Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist: A WALK IN THE WOODS by Nikki Grimes
Introduction by Heavy Medal Award Committee Member Alicia Rogers
“Can you smile and cry at the same time?” Yes, thanks to writer and poet Nikki Grimes and artists Jerry and Brian Pinkney, who deliver a profound exploration of loss, legacy, grief, and
direction in their beautifully rendered picture book, A WALK IN THE WOODS.
A week after his father’s funeral, an unnamed Black boy peers into his reflection and sees his
father’s features in his own. He asks, “Why Dad? Why did you have to leave?” and begins to
move through the stages of grief. As a universal story of loss unfolds, a distinct story of a Black
father and son connecting to nature and to each other is brought to life. Inside an envelope left by his father, the boy discovers a map of the woods marked with a red X. Even though he
hoped to receive “some special advice, a secret even–not some stupid map,” he goes to the
woods to find… a treasure? After nearly crushing a familiar garter snake, Sal, at the entrance,
he reminds himself–as one does in nature–to “Slow down! Pay Attention!” His deep sadness is
revealed as he walks.
(“Sal slithers behind a rock, like I sometimes wish I could.” / “A few low
branches reach out, as greedy for touch as me.” / “I hope their mother returns. Not every parent does. Or can.”).
As the boy moves along, a wren sings, mushrooms sprout, an eagle flies, and grouse peep. He
thinks, “with each step, the hurt inside my heart pounds less, and less.” The boy ultimately finds the intended treasure: a stack of “beautifully odd” and “oddly beautiful” sketches and stories his father made of nature’s creatures long ago, at his age. The boy receives the advice he wishes for at the story’s start. “Draw and write your own story,” father writes son on the last, otherwise blank, page the boy examines in the pile.
The text, exquisitely written in verse, stands alone to tell the story–but I dare the reader to
ignore the art. In their respective notes, Grimes and Brian Pinkney share how the collaboration between the prolific award-winning author and what I consider to be The Picture Book Royal Family came to be. Friends “forever,” Grimes and the talented, beloved Jerry Pinkney had never worked together, until Jerry’s writer-wife Gloria Pinkney suggested they do so. When Jerry passed in 2021, he had only completed line drawings for the book, but Grimes had finished writing its text. Jerry’s son Brian completed the book’s illustrations using colorful watercolor and gouache paint, and art became life as Brian mourned the loss of his father. Finally, artist Charnelle Pinkney Barlow used digital illustration techniques to piece the works of grandfather Jerry and uncle Brian together.
Not only are the Newbery criteria for theme and setting on display in this work of art, the book exhibits “conspicuous excellence or eminence” while showing respect for child readers. My only question is whether it will win the Newbery, the Caldecott, or–dare I say–both?
About Emily Mroczek-Bayci
Emily Mroczek (Bayci) is a freelance children’s librarian in the Chicago suburbs. She served on the 2019 Newbery committee. You can reach her at email@example.com.
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