The Quadruple Collaboration: Nikki Grimes and Brian Pinkney Discuss Jerry Pinkney and A Walk in the Woods
Let’s start at the beginning. This is going to require a little bit of context.
Step back in time to late 2019. It was at that time that after forty or so years of friendship, New York Times bestselling author Nikki Grimes and Caldecott Award-winning illustrator Jerry Pinkney decided that they should do a book together. They never had before, as strange as that sounds, and so they began to brainstorm some ideas for their first collaboration. This is how their publisher explained to me what happened next:
According to Nikki, having noticed the “rarity of children’s books that feature African American characters engaging with nature,” the two decided to focus their ideas on this theme. “Jerry mentioned his daily walks in the woods [and] my brain lit up like a starburst,” she shared. For the next few months, Jerry would go on daily walks and send Nikki picture of the things he’d see. The two would pass ideas back and forth, eventually bringing their story to life:
Confused and distraught after the death of his father, a boy opens an envelope his dad left behind and is surprised to find a map of the woods beyond their house, with one spot marked in bright red. The woods had been something they shared together. Why would his father want him to go alone? The treasure trove he finds reveals something more for them to share, and some peace amid the grief. His dad knew what he really needed was a walk in the woods.
Upon receiving the news of Jerry’s sudden passing in 2021, Nikki began to mourn not only her friend but the special project they never got to finish. Nikki had completed her manuscript and knew Jerry been working on the art, but was not sure how far he’d gotten. Her answer would come in an unforgettable phone call with author Gloria Pinkney, Jerry’s wife. Not only had Jerry finished the tight pencil sketch, but Caldecott Honoree Brian Pinkney, would be completing his father’s work by adding his trademark radiant watercolors.
“The experience can only be described as mysterious and mystical,” explained Brian. Upon being invited to collaborate on A Walk in the Woods and reading Nikki’s finished manuscript, Brian could not help but notice the striking similarities between himself and the boy in her story. Still processing the loss of his father, Brian looked through Jerry’s finished linework of the very woods the two used to walk together. In what felt like a “visitation” from his father, Brian felt encouraged to use “bright, emotionally resonant swirls of color found in nature” to add his own touch to the book. With the help of Brian’s niece—illustrator Charnelle Pinkney Barlow—and digital tools, Jerry’s finished line drawings were merged with Brian’s paintings.
“I couldn’t have asked for a sweeter end to this story” shared Nikki. “I don’t imagine Jerry could, either!”
It’s an incredible story, but incredible stories are one thing, incredible books are another, and when the two actually manage to intersect, that’s when you know you’ve hit on something. I’m impressed by A Walk In the Woods, but I still had questions. Fortunately, Nikki and Brian were keen to provide me with a couple answers. And so it goes . . .
Betsy Bird: Nikki, I think that technically this story begins with you. Though it feels like a story that would have been written specifically for Brian and Jerry, you wrote it long before his passing. Could you tell us a little about how this was a collaboration with Jerry from the start?
Photo by Aaron Lemen
Nikki Grimes: Jerry and I first began playing with the idea for a collaboration during the Texas Book Festival in Austin, in 2019, thanks to some nudging by Gloria [Pinkney], who wondered aloud why we’d never done a book together before. Neither of us had a good answer, so we immediately struck up a conversation about it—and the word “conversation” is key. We both expressed an interest in creating more children’s books featuring Black characters in nature, and Jerry specifically said that he wanted the book to be a conversation between us, between an artist and a writer. That’s where A Walk in the Woods really started. Neither of us knew, at the time, what the story would be, or even if it would, in fact, be a story or merely a collection of poetry—we didn’t know. We were both playing in the field of imagination to see where it might lead us. So, there was a lot of going back and forth between us, through emails and telephone conversations. We were in constant contact with one another, sharing experiences in nature, poetry, sketches, videos taken during Jerry’s walks, images I discovered doing research of the area, and so on. We fed off of each other in the process of creating this work.
Betsy Bird: Brian, at what point in the process did you come into this? How did you first hear about the project and who was the first person to come up with the idea of continuing it through your own art?
Brian Pinkney: Just weeks after the passing of my father, I was invited to collaborate on the completion of the artwork by Neal Porter. At the time, I didn’t know how the collaboration between my father and Nikki Grimes had begun. When I read Nikki’s evocative story, I was immediately struck by the beauty and power. At the same time, the overwhelming irony of the story wasn’t lost on me – a boy, looking in the mirror soon after his father had died. This had been my exact experience the days leading up to the moment I read Nikki’s words for the first time. I took all of this as visitation from dad, who was encouraging me to finish the artwork he began, which consisted of tight sketches. Color had not been added. In my mind and heart, there was no doubt about whether I could, or would “carry the paintbrush forward” to bring the book to readers.
BB: The plot of the story has a preternatural quality to it. It’s a perfect capper not simply Jerry’s life but the legacy he leaves us through his children and grandchildren, but he couldn’t have had any idea about that when he first worked on it, nor did you, Nikki, when you wrote it. Did it go through any significant edits to the text after Jerry died?
NG: No. It was all already there. I didn’t touch it. Not one word was changed. When something like this happens, I have one answer for it: this was a God thing. This work was led, was blessed, was inspired. I did the work and experienced the angst and all of that, but God was in charge of what this work became. The story behind the story gives me the same goose bumps it gives everyone else who reads it.
BB: Brian, prior to this book, had you ever worked on a project where your artistic style had to merge with someone else’s? What was the process like for you?
Photo by Chloe Pinkney
BP: This was the first time I had to merge my artistic style with someone. it was a mysterious and mystical journey because I had to reach down into a place so deep, all the while asking my dad what to do, how to bring his intention to the world. I began with a process I’ve come to call “wandering and pondering,” taking time to explore the woods where this story is set, near the property of the home where I was raised in upstate, New York, and where my father’s studio still is today. While walking in those woods, I explored the colors, the textures, the smell of the air. This sensory exploration led me to how I would approach the artwork for A Walk in the Woods. Through this meditative process, I soon realized I had already started the book’s illustrations. Just months before my father passed away, I’d been working on earth-toned swooshes of color. I’d shown these to my dad, and said to him,
“I don’t know what these things are for.”
He told me how evocative the brush-work was, and encouraged me to keep at the visual exploration of it all. These pieces turned out to be the inspiration for the watercolor washes that would go underneath his line drawings for the illustrations in A Walk in the Woods. While working on the book’s paintings, I was flooded with memories of my dad, his “art-wisdom” and insight. He often referred to watercolor washes as “happy accidents.” He encouraged me to let the watercolors flow wherever they needed to on the page. I remember watching him lay down his own watercolor washes, his careful hands embracing his favorite Winsor Newton watercolor paintbrush. My dad also loved Arches watercolor paper, which gave him just the right texture he needed to absorb the watercolor the way he liked. As a gift to my father, I used his leftover watercolor paper for the artwork in this book.
BB: Nikki, one of the things I love best about this book is written in a poetic form throughout, but also manages to contain this sudden surprise of straight, pure poetry midway through the tale. Could you tell us a bit about how poetry and storytelling are woven throughout this tale?
NG: Actually, this work began with the pure poetry you refer to. Long before there was a tale to tell, Jerry and I were in conversation about nature in general, about his daily walks in the woods near his home, and during one of those conversations, I asked him to write down an anecdote he’d just told me, and send it to me. He mentioned that he’d done some sketching related to that subject, and I invited him to send whatever sketches he had, as well. When I received them, I created a poem in response. Over the few next weeks, he shared additional anecdotes and sketches from his walks, and many of them inspired poems, so that’s really where it all started. Of course, once I had a handful of these pieces, I realized I needed to nail down a skeletal story framework in which to fit each of these disparate pieces. I found the inspiration for that story by revisiting The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, by Chris Van Allsburg. From his classic, I came away with the idea of creating a mystery that would allow me to weave all of these disparate pieces together, and the mystery I came up with was a hunt for treasure, and the treasure itself would be those sketches and poems that started the ball rolling.
BB: Librarians are increasingly on the lookout for books that are beyond the usual white-kids-in-nature trope. Nikki, could you talk to us a little bit about how poetry and nature work together in books like this one? Why is poetry so essential for readers of this age?
NG: As I alluded to earlier, one of the reasons this book exists is because both Jerry and I were passionate about creating more books featuring Black characters engaging in nature. There’s so much in nature that sparks poetry, of course, so I feel there’s a natural correlation between the two. As for poetry being essential for this audience, poetry helps to engender a love of language, and that’s critical when you’re talking about seeding and nurturing a love of story, and a taste for literature among emergent readers.
BB: I know that part of what’s so wonderful about the final product is that this collaboration between generations also includes the work of Charnelle Pinkney Barlow. Brian, could you talk about her contributions to the book and how she became involved?
BP: My niece, Charnelle Pinkney Barlow, the granddaughter of Jerry Pinkney, became the perfect third collaborator. Charnelle, a talented artist, who has illustrated nearly a dozen children’s books of her own, has a working knowledge of rendering images using computer illustration. Charnelle‘s skill helped merge my dad‘s line drawings with the paintings I created.
BB: Was there anything that either of you initially wanted to include in the book and couldn’t for one reason or another?
NG: Not on my end, although I could have gone on and on about the back-story to this book, but there wasn’t room for that. That desire is satisfied, though, through interviews like this one!
BB: Finally, what are the three of you, including Charnelle, working on next?
NG: I have two new picture books on the way: A Cup of Quiet (Bloomsbury) another nature-themed story; and Stronger Than (Heartdrum), a book featuring a Black Choctaw character, co-authored with Stacy Wells, a member of the Choctaw Nation. In the meantime, I’m working on two adult poetry collections. I like to mix things up!
BP: I’m finishing up on an original story, Brandon and the Baby, to be published by Greenwillow books for young readers. It’s about a baby brother and older brother and his magical blanket. I’m also working to complete the last project my dad had started and didn’t get to finish. Charnelle will help me merge my painting with Jerry’s line drawings for this as well.
Charnelle has a few different projects going on all in various stages. Shes working on the manuscript for her next author/illustrated book. She feels like it’s still in its awkward teenage phase, so won’t say much about it just yet… stay tuned!! She recently turned in the final illustrations for the third book in the Keyana series written by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley which is super exciting. The second book Keyana Loves Her Friend publishes with Little Brown Books for Young Readers on December 12th, 2023.
I look forward to all of that. And I thank Nikki and Brian for taking the time to answer my questions today. The good news is that A Walk in the Woods is in stores and libraries now, so no need to wait. Run on out and grab yourself a copy today. There’s really nothing else quite like it out there today.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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