A Walk in the Woods

Caldecott decision-makers face the unwritten guideline to evaluate the accomplishments of each picture book throughout the year with an open mind. Each committee member needs to figure out how to engage with each book on its terms rather than on the reader’s preference for a style or visual aesthetic. They need to get beyond what they like and commit to asking questions about how the art functions and what makes it “excellent execution,” no matter its technique. They need to puzzle out what makes the work primarily a wholistic visual experience. While holding the artists in respectful abeyance poses a challenge for evaluators of A Walk in the Woods — Nikki Grimes, Jerry Pinkney, and Brian Pinkney are three remarkably distinguished and well-known creators — the exquisite merging of artistic styles, the unity of those styles, and the symbiosis between the art and the words make assessing this book significant.

The picture book tells the story of a boy whose father has died and left his son a letter with a map marked with an X. Searching for the spot and filled with memories, he walks again the wooded paths they shared. He finds new gifts of inspiration and sustenance left by his dad.

Although nothing in the Caldecott manual addresses the use (or not) of back matter in picture books, here the information serves to deepen readers’ engagement with the dimensionality of this creation. Jerry Pinkney and Nikki Grimes began this collaboration in part to address the paucity of depictions of African American children in nature; Brian Pinkney continued with Grimes after his father passed away. Grimes sets the simple plot of taking a walk in the setting of the woods. She then layers on a reflective narrator of hushed voice and modulated language to speak the book’s powerful theme. His grief holds the reader close.

Jerry Pinkney’s naturalistic sketches/drawings of the wood’s habitat welcome the reader as companion on the boy’s journey to follow the map his father left him. The boy has been through these woods before. He disturbs a garter snake, “drinks in the quiet” of the rabbit, exults at the flight of the noble eagle, and worries at the weeping peep of a lonely baby grouse. Jerry Pinkney’s active line gives shape to the boy’s connection to these creatures and the imposing trees. Like grief, the woods can consume one.

There is more than one artist at work here. The art's composite illustrations make visible both artists' work in a kind of pentimento as Brian Pinkney’s color and movement overlay the stability of his father’s line drawings. Yet Jerry Pinkney's unfinished sketches only intensify the bereavement mediated throughout the book. Brian Pinkney's expressive watercolors capture the child’s lamentation in “resonant swirls” in tones of washed orange, brilliant splashes of greens and yellows, and the pinks and purples of a fading sunset. There’s no easy way out because grief changes its hues. A mourning son himself, Brian Pinkney immerses the reader in the variegations of loss — and the discovery of a small treasure of art to sustain him in the future.

A work of verbal and visual eloquence.

[Read The Horn Book Magazine review of A Walk in the Woods]

Cathryn M. Mercier
Cathryn M. Mercier

Cathryn M. Mercier directs the graduate degree programs in Children's Literature at Simmons University, where she teaches a graduate course in The Picturebook. She has served on two Caldecott committees. 

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The book is lovely but the background information about how this work came to be causes me to ponder long and hard in very spiritual ways.

Posted : Jan 06, 2024 03:44



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