A Walk in the Woods

writ­ten by Nik­ki Grimes
illus­trat­ed by Jer­ry Pinkney 
     and Bri­an Pinkney
Neal Porter Books / Hol­i­day House, Sep­tem­ber 12, 2023
hard­cov­er ISBN 978–0823449651

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A Walk in the Woods

EIGHT starred reviews

In this mov­ing account of loss, a boy takes a walk in the woods and makes a dis­cov­ery that changes his under­stand­ing of his father.

A week after the funer­al
I stare in the morn­ing mir­ror
Angry that my father’s eyes
Stare back at me.

Con­fused and dis­traught after the death of his father, a boy opens an enve­lope he left behind and is sur­prised to find a map of the woods beyond their house, with one spot marked in bright red. But why? The woods had been some­thing they shared togeth­er, why would his father want him to go alone?

Slow­ly, his mind set­tles as he sets off through the spaces he once explored with his dad, pass­ing famil­iar beech and black oak trees, flit­ting Car­oli­na wrens, and a garter snake they named Sal. When he reach­es the spot marked on the map, he finds pages upon pages of draw­ings of wood­land crea­tures, made by his father when he was his age. What he sees shows him a side of his dad he nev­er knew, and some­thing even deep­er for them share togeth­er. His dad knew what he real­ly need­ed was a walk in the woods.

New York Times best­selling author Nik­ki Grimes and the Calde­cott Award win­ning illus­tra­tor Jer­ry Pinkney spent the ear­ly days of the pan­dem­ic email­ing back and forth and talk­ing about col­lab­o­rat­ing on a book, with Jer­ry shar­ing all of the pic­tures he took of the woods around his house. From this, they con­jured a sto­ry of a boy’s strug­gle with grief, and all the things he sees and feels on a walk through the forest.

Jer­ry sad­ly passed away in the fall of 2021, but not before he deliv­ered tight pen­cil sketch­es of the forests he loved. When his son Bri­an took on the task of com­plet­ing the illus­tra­tions, he found him­self con­nect­ing with his father in a whole new way, his expe­ri­ence mir­ror­ing that of the boy in the book. The result is a simul­ta­ne­ous­ly touch­ing and deeply authen­tic sto­ry about the ways shared pas­times keep us close to those we’ve lost.

Awards and Recognition

  • Book­list, starred review
  • Book­Page Ten Best Books
  • Book­Page, starred review
  • Bul­letin of the Cen­ter for Chil­dren’s Books, starred review
  • CSMCL Best Books
  • The Horn Book, starred review
  • Horn Book Fanfare
  • Imag­i­na­tion Soup Best Books
  • Kirkus Reviews Best Books
  • Kirkus Reviews, starred review
  • Nation­al Pub­lic Radio Best Books
  • New York Times Best Books
  • Pub­lish­ers Week­ly Best Books of 2023
  • Pub­lish­ers Week­ly, starred review
  • School Library Jour­nal, starred review
  • Shelf Aware­ness Best Books
  • Shelf Aware­ness, starred review
  • Smith­son­ian Mag­a­zine Ten Best Chil­dren’s Books



  Grimes writes a heartrend­ing sto­ry of loss as a young boy strug­gles to deal with the death of his father. When the child looks in the mir­ror, he is dis­heart­ened by what he sees—he is all but a repli­ca of his father who has recent­ly died. His father has left him a map of the woods behind their home with a red mark. He decides to take a walk in the woods, which he and his father did reg­u­lar­ly. He begins to have an inner dia­logue with his dad about the wildlife he sees and hears, and when he finds the place that is marked on the map, he sees a brick fire­place where a house once stood. Inside a met­al box are beau­ti­ful draw­ings of wildlife and an unfin­ished tale. He real­izes that his father cre­at­ed the draw­ings and the sto­ry when he was the boy’s age, and the child finds a note from his father encour­ag­ing him to con­tin­ue the sto­ry or write his own. This poignant sto­ry, obvi­ous­ly ampli­fied by the pass­ing of Jer­ry Pinkney, is qui­et­ly haunt­ing and res­onates with the shared expe­ri­ences of par­ent and child. There is a third Pinkney involved, Char­nelle Pinkney Bar­low, who worked with Bri­an Pinkney to dig­i­tal­ly com­bine Jerry’s sketch­es with his own impres­sion­is­tic appli­ca­tions of col­or. VERDICT Illus­tra­tions and nar­ra­tive are warp and weft in a beau­ti­ful­ly craft­ed sto­ry of grief and tri­umph. Great for any children’s col­lec­tion. (Ann­marie Braith­waite, School Library Jour­nal, starred review)

  In an ele­gant­ly col­lab­o­ra­tive pic­ture book about how “there’s always some­thing that remains,” Grimes (Bed­time for Sweet Crea­tures), the late Jer­ry Pinkney (The Lion and the Mouse), and Bri­an Pinkney (Hey Otter! Hey Beaver!) cen­ter a griev­ing Black nar­ra­tor fol­low­ing his beloved father’s death. A week after the funer­al, the child, ques­tion­ing aloud (“Why did he have to leave?”), opens an enve­lope left behind and finds a map of the near­by woods that he and his dad often explored—“with a marked spot, he finds a locked box, and inside, a sheaf of illus­tra­tions and poems about wood­land animals—all cre­at­ed by his father at the child’s age, and all revealed in detail for the read­er. Med­i­ta­tive­ly com­mand­ing text accom­pa­nies struc­tur­al sketch­es that Jer­ry Pinkney com­plet­ed before his death as well as loose, for­est-hued wash over­lays from Bri­an Pinkney. It’s a pow­er­ful­ly lay­ered call to cre­ativ­i­ty and lov­ing bonds that endure beyond death: “I close my eyes, and feel Dad next to me, his hand on my shoul­der, light as leaves.” Cre­ators’ notes con­clude. (Pub­lish­ers Week­ly, starred review)

  A mul­ti-lay­ered tale of loss. A Black boy opens an enve­lope from his recent­ly deceased father and finds a trea­sure map marked with a red X. Dis­ap­point­ed his dad hasn’t left him a let­ter, the boy puts on his hik­ing boots and reluc­tant­ly enters the woods. As he walks along the Hud­son, he sees ani­mals and notices reminders of the Mohi­cans, the orig­i­nal inhab­i­tants of this land. Enter­ing the ruins of a house, he finds a met­al box in the brick fire­place and opens it with a key that has mys­te­ri­ous­ly appeared in his pock­et. Inside, he finds a trea­sure trove of draw­ings of the nat­ur­al world and an invi­ta­tion to hon­or his father’s artis­tic lega­cy. Grimes’ qui­et yet potent verse cap­tures not only the boy’s loss, but also the mem­o­ries his father has left behind. In a mov­ing author’s note, she dis­cuss­es her decades­long friend­ship with Jer­ry Pinkney, who com­plet­ed sketch­es for the book before he died in 2021; in an illustrator’s note, Bri­an Pinkney describes how he com­plet­ed the art­work and explains that this sto­ry mir­rors his own expe­ri­ence of grap­pling with his father’s death. Brian’s stun­ning, opales­cent water­col­ors close­ly resem­ble Jerry’s but include the cir­cu­lar pat­terns and move­ment char­ac­ter­is­tic of his own illus­tra­tions. Togeth­er, Grimes and the Pinkneys have pro­duced a pro­found­ly stir­ring and thought-pro­vok­ing mus­ing on how the ones we love nev­er real­ly leave us. Joy and hope walk along­side sad­ness and grief in this unfor­get­table work. (Kirkus Reviews, starred review)

  Grimes and Jer­ry Pinkney decid­ed to col­lab­o­rate on a book in which Black char­ac­ters engage with nature. Grimes wrote the free verse text, which tells the sto­ry con­cise­ly, while express­ing the boy’s shift­ing emo­tions beau­ti­ful­ly. Before his death in 2021, Jer­ry Pinkney fin­ished the detailed, engag­ing draw­ings, which reflect his love for the nat­ur­al world. After­wards, his son Bri­an Pinkney was asked to add the water­col­or wash­es, which have a dis­tinc­tive, ethe­re­al qual­i­ty that enhances the sto­ry. An orig­i­nal, inspir­ing pic­ture book. (Car­olyn Phe­lan, Book­list, starred review)

  Short­ly after his father’s death, a boy opens an enve­lope his father left him to find a map of the woods with a bright red X mark­ing a des­ti­na­tion. Still cop­ing with his loss, he sets out on the path he and his father had tak­en on their walks through the woods near home. Along the way, the famil­iar­i­ty of trees, crea­tures, and a Mohi­can water stor­age house soft­ens his sor­row while he rem­i­nisces about their con­ver­sa­tions. At the marked spot, he dis­cov­ers a met­al box filled with sketch­es of wildlife and unfin­ished sto­ries cre­at­ed by his father when he was the boy’s age. The last page is blank with a note to the boy: “Draw and write your own sto­ry. I’ll always be watch­ing.” Grimes’s cel­e­bra­tion of nature is as elo­quent as her treat­ment of loss is poignant. Bri­an Pinkney’s water­col­or illus­tra­tions are equal­ly expres­sive. This book began as a col­lab­o­ra­tion between Grimes and Jer­ry Pinkney; fol­low­ing Jerry’s death in 2021, Bri­an joined Grimes to com­plete his father’s illus­tra­tions, adding col­or to Jerry’s tight sketch­es. Append­ed notes from Grimes and Bri­an Pinkney share their respec­tive per­son­al expe­ri­ences with the col­lab­o­ra­tion. A touch­ing tes­ta­ment to the pow­er of mem­o­ries to sus­tain those in grief. (Paulet­ta Brown Bra­cy, The Horn Book, starred review)

  A week after his father’s funer­al, a young boy finds that his grief is still cloaked in anger, and he’s even more upset when the enve­lope his father left behind con­tains a map rather than the let­ter of good­bye or note of wis­dom that the boy was hop­ing for. Nonethe­less, he straps on his hik­ing boots and heads into the for­est, fol­low­ing his father’s guid­ance to the large X that points to a sup­posed trea­sure. The walk is a balm to his pain as he takes in the qui­et ener­gy of nature, but true com­fort comes from the trea­sure his father leads him to: a bun­dle of dad’s sketch­es and sto­ries about the for­est and its denizens, all drawn by the father when he was the boy’s cur­rent age. Grimes’ lyri­cal, skill­ful text evokes the deep, painful well of the boy’s sor­row yet man­ages to bal­ance that angst with the won­der and joy he finds along his walk, high­light­ing the com­plex­i­ty of grief with­in a con­stant­ly chang­ing nat­ur­al world that relies on both life and death to con­tin­ue. The author and illus­tra­tor notes add anoth­er lay­er of poignan­cy, as the book start­ed as a col­lab­o­ra­tion between Grimes and Jer­ry Pinkney but was fin­ished after his pass­ing with the help of his son Bri­an Pinkney and grand­daugh­ter Char­nelle Pinkney Bar­low. The artis­tic col­lab­o­ra­tion is a true won­der, as Jerry’s sig­na­ture thin, sketchy linework is brought to life by Brian’s radi­ant, swirling water­col­ors, cre­at­ing a splen­did mix of ener­gy and del­i­ca­cy that com­ple­ments Grimes’ text with ease. This could be paired with Jer­ry Pinkney’s Just Jer­ry (BCCB 01/23) for a look at the author/illustrator’s life and lega­cy, or with Mountford’s The Cir­cles in the Sky (BCCB 07/22) for an inter­pre­ta­tion of grief through the nat­ur­al world.  (Bul­letin of the Cen­ter for Chil­dren’s Books, starred review)

  Nik­ki Grimes, Bri­an Pinkney and his late father, Jer­ry Pinkney, have gift­ed us a heart­break­ing­ly beau­ti­ful pic­ture book about loss and grief. End­notes explain the cre­ation jour­ney behind A Walk in the Woods (Neal Porter, $18.99, 9780823449651), where life imi­tat­ed art in an almost unbe­liev­able way. After Jerry’s wife (and cel­e­brat­ed author) Glo­ria Pinkney asked in 2019 why Jer­ry and Grimes had nev­er worked togeth­er, the two long­time friends began to lay the ground­work for a sto­ry fea­tur­ing an African Amer­i­can child explor­ing nature.

 In Octo­ber 2021, Jer­ry died, leav­ing behind an incred­i­ble lega­cy in children’s lit­er­a­ture— but also incom­plete art­work for A Walk in the Woods. Bri­an was giv­en his father’s art­work just a few short weeks after his death, along with an invi­ta­tion to fin­ish the sto­ry his father began. With the help of Char­nelle Pinkney Bar­low (Jerry’s grand­daugh­ter and Brian’s niece), Bri­an began to merge his ethe­re­al water­col­or paint­ings with Jerry’s orig­i­nal line work, in an expe­ri­ence he calls “mys­te­ri­ous and mys­ti­cal.” Grimes’ text is full of depth and feel­ing and com­bines with the art in a bril­liant dis­play of col­or and life, cap­tur­ing in detail the ani­mals as well as the boy’s emo­tions on every page. The cool blues and pur­ples in the begin­ning feel rife with grief, while the golds and reds of the woods bring a sense of light­ness to both the sto­ry and the read­er, and hints of green sig­ni­fy that life will continue.

A Walk in the Woods is tru­ly an exquis­ite sto­ry of heart­break and hope. The col­lab­o­ra­tion between Grimes and both Pinkneys is seam­less, as if all were com­plete­ly of one mind. On the last page of the book, as the boy gath­ers his father’s draw­ings and begins his trek home, he asks, “Can you smile and cry at the same time?” Read­ers like­ly will. (Cal­lie Ann Starkey, Book­Page, starred review)

The joy in dis­cov­er­ing that three greats of chil­dren’s literature—Nikki Grimes (a recip­i­ent of the 2022 Vir­ginia Hamil­ton Life­time Achieve­ment Award and 2017 Chil­dren’s Lit­er­a­ture Lega­cy Award), 2010 Calde­cott Medal­ist Jer­ry Pinkney, and 2000 Coret­ta Scott King Illus­tra­tor Award-win­ner Bri­an Pinkney—collaborated on a pic­ture book is tem­pered only by the fact that one of them is gone. Jer­ry Pinkney had cre­at­ed ini­tial sketch­es for Grimes’s ten­der and evoca­tive pic­ture book text, A Walk in the Woods. Bri­an Pinkney writes in a clos­ing note that he began to com­plete the illus­tra­tions “just weeks after the pass­ing of my beloved father,” by adding water­col­ors (with a dig­i­tal assist from his niece, illus­tra­tor Char­nelle Pinkney Barlow).

As a reminder that life often imi­tates art, the sto­ry is about a boy griev­ing the death of his father. The child dis­cov­ers a note his father left for him sug­gest­ing he take a walk in the woods to find “trea­sure.” The boy, who strug­gles with anger over the loss, won­ders why his father would sug­gest he go alone: “the woods were our place.” To his sur­prise, the trea­sure that awaits him is a met­al box, filled with “sketch­es of life on and above the for­est floor,” each one accom­pa­nied by an “unfin­ished sto­ry.” The boy real­izes that these pieces of art were made by his father when he was the age the boy is now.

Though this dis­cov­ery brings the boy com­fort (he feels as if his father is with him, and his “heart feels lighter, too”), it is the trek through the woods that pro­vides much-need­ed peace. Spot­ting Sal the garter snake at the start of his jour­ney reminds the boy to “Slow down! Pay attention!”—as if the woods are remind­ing him that work­ing through grief will take time. Grimes cap­tures the woods’ sen­so­ry delights with pre­ci­sion and lyri­cism: it’s the “soft song” of a Car­oli­na wren; the “explo­sion of flight” that is an eagle spread­ing its wings; and the “qui­et” of the woods that con­sole the boy. With each step he takes, “the hurt inside my heart pounds less, and less.” To see Jer­ry’s sketch­es lit by Bri­an’s daz­zling col­ors (many spreads shine with gleam­ing gold­en yel­lows) and swirling lines is won­drous. The eagle spread and one depict­ing an “ancient stone water stor­age house left cen­turies ago by a tribe of the Mohi­can Nation” are breath­tak­ing stud­ies in light and move­ment. This excep­tion­al sto­ry stands as a mov­ing account of a Black boy find­ing solace in nature—but also serves as a mar­velous trib­ute to Jer­ry Pinkney. (Julie Daniel­son, Shelf Aware­ness, starred review)

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