A Profile of Bryan Collier

Laban Carrick Hill, Alvina Ling, Bryan Collier From left: Laban Carrick Hill, Alvina Ling, and Bryan Collier at the 2010 ALA Annual conference in Washington, DC.

“What color was your day?”

Bryan Collier often asks this question during his talks. He asks this of children. He asks this of adults. It’s such a simple yet intriguing question, and I love how it forces me to be more aware of my surroundings, of how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking, to be more present in the moment of each day.

knock knockIn the pages of Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me by Daniel Beaty, it’s immediately clear what colors the boy’s days are — and how they change. The book starts out with warm greens, blues, and browns, but once his father disappears, the palette of the book becomes duller and grayer. As Bryan says in his illustrator’s note, “The sky in the art is not so blue.” Contrast these pages with the spreads at the end of the book, when the boy grows up and becomes the man his father wanted him to be. The sky is a bright, brilliant azure.

I first met Bryan Collier at a conference, most likely the American Library Association. It must have been in 2004 or 2005, because John’s Secret Dreams had recently been published. I was having dinner at the same restaurant where Bryan was dining with Doreen Rappaport and some publishing folks. When our respective dinners were winding down, I mustered up the courage to introduce myself, and I proceeded to awkwardly rave to Bryan and Doreen about how much I loved Martin’s Big Words and John’s Secret Dreams. Bryan and I exchanged a few more pleasantries — he was warm and welcoming, and made me feel less awkward. I resolved that we would work together someday. I’m sure Bryan has no recollection of this encounter!

After years of admiring Bryan’s work from afar, I finally had the opportunity to work with him on Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill. The manuscript for Dave the Potter was acquired by editor Jennifer Hunt, and I remember at the time that Bryan Collier was everyone’s number one choice to illustrate. Alas, he was too booked up, and so other artist possibilities were bandied about. Years later, the bulk of the text was edited, but the book was still without an illustrator, and Jennifer, who was now editorial director with additional work responsibilities, very generously passed the project to me to handle. Once I re-read the text, I just couldn’t get Bryan’s art out of my mind — I really couldn’t see anyone else for the job. And it turns out that Bryan was Laban’s top choice as well. Once I found that out, I knew it was meant to be.

This time, when we approached Bryan, he wasn’t booked too far out, and was very interested. But before saying yes, he inquired about the back matter of the book and I sent over Laban’s very rough first draft. “That’s a good start,” Bryan said. “But can you revise it?” It was then that Laban and I knew how serious Bryan was about this project, and we were impressed that he wanted to make sure that every aspect of the text was perfect, even the back matter and author’s note, before he would commit. I still have the e-mail I sent Laban about revising his author’s note. He agreed to revise quickly and I sent him my edits an hour or so later. I told Laban, “I’m not normally this quick, but when Bryan Collier is on the line, I get moving!”

In 2009, right before Bryan was heading down to Edgefield, South Carolina, to do his own research for the book, we had a kickoff lunch for Dave the Potter with his team at Little, Brown, including executive art director Patti Ann Harris and executive editorial director Liza Baker, and the rest is history. Bryan poured his heart and soul into the project, and Dave the Potter went on to win both the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award and a Caldecott Honor. Bryan followed up Dave the Potter at Little, Brown by brilliantly illustrating Jabari Asim’s powerful biography of Booker T. Washington, Fifty Cents and a Dream, working with another editor here, and I was itching to work with him again. This is when he brought us Knock Knock.

Bryan had first seen Daniel Beaty’s powerful spoken-word poetry performance of “Knock Knock” on YouTube. The text spoke to Bryan “as a son and a father.” He loved the poem’s message of hope, of not letting the past define our future, and he contacted Daniel about the possibility of working together. When Bryan brought me the poem and introduced me to Daniel, I immediately saw the potential, and after Daniel and I worked together on adapting and revising his poem to fit into a children’s picture book, Bryan began working on the art.

Bryan brings care, passion, and thoughtfulness to his art for all of his books, but I hope it’s not too clichéd to say that he keeps getting better and better. Knock Knock is rich with layers and symbolism:

•  The rainbow that falls when the father leaves.

•  The elephant motif to emphasize the importance of memory.

•  The father’s hat, left behind, an ever-present reminder of his love.

•  The father’s gift of the tie — his hope for a better life for his son.

•  The boy’s apartment crumbling down around him — urban decay echoing the disintegration of the boy’s family.

•  The paper airplane made from the son’s letter, words equaling freedom.

•  The father’s face in the buildings, slowly fading to nothing.

I discover new details with each reading of the book — the construction toy the boy is sleeping with in the opening spread, crashing his toys together when his father does not come home, and the faces of children on the wall of the construction site. And at the end of the book, the boy not only grows up to be a strong figure in his family and break the cycle of abandonment but also chooses to rebuild his community, to literally repair the crumbling walls around him.

Bryan and I worked together on getting the ending just right — we wanted to leave the image as open to interpretation as is the text. Does the boy’s father really come back? Or is it just his spirit, his memory? The ghostly outline and the floating notes over the embracing pair became Bryan’s perfect solution. It is up to the reader to decide.

This book’s art is thrilling. It is brilliant, it is moving, it is gorgeous.

And as always, it was an absolute joy to work with Bryan. He would make trips into our office delivering the art in stages, and after each meeting, and with each beautiful manifestation of the art, Patti Ann, my assistant Bethany Strout, and I would rave to one another, “We love Bryan! Bryan is amazing! Let’s do every book with Bryan!” As Patti Ann says of him,
I’ve been so lucky to work with Bryan. He has a unique process as a picture book artist that inspires me. He approaches each book with a passion and curiosity that is contagious. It’s almost like he is a film director, casting the characters, setting the scenes and choosing a point of view for each page. As a book designer, I learn something new each time I work with him.

Bryan is a revelation. I leave every encounter with him feeling re-energized about my work, even about life. He is generous of spirit and brings such joy and passion to his art — it’s truly infectious.

I’ve often said (and I’m not alone) that Bryan Collier gives the best hugs in the industry. I’ve also often said (and I’m definitely not alone in this, either) that he’s one of the most talented artists working in children’s book publishing today. Each new book is a tour de force.

It’s been an honor and a pleasure working with Bryan Collier. So, what color is my day? After working with Bryan, the color is rich, bright, and full of life.

Read Bryan Collier's 2014 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award acceptance speech. From the July/August 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Alvina Ling

Alvina Ling is vice president and editor in chief at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, where she has worked since 1999, and edits books for all ages, from board books to young adult fiction. She is proud to be a former Horn Book intern.

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