In an age when millions of children grow up in single-parent households, not many picture books are willing to tackle the topic as directly as this one. Bryan Collier’s illustrations, newly honored with a Coretta Scott King Award, evoke a richly textured urban environment, a perfect counterpoint to Daniel Beaty’s lyrical portrayal of an African American boy yearning for the return of his absent father. Leaving open the question of what caused the father’s departure — incarceration, desertion, death — lets readers supply their own answers, while the first-person narrative voice makes the tale both poignant and respectful, focusing on the sense of loss without vilifying the absent parent. “Papa, come home ’cause I want to be just like you,” the boy says, “but I’m forgetting who you are.” Collier’s carefully constructed pictures expand this all-too-common circumstance beyond the borders of the page, transforming grimy reality into a collage of hopes and dreams. We see the father’s discarded hat flying across rooftops covered by a kaleidoscope of ghostly, half-seen children’s faces only to reappear in the end, transformed into a bright yellow hard hat as the boy grows into his manhood and places it like a beacon on his own son’s head. Wobbly lines of words on a sheet of paper morph into paper airplanes and then reemerge on a diploma hung on the wall of a young architect’s office. There’s a lot to look at, a lot to think about and a lot to discover in this book that portrays life not only as it is, but as it can become.
— Kristi Elle Jemtegaard