When celebrated illustrator Jerry Pinkney died in October 2021, he and author Nikki Grimes had been working on a picture book together—a book about a son dealing with the death of his father. In an uncanny parallel, the task of finishing the artwork fell to Pinkney’s son Brian, who was grieving the loss of his father. A Walk in the Woods (Holiday House/Porter, Sept.) tells the story of a boy who is reluctant to return to the woods that he and his late father loved—until a mysterious map leads him there.

The collaboration between Grimes and Jerry Pinkney started with a shared concern: they both felt there weren’t enough books about Black children engaging with nature. Grimes and Pinkney envisioned a story about a Black child encountering wildlife in the woods. When the pandemic scuttled plans for a working visit, Grimes came up with another idea to inspire Pinkney.

“Go for walks,” Grimes suggested. “Take a camera with you, take videos, and send them to me.” Pinkney started observing more closely. “He would discover things that were new—‘Look what I just saw!’ ”

Grimes knew that the boy in her story was grieving the death of his father, hesitating to retrace the steps they’d taken together. “The mystery I came up with was the idea of having this treasure hunt,” she recalls. The boy finds a map his father has left for him that leads to a cache of drawings the father made when he was the boy’s age.

Grimes and Pinkney shared a dummy with editor Neal Porter, and Pinkney started work on “tight sketches”—taut, detailed line drawings of the forest wildlife he had seen in the woods on his walks: a garter snake, a deer, a bald eagle in flight.

Then Porter called with the news of Pinkney’s death. Grimes grieved. And she waited. Had Pinkney finished the drawings? She called Pinkney’s wife, Gloria, to see how she was doing. It was Gloria who gave her the news. “You know, he finished the work,” she told Grimes, adding that Pinkney’s son Brian would take over work on the project from there.

I took all of this as a visitation from Dad. —Brian Pinkney

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. “I tried to imagine what it would be like when Brian read the manuscript for the first time,” Grimes says. “It gave me chills.”

Finishing the artwork

“When Neal called to offer it to me,” Brian Pinkney remembers, “he said, ‘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 wrote, “I took all of this as a visitation from Dad.”

As it turned out, Brian had already begun to make some of the paintings that ended up in the book, “mystical, melancholy swooshes of mood.” They became the spreads that added color and motion to his father’s black-and-white drawings. Brian wrote about their collaboration in a poem that ends with the words, “One older/ One younger/ Father/ And a son/ Meeting again/ On the same page.”

A Walk in the Woods is picking up momentum ahead of its pub date. It’s already been chosen as a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection, and Nikki Grimes and Brian Pinkney will be featured this June at ALA Annual in Chicago.

Grimes and Pinkney will deliver the breakfast keynote on Wednesday, June 7, 7:30–8:45 a.m.

Antonia Saxon is a long-time book reviewer and features writer for PW.

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