“Nothing short of masterful.” “Stunningly beautiful.” “Luminous.” Reviewers reached for superlatives when they wrote about the work of Jerry Pinkney, whose elegant, gracefully drafted watercolor illustrations won him almost every honor the field had to offer. Caldecott Medalist, five-time Caldecott Honoree, five-time Coretta Scott King award recipient, and recipient of the 2016 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for lifetime achievement (now the Children’s Literature Legacy Award), Pinkney illustrated more than 100 books that celebrated Black life and culture and retold traditional tales in ways that let Black and brown children see themselves in them.

When he passed away in October 2021, he left unfinished works. Pinkney’s family and publishers came together to make the decisions he wasn’t there to make. “We couldn’t have come this far with Jerry and not have this work out,” said Jennifer Browne, creative director at Neal Porter Books. “It was really important that we do it.”

A Walk in the Woods, a picture book by Nikki Grimes due out from Neal Porter Books on September 12, whose cover is revealed here for the first time, follows an African American boy who is reluctant to go into the woods that he and his late father loved, until a mysterious map leads him back. In Just Jerry, an illustrated memoir from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers released last month, the author recalled his childhood on Earlham Street, a close-knit Black neighborhood in Philadelphia, and the way his parents, teachers, and artistic mentors recognized his talent and helped him succeed.

Writing ‘A Walk in the Woods’

Although they had known each other for over 40 years, it wasn't until they served together on a panel in 2019 that they thought about working together. The idea to collaborate came from Pinkney’s wife Gloria: “Why haven’t you done a book together?” she asked. As Grimes and Pinkney talked, they found they shared a common concern: there weren’t enough books about African American children engaging in nature. They began to envision a story about a Black child encountering wildlife in the woods.

“I just want it to be a conversation between the two of us,” Pinkney told her. Grimes sent him a couple of story ideas. “No, no,” he said. “I want it to be a conversation.”

Still not sure quite what that meant, she offered to fly east (she lives in California) and visit him for a week. They could walk in the woods every day. Pinkney eagerly agreed. But the pandemic had already begun. Lockdowns followed, and the plan had to be scuttled.

“Go for walks,” she suggested to Pinkney. “Take a camera with you, take videos, and send them to me.” With a little coaching (“He kept sending me videos that pointed up at the sky when I needed to see where the kid is putting his foot”), he started observing more closely. “He would discover things that were new, and he would be excited—‘Look what I just saw!’ You could hear the joy and the glee.” “Write it down,” Grimes told him, “The same thing you said, send it to me.”

She knew that the boy in her story was grieving for his father and had stopped going into the woods where they had walked together. How to make him go back in? “The mystery I came up with was the idea of having this treasure hunt.” The boy finds a map his father has left for him. It leads to a cache of drawings—pictures of wildlife the father made when he was the boy’s age.

Searching online for information about landmarks in the parkland where she knew Pinkney was wandering led to new elements in the story: “the water storage place, the fireplace where the treasure was found.” As she got closer to finishing, she shared the outline of the story with Pinkney. His excitement buoyed her.

At last she had a complete manuscript. She and Pinkney brought a dummy to show editor Neal Porter. Pinkney started work on the next round of drawings. These were tight sketches—taut, detailed line drawings of the forest wildlife that the boy and his father might encounter, and which Pinkney himself had seen in the woods on his walks: a garter snake at rest, the white tail of a deer bounding away, a bald eagle startled into flight.

And then Porter called with the news of Pinkney’s death. Grimes grieved. And she waited. She didn’t know whether Pinkney had finished the drawings. She called Pinkney’s wife Gloria to see how she was doing; they were friends, too. It was Gloria who gave her the news. “You know, he finished the work. In 62 years, I’ve never known him to finish a book all the way through this way,” she told Grimes. “And she said that [Pinkney’s son] Brian would pick up the project and do the painting.”

A son who had just lost his artist father would finish the artwork for a story about a boy who had just lost his artist father. It was so close to home. “I tried to imagine what it would be like when [Brian] read the manuscript for the first time,” Grimes said. “He went for a walk in the woods, and then he came home and read it. It gave me chills.”

Finishing the Artwork

“I knew I didn’t want someone to simply color those black and white drawings in the style of Jerry Pinkney,” Porter said. “Brian has a unique style that’s very different from Jerry’s. Whatever resulted would be unique and special, a merging of their respective sensibilities.”

“When Neal called to offer it to me,” Brian Pinkney remembered, “he said, ‘This is a little eerie. Have you read the story?’ And I said no. He said, ‘Read it and let me know if you’re interested in completing it.’ ”

In the book’s afterword, Brian Pinkney wrote about the first time he read the story: “A boy looking in the mirror soon after his father has died had been my exact experience in the days leading up to the moment I read Nikki’s words for the first time. I took all of this as a visitation from Dad.”

The task of completing his father’s art was a daunting prospect: they were father and son, but they were very different artists. He captured the experience in a poem. It starts:

There is only

The map

Of his sketches

No guarantee

of a treasure

Only Faith.

(See full poem below.)

As it turned out, he had already made some of the paintings that ended up accompanying his father’s sketches. “In the summer,” he remembered, “we were at the beach, and I was showing my dad these paintings, and I said, ‘I don’t know what they’re there for. They’re maybe underpaintings for something? They’re mystical, melancholy swooshes of mood.” they became some of the spreads that add color and motion to his father’s drawings.

Superimposing the tight sketches over his own artwork was a challenge. Ideally, they could have been scanned onto transparent material, but that wasn’t possible. Creative director Browne explained why. “[The scanning studio] didn’t want to drop out the background. There were pencil lines left, and they didn’t want to delete something that might be important.”

But if Brian put the drawings underneath the watercolor paper and started painting, the drawings were hard to see. He could trace the drawings and then lay the tracings over his own paintings; that worked, but not always.

Brian’s niece, Charnelle Pinkney Barlow, came to the rescue. Barlow is an illustrator—the third generation of Pinkney artists—with the skills needed to combine the two sets of images digitally. Brian remembered calling her. “I said, ‘Your granddaddy needs you!’ And she said, ‘Sure, Uncle Brian!’ ”

“They did basic scans on a white background,” Browne said, “and Charnelle got in there and fearlessly fixed things. When I had to go back to her and say, ‘Can you just tweak this? Can you just move that?’ she’d say, ‘Yeah, no problem!’ Nobody wanted to let Jerry down.”

Jerry’s studio supplied many of the tools Brian needed. “I used his watercolor paper—he had stacks of it—and his tracing paper, his lightbox. Every time I went, I would take one more brush, and I’d say, ‘Dad, I’m taking this one to use in your book!’ ”

As the book neared completion, Porter had a hard time separating his own emotions from his powers of judgment. “Every time I look at this book, I get a little weepy,” he said. He didn’t know how others would see it. The person he handed it off to reassured him. “When the copy editor got it, she said, ‘This is so beautiful, I can’t believe it!’ ”

Finishing ‘Just Jerry’

Another work awaiting completion had taken an even longer journey—almost 10 years. Just Jerry started out as a picture book for another publisher, but the project had stalled. Editor Andrea Spooner thought she saw another book inside that one: a chapter book written in the voice of the boy Jerry had once been.

The memoir started with raw material Pinkney had assembled for the earlier project—“the chaos of memory,” Spooner called it, “many handwritten pages of doodles and memories.” Follow-up questions and long visits to Pinkney’s house helped fill these out and gave the book its scaffolding. For Pinkney, writing was a daunting prospect. Should he collaborate with someone else? It didn’t work. “He just decided that the only person who could tell the story had to have been there, to capture the voices of the people, to capture the places.” Recording some of his memories on audiotape brought the right storytelling voice closer. His wife Gloria had been his high-school sweetheart. She knew Earlham Street, and she had been in his family’s house. She could remember with him.

Spooner and Pinkney explored the idea of making the book more visually driven, the kind of thing he might have been drawn to himself as a child with dyslexia, “a book in which pictures take center stage, with sequential art sections in black and white, larger type and wider leading,” Spooner said. But they never got the time. “I was very sad, but I quickly moved on from that.”

The text, though, was almost done. “Jerry, we have a book! Congratulations!” Spooner remembers saying in a phone call in early October 2021. Though there was more editorial work to do, “it was 95% there before he died. It really was his book,” Spooner said.

“To design the book without him,” she said, “to design the jacket without him—the pressure—it’s on you to create something that he would be proud of. I did have Gloria to consult with. She knew him better than anyone. We feel confident that he would have been pleased.”

Memories of working with Pinkney have special significance for those who were close to him. “We had this great correspondence throughout,” Grimes said. “I was reading through it, and it just made me weep. The correspondence was the gift of our separation. His voice is in there.”

Walk in the Woods Poem

By Brian Pinkney

There is only

the map

of his sketches

No guarantee

of a treasure

Only Faith

I need travel time

To wander and ponder

In the making

Swooshes for me

Marks for him



We are different instruments

Different jobs

Different sounds

Blend together

And move apart


Different notes



We don’t know

till we start jamming

These words aren’t the


A poetic description

Of the process

I’m learning


How he had

A highly developed

Way of constructing

His world

Evolved from


many years


to his references


To prepare for

His way

Of painting


Of the way

His hand worked

His eyes saw

His mind processed

And I have mine

This is a meeting

Of the two

A righty


A lefty

One older

One younger


And a son

Both dyslexic too

Meeting again

On the same page