by Sam Juliano
Note: This is the first in what will be an ongoing series on the picture books that are projected to be in contention for the American Library Association’s annual Caldecott Medal for illustration, awarded annually since 1937. The Caldecott Medal and the runners-up “honor” books are given alongside the Newbery and Newbery “honor” books as the centerpiece of a late January meeting each year by the association. The Caldecotts are given for illustration, while the Newberys are given for prose. Hence the “picture” books are awarded with the Caldecotts while the books with mostly words are considered for the Newberys. It is my intent to discuss the front runners for the Caldecott Medal, at the rate of two or three posts per week up until the actual day of announcement, a date I will post as soon as I am informed of. I am hoping to provide opinion and analysis for the 9 or 10 books I see as the frontrunners. I own each and every book I will be discussing as part of a massive personal collection of Caldecott and Newbery books amassed over decades.
Every morning, I play a game with my father.
He goes knock knock on my door
and I pretend to be asleep
till he gets right next to the bed.
And my papa, he tells me, “I love you.”
Perhaps the most emotionally powerful picture book of the year, Daniel Beaty’s Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream For Me was the outgrowth of a pulverizing monologue by the author that painfully chronicles a childhood lived under the ravages of incarceration. Indeed in the author’s note at the conclusion of the 40 page work Beatty reveals: When I was a small child, my father was my principal caregiver. While my mother was at the office working, my father would change my diapers, feed me, and let me ride on his shoulders to the grocery store. He also woke me up each morning with our private ‘Knock Knock’ game. When I was three he was incarcerated. This experience was traumatic for me. and I was not allowed to visit my father again in prison for may years. Beaty acknowledged the void in his life, and the need later on to come to terms with this extended separation, and to offer support to all fatherless children to overcome adversity and still make something beautiful of their lives. Beaty found just the right illustrator, the fellow African-American Brian Collier, to visualize the childhood emptiness and the imaginary dialogue he continued to engage in with a father he was losing identification with. Collier’s stunning watercolor collages represent some of the best work he has ever done, and that includes the magnificent illustrations he crafted for his three extraordinary Caldecott Honor books: Martin’s Big Words (perhaps the best picture book we have to this point on Martin Luther King, Jr.), Rosa (on civil tights figure Rosa Parks) and Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave (whose significance is clear enough in the title.) Certainly Collier well-deserved his three silver Honor citations, and actually should have won the gold medal for Martin’s Big Words in 2002, over The Three Pigs, which for all intents and purposes was the most unimpressive of David Weisner’s three Caldecott Medal winners. There is an underlying sadness in the new book that manifests itself in the fleeting images of a calendar documenting the continuing days of loneliness, a father’s hat lying on a table, unworn clothing draped over the end of a table and impoverished environs, made more unbearable by incomparable emotional loss.
As always its the small things that Beaty remembers most vividly, like the scrambled eggs his father cooked for him, or the homework help he religiously afforded him, or the assistance he rendered in getting ready for school in the morning. Most of all the young boy fondly reflects on the game “Knock Knock” when the youngster appears to be asleep: “He goes knock knock on my door, and I pretend to be asleep till he gets right next to the bed.” After the father disappears the knock is no longer negotiated. A letter is sent to the father, and remains unanswered for a long while. When it is finally addressed, the advice is suffused with hope: “Dear Son: Ask your mama to make those scrambled eggs we love. Remember to do your homework before you watch TV. I am sorry I will not be coming home. For every lesson I will not be there to teach you, hear these words: As you grow older shave in one direction with strong deliberate strokes to avoid irritation. Dribble the page with the brilliance of your ballpoint pen. And then the wrenching coda: “No longer will I be there to knock on your door, so you must learn to knock for yourself. ‘Knock knock down the doors that I could not.”
Collier re-creates the inner-city squalor and congestion in his exploration of connected apartment houses, small rooms and the seeming hopelessness of a home with a telling view of a boarded up adjoining building on a street with a windowed view of nearby projects and endless rows of fire escapes. (He managed this city scape once before back in 2004 with his acclaimed first picture book “Uptown” which focused on life in Harlem.) But Collier doesn’t dwell in doom and hopelessness, in fact the final third of this beautiful book showcases the vibrant colors of the success of young adulthood, accentuated with balloons and the resonate memories in the visual connotation of superimposed white elephants that denote the power of memories, and the final realization that when one mentions the word ‘father’ it matters. With vibrant green and mahogany borders there is a visual deepening as the boy becomes a man, a sharp contrast with the more muted and grainier collages that support the earlier times of fear and uncertainty. In the end it the specter of the father that both motivates and inspired the young man, who is dreamily re-united in a final Collier salvo of the two embracing under the final answer to the question ‘Who’s there?” which is the apt and moving “You are.”
Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream For Me is easily one of 2013’s most accomplished achievements in both words and illustration. The best way for the committee to honor such a two-fold achievement would be to give Mr. Collier a fourth silver medal (Honor book) or finally hand him the gold medal that has unfairly alluded him to this point. Daniel Beaty’s moving real-life story would be given well-derserved attention by the reading community, much as it mirrors the problems and difficulties that have afflicted so many one parent families across American and the world. Like all great picture books this is a seamless and powerful fusion of prose and art, and as such gets the strongest recommendation.