There is a perception out there amongst certain types of parents that the only picture books worthy of their little geniuses are those that reflect their own lives perfectly. I’ve complained more than once about this before, but there is nothing more disturbing to me than when a children’s librarian shows a parent a perfectly lovely book only to be asked, “Do you have anything a little less . . . urban?” And this in the heart of New York City no less. Of course we all know what “urban” is code for. Black, obviously (if I’m feeling snarky I’ll then follow up their request with Precious and the Boo Hag or something equally black AND rural). The ideal use of picture books, on some level, is to provide windows and mirrors for the kiddos. Mirrors that reflect their own worlds. Windows where they can see how other children live. So while Daniel Beaty’s Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me is ostensibly about a child with an incarcerated father, to my mind this is a book that has far reaching applications. It can be used with any child missing a parent, for whatever reason. It’s one of the very few picture books to talk about the process of growing into adulthood. And the art? Stellar stuff. So though I’m sure kids that find themselves exactly in the protagonist’s shoes will get something out of this book, they are not the only ones. Not by half.
It was the same every morning. The boy would pretend to be sleeping when his father went “Knock Knock” on the door. Then he’d “surprise” his father by leaping into his arms once he came in the room. That is, until the day his father didn’t knock anymore. The man is simply gone, poof! Like he was never there at all. Bewildered and lost, the boy writes his father a letter and leaves it on his desk in the desperate hope that maybe his dad’s in the apartment when the boy’s not home. He tells his dad that he was hoping that when he got older he’d teach him how to dribble a ball or shave or drive or fix a car even. Then, one day, there’s a letter from his father sitting on the desk. “I am sorry I will not be coming home,” it begins. It then proceeds to encourage the boy to seek his own path and grow to manhood without him. “Knock Knock with the knowledge that you are my son and you have a bright, beautiful future.” Years later when the boy has grown, his father returns to him. In his Author’s Note, Daniel Beaty discusses the effect his own father’s incarceration had on him when he was only three. As he puts it, “This experience prompted me to tell the story of this loss from a child’s perspective and also to offer hope that every fatherless child can still create the most beautiful life possible.”
As you might imagine, I vetted this one with some of my fellow children’s librarians and one concern that arose stemmed from the fact that the boy isn’t told what happened to his father. One day he’s there and the next he’s gone. Shouldn’t a kid be told? To this I have a couple answers. First and foremost, remember that you are getting this tale through the eyes of a child. For that very reason, you have reason to question the narrative. It is all too easy to believe that the kid has been told where his father is and he simply cannot process the information. This might be one of those rare picture book unreliable narrators we come across from time to time. Second, if the kid isn’t willfully ignoring the evidence at hand, it’s just as possible that his mother isn’t telling him. Whether it’s for what she believes to be his own good or because she can’t bring herself to explain, there’s a reality at work here.
But the explanation that rings truest to me is this; If the boy doesn’t know then it opens wide the possible applications of this book. The key to Knock Knock lies in the fact that Beaty’s tale is about an absent parent and not necessarily an incarcerated one. Lots of kids have one parent or another disappear on them. What Knock Knock is telling us is that even if they’re not there, you can grow up and become the man or woman you were meant to be. Now, obviously the book is primarily about incarcerated parents. The ending shows the boy, now grown into a man, hugging his father for the first time in years. Unless we’re going full on metaphorical here, that image is pretty clear. Nonetheless, I like to think that the book has a broader appeal than that. It’s not as if the word “jail” or “arrested” are ever in the text, and the images never follow the father but keep the focus squarely on the kid. As is right.
The art is the real kicker, of course. Not since Uptown has Collier lavished this much time and attention on the appearance and feel of Harlem. I should know. I live in it. From the Duke Ellington statue on the corner of 5th Avenue and 110th Street to brownstones and housing projects, Collier knows of which he speaks. Then there’s how he chose to bring Beaty’s words to life. According to Collier, he took a real interest in this text when he saw Beaty perform it in a monologue. In this book he then tries to capture the spirit of the performance. For example, he explains in his Illustrator’s Note at the end of the book that the watercolor and collage art affects the boy’s surroundings. “The sky in the art is not so blue”, a fact I’d completely missed. It’s true, though. You wouldn’t necessarily notice at first, but the dulled blue contrasts sharply with the vivid aquamarine on the last page.
To my mind, the eeriest image in the book is a two-page spread that shows the boy seemingly flying on the paper airplane message he’s trying to send to his dad. As his father’s oversized hat flies from his head you see below the fading faces of other children on the tarred roofs below. Their images are sometimes clear, sometimes eerily faint, like they’re memories being erased by time. There are also a fair number of elephants. The elephants are an interesting touch. I’m not entirely certain what to make of them. They trundle along the boy’s bedroom walls, then occasionally break free and appear in his memories, walking across the brownstones, partially obscuring a man’s face hidden behind the windows.
Impressive though the art may be, there are moments in the book that seemed better than others. Faces and features vary, sometimes striking the reader as affecting while at other times they take you out of the book entirely. The aforementioned shot of the boy flying in a paper airplane while his father’s hat drifts towards the faces of other children on the roofs below is a bit unnerving if only because the roof faces are so much more affecting than the boy himself. When done straight on, as on the page that reads, “I am sorry I will not be coming home” the results are much stronger. And that’s even before you notice that the boy has draped his father’s ties around his neck (and did you notice that as a man the boy continues to wear those ties?).
Here’s what might be my favorite line in the book: “Papa, come home, ‘cause I want to be just like you, but I’m forgetting who you are.” Kids everywhere grow up without fathers and a single book isn’t going to necessarily change their lives. But maybe, just maybe, it really will touch somebody in the right way. When Bryan Collier writes in his Note that “This book is not just about loss, but about hope, making healthy choices, and not letting our past define our future,” he’s talking to kids everywhere that are dealing with a deck that’s stacked against them. They don’t get enough books, those kids, about lives like their own. Fortunately, once in a great while, a book comes along that fulfills that gaping need. This year, it’s this book. Next year? Who knows? But as long as there are children struggling along without their parents, Knock Knock is going to have a job to do.
On shelves December 17th.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
List This? Then Try:
- Visiting Day by Jacqueline Woodson
- When Dad Was Away by Liz Weir
- A Visit to the Big House by Oliver Butterworth
Interviews: Collier talks a bit about his work on this book with SLJ. Turns out he was the one who had the idea of turning Beaty’s poem into a book!
Want to see Beaty perform it for yourself? Then it’s your lucky day: