Bryan Collier

At SCBWI, I had the chance to hear Bryan Collier speak. I didn't know Collier's work, but I was excited to hear him give the keynote address. I was thoroughly unprepared for the emotional depth and power of his talk.

I've been thinking a lot about loss lately: loss of a friend, loss of a parent, loss of a loved one. What does absence mean and how do kids process it? How can we help kids through it? How can we help them when loss creates a person-shaped hole in their lives? 

Enter Bryan Collier's forceful and luminous talk at SCBWI. He discussed Knock Knock: My Dad's Dream for Me and it chronicles a boy growing up with an absent father. The book is a version of Daniel Beaty's poem "Knock Knock." The book, however, is more ambiguous about the father's absence: Death? Disappearance? Divorce? Military Obligation? Incarceration? Homelessness? Drugs? The book never says. The poem, in its original version, focuses on incarceration. 

I've been thinking about what it means to grow up without a parents (or parents) and the toll that takes over a life time and how a kid shapes a meaningful life in the face of that loss and hopefully how the adults around them can help them to move forward in spite of that loss. 

In his talk at SCBWI, Collier started by talking about the importance of books with characters who look like the kids reading them. He talked about Ezra Jackson Keats' Snowy Day and having the same pajamas as Peter. He talked about Harold and the Purple Crayon and identifying with Harold. Through his examples, he showed the power of stories with everyday kids and being able to identify with the characters one reads. I thought about my unusual childhood growing up as the child of a minister and how there were never any books that echoed my life in the "fish bowl" as I grew to think of it: always on display, even private actions became public. 

He also talked about his technique of building collages and how they were influenced by his grandmother's artistry as a quilt maker. He talked about the power of putting together those colors and different shapes. 

I thought about bed time, after my mother had all four of us kids in bed. She would sit down to the piano to play, the echoes of her practicing lulling us to sleep and letting us know she was there. I preferred her piano time to sewing or writing, because I could hear her. And I wonder what it would have been like to grow up with a silent void in that space. 

Knock Knock is a book that fills in that question. In the face of his father's absence, a boy has to learn, in Collier's words, "how to create a beautiful life in spite of loss." The book begins with a game: father and son playing "knock knock." But one day, the father's knock doesn't come. Throughout the gorgeous pictures, we see the boy writing letters and sending them as paper airplanes out into the world. We see an elephant in his childhood room marching around the room in shadows. We see a loving and devoted mother, raising her child in a world of love and loss. We see the missing fathers in houses around the boy as faces on the roofs of buildings. And we see the boy grow into a man who starts a business and a family and who, presumably, lives out his father's dream.

You have to read the book for yourself. Because this is a book built on the power of Daniel Beaty's poem. But it's a book that's all about the images: visualizing what loss means, what it means to see echoes of his father everywhere, what it means to grow up with that haunting absence. The pictures are heartbreakingly gorgeous. There are metaphors and layers on every page. 

And, Collier says, these children are everywhere. They are in your classrooms. They are in your libraries. They are your readers. You see them on the street.

Knock Knock is a book that helps when words aren't possible, when shadows crowd out reality, when loss is too big to name. 

This is an important book. It's a book you should read. It's a book you should own. It's a book you should share. This is the stuff of art. This is the power of words and images. This is a book that matters. 

More?

Bryan Collier at the 2014 National Book Awards Festival (the best 29 minutes you'll spend today)

Daniel Beaty on Def Poetry performing "Knock Knock" (3 minutes)

Bryan Collier's website