Before we all look ahead to 2014 picture book titles, let’s look back at 2013 one more time to make note of Daniel Beaty’s KNOCK KNOCK: My Dad’s Dream for Me, illustrated by Bryan Collier. It was released at the tail end of last year and was the subject of a fair amount of attention, including predominantly positive reviews, and discussion. The latter, in particular, centered on the fact that this is an adaptation and focused on the difference between the source matter and the end product, the book itself.
As many reviewers have noted, this is the adaptation of actor, singer and writer Daniel Beaty’s well-known monologue about growing up with a father who has been incarcerated. The monologue and book share certain similarities. For instance, each opens with the explanation that, as a child, Beaty would play the “knock knock” game with his father, during which he’d pretend to be asleep until his father appeared next to bed and then he’d jump up into his arms. One day, however, his father is simply not there. And he doesn’t return.
Here is where the book shifts from the spoken-word performance. In the monologue, Beaty talks about memories of visiting his father at a prison, and he follows it by noting that, 25 years later, he “dreams up a father, who says the words my father did not.” In the book, the boy arrives home from school one day to find a letter from his father. In both instances, the boy recites thoughts on how to become a man. But in the book he doesn’t know his father is in prison. He just knows he’s very much Not There—and he is painfully aware of the monumental void it leaves in his life.
What both monologue and book share in common—and, to be clear, what matters is the end result, though I always find it intriguing to read about the process of adapting art from one medium to another—is that essentially the boy and even boy-as-man must, in the words of the original monologue, “try to heal and try to father [him]self.” Sure, in the book he receives an actual letter from his father with explicit advice (“you must learn to knock for yourself. KNOCK KNOCK down the doors that I could not”).
But effectively he is being raised by his mother…and himself. It’s an intense and powerful notion, leaning on one’s internal resources when a parent is absent—and one with which many children are familiar.
When I asked him, Beaty says the adaptation itself wasn’t as challenging as it may seem. “Because I am also a playwright,” he said, “I approached this children's book very similar to crafting a young character. I endeavored to get into the mind and heart of the boy, who is the primary character in the book. Once I was clear on who this child was, the words flowed very easily. While the original ‘KNOCK KNOCK’ poem references prison, I am very happy that this book is more open in the abandonment issues it addresses. Many children have the experience of an absent parent, and it is important that they have affirming stories that reflect their experiences.”
Bryan Collier’s collage and watercolor illustrations are rife with symbolism, including repeated elephant sightings for observant eyes. “I am very moved by the sensitivity and soulfulness in Bryan's work,” Daniel notes. “I actually used some of his artwork in one of my plays. Bill Cosby presented me with one of Bryan's original paintings that same evening, and it hangs on a wall in my home. As soon as I saw his work, I knew I had met a lifetime collaborator.”
Beaty is also an educator, and I found myself wondering what responses he’s noted from children to a story so poignant and (to many) so emotionally piercing. (Indeed, at the book’s close, the boy as a man, now with his own wife and children, finally sees and embraces his father.) “The children I have shared the book with become very curious and want to talk after the book,” he told me. “Their curiosity is extremely thrilling to me. I feel books in general—and children's books, in particular—should not only reflect a child's experience, but also open other children to new worlds and perspectives. I believe we will ultimately create a more loving and humane world when we continue to expose our children at an early age to the experiences of others that may be different from them, while at the same time affirming those children who are experiencing difficult childhoods.”
Wise words from someone who knows that all too many children, in one way or another, are still “[waiting] for papa’s knock."
KNOCK KNOCK: MY DAD'S DREAM FOR ME. Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Beaty. Illustrations © 2014 by Collier. Spread reproduced by permission of the publisher, Little, Brown and Company, New York.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.