative Creative Process Work?

The illustrations in The Old Truck are immediately distinct, and for good reason. The brothers used over 250 craft-foam stamps to create the book, each hand-drawn and cut by hand with an exacto-knife. 

“It’s a great process for us as collaborators,” Jarrett said, “because we can both chip in and do the work and craft these spreads.”

They created each original spread in black and white, then scanned and digitally-colored and composed the elements using a palette of eight colors. The effect: an artistic style that is equal parts modern and nostalgic. 

Why the mix of digital and analogue?

Jerome acknowledged that yes, many artists work entirely digitally these days. But, he said, “it does take a certain amount of care when you’re working with physical materials. I don’t think you can imitate that.” 

Stamps used to create the Old Truck itself, courtesy of Norton Young Readers.

Inspired by classics from artists like Ezra Jack Keats, the brothers’ goal with The Old Truck was to create a beautiful book “that could look timeless, like it belongs with other classic beautiful books.” 

As for working side by side as siblings? 

“For the most part, we’re really in sync,” Jarrett said. “It’s great to not have to be the one who comes up with all the ideas. When you have someone who you can count on to have a similar line of thinking but still bring their own ideas and thoughts, it’s… really sort of magical.”

This American Life—On a Farm

Children’s literature is commonly criticized for its limited portrayals of people of color. Notably, the family at the center of The Old Truck is a black family. But the story isn’t a story of urban life or conflict; it’s a portrayal of everyday, rural American life. 

It’s a topic that both Jarrett and Jerome share a passion for, but they said they didn’t set out to specifically write a book about black people on a farm. 

“We were writing a book that’s representative of us—and we happen to be black,” Jarrett said. “In our view, you can represent without having to be so on the nose about it. Having a black family on a farm in this story does quietly represent black people in a good way.”

They each value books featuring people of color that don’t explicitly discuss race or the struggle of being a certain race.

“We hope it’s a universal story that anyone could see themselves in,” Jarrett said. “Especially people that might look like the characters in the book. The characters, the family in that book, they’re based on our family. It was important to us.”

Notable, too, is the fact that their central character (besides the truck, of course) is a little girl. But she, too, is based on their family. Their great-grandmother was a self-made farmer, working long hours picking cotton to save up to purchase a farm — a farm the family still owns in Louisiana. 

“For us, it felt completely natural,” Jarrett said. “We grew up in a family full of strong women… so we drew on that.” 

A Cool Story About a Truck, or a Deeper Story About Family?

Both brothers are parents now, and they say that role has shaped their storytelling. The Old Truck uses an uncomplicated storyline and simple illustrations to bring a slice of life alive to readers of all ages.

“If all kids got out of it was that it’s a cool story about a truck, with great pictures, that would be absolutely fine with me,” Jarrett said. But kids are smarter than they’ve often given credit for, he says. They pick up on things.

“And if they pick up on some of the nuanced layers in the story, that’s all bonus and gravy for me,” he said. 

Jerome echoed those sentiments. “I really enjoy hearing what people get from it,” he said. “If they see themselves in the book and have an emotional response to it… it creates an emotional response in me, and it’s the greatest feeling.”

Both brothers say they’ve gotten an incredible range of responses from readers about the last illustration spread.

“One person told us that they were a bit sad because there was no dad in the picture. Another told us how great it was to see a strong single mother on the last page. Some people don’t even know that the girl is the woman’s daughter; maybe that’s the neighbor,” Jarrett said. 

“There’s so much opportunity for them to take their own lives and weave it into the image, and we love that.”

But at the heart? 

Jarrett’s smile warmed his voice. “I mean, it’s an old red truck. Who doesn’t love an old red truck?”

Want more of the Pumphrey Brothers? Follow along on Instagram as Jarrett takes on the challenge of restoring his own Old Truck. 

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