I was inspired to create this book by Daniel Beaty’s wonderful monologue “Knock Knock.” His emotional delivery and moving text of a boy’s struggle to navigate his way toward manhood — not completely alone, but without the presence of his father — set the tone for this rollercoaster-like ride that is this boy’s life.
The art for the book was created in watercolor and collage on 400-pound watercolor paper and begins with a beautiful young boy tucked in bed, pretending to be asleep, anticipating the entrance of his father, who goes knock knock on his door. The boy then jumps into his papa’s arms, saying, “Good morning, Papa!” And Papa says, “I love you.” If you pay attention to the details, you’ll see marching elephants in the wallpaper around the boy’s room. They march over a bookshelf full of books, past construction trucks, sneakers, and a basketball, and under a rainbow and a window that lets the morning sun in. The boy and his papa play “Knock Knock” every morning, but one day the father’s knock doesn’t come. And morning after morning it still never comes and the rainbow falls. The boy’s mother is there to comfort, protect, and raise her son as she gets him ready for school and the world.
In the boy’s world you’ll notice that the sky is not as blue as it could be and the buildings all around are leaning and decaying, symbolizing that the boy’s world is crumbling around him, falling apart. The boy sits in his room, next to a calendar marked in red Xs for every day his father has been gone. He reasons that “maybe [Papa] comes when I’m not home?” So he decides to write him a letter. The boy then folds this letter into a paper airplane and tosses it out the window into a not-so-blue sky. And wearing his father’s hat, he hops aboard the paper plane and soars above the city, over the crumbling buildings. “Papa, come home, ’cause there are things I don’t know…how to dribble a ball, how to shave.” The boy sails close to rooftops, where you’ll notice faces on nearly every roof. His situation is not an isolated event, and he is not alone.
This is a universal story of loss and how one creates a beautiful life in spite of that loss. “Papa, come home, ’cause I want to be just like you, but I’m forgetting who you are.” As the face of his father fades away, the elephant motif in the art marches on as the paper plane flies on back through the bedroom window and lands on the boy’s bed. The boy stands framed by the doorway with construction trucks, a bookshelf full of books, and a basketball, with the elephants marching around his room.
WHO COULD LEAVE THIS BOY?
HE’S A PRINCE!
The bigger questions the book asks are: Who could leave you? and Who in the world could have the nerve to leave me? But, there’s joy in the morning, so let’s keep moving.
Finally, a letter of explanation and apology comes from the boy’s father. He imparts life lessons and wisdom to his son that will help the boy as he grows into his manhood. “Shave in one direction…to avoid irritation. Dribble the page with the brilliance of your ballpoint pen…KNOCK KNOCK to open new doors to your dreams…and you have a bright, beautiful future.”
The boy takes heed of his father’s words and grows to become a strong man, an architect and builder of community. He now has a beautiful wife and family of his own as they all march like those elephants of past days under a now-brilliant blue sky, with colorful balloons of music and joy. His family celebrates him with a surprise party.
“KNOCK KNOCK for me, for as long as you become your best, the best of me still lives in you.” The family presents the now grown-up boy with his father’s hat as a gift. And lastly, we see the father and son embrace, as all the letters written over the years fall around them from above.
But if you look closer, you’ll see that the father is just a hologram.
Bryan Collier’s 2014 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award acceptance speech for Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me was delivered at the annual conference of the American Library Association in Las Vegas, Nevada, on June 29, 2014. Read a profile of Bryan written by his editor Alvina Ling. From the July/August 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.