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From The Asian Reporter, V18, #37 (September 16, 2008), page 13.
Resilience and imagination
A Father Like That
By Charlotte Zolotow
Illustrations by LeUyen Pham
HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2007
Hardcover, 32 pages, $16.99
By Josephine Bridges
I wish I had a father. But my father went away before I was born." So begins a children’s book with an astonishing premise: how a boy imagines his father, "if he were here."
"He’d make coffee for you and for him, and he’d make you sit down with him before dinner," he tells the woman who has clearly raised him right all by herself. "When something bad happened, I could always talk to him. His voice would be very low, and when he was angry, he would speak slowly and be kind."
The boy goes into a lot of detail, and it’s only at the very end that we learn his mother’s response, which is perfect. In fact, A Father Like That is perfect.
Charlotte Zolotow’s little narrator runs the gamut from wistful to playful to sad to frightened to mischievous in these pages, but it doesn’t seem to occur to him to blame the father he never had the chance to know for not being there to really share with him all that he imagines. Again, his mother’s pragmatism and generosity shine in him, but perhaps his father’s genetic legacy, too, is a part of what a wonderful person he is. Charlotte Zolotow says none of this outright, letting the reader muse and reflect along with the narrator.
LeUyen Pham’s illustrations are as strong and confident as Charlotte Zolotow’s words. On the title page, the narrator sprawls on the floor drawing pictures with crayons. At the very bottom of the page, the sole of one of his bare feet and the heel of the other point directly at the reader and create an inexplicable intimacy. At the beginning and end of the book, the boy’s posture suggests a burden he carries gracefully but nonetheless carries, yet in the scenes from his imagination, his posture is more relaxed, the stance of an ordinary, healthy, happy boy.
Neither the author nor the illustrator of A Father Like That is African American, so the portrayal of an African-American family is a gutsy choice. Absent fathers, resilient mothers, and imaginative children appear in every race and culture; it would have been interesting to see how this book worked if it depicted a Caucasian or an Asian family.