This opening paragraph of “My Dad, My Rock” book was an actual conversation that its author Victor D. O. Santos had with his son one night at bedtime. This conversation inspired him to write this tender and heartfelt homage to dads. Victor’s dedication at the start of this book: “To all loving fathers, especially the self-taught ones. And for my son” hints that this story is rooted in the author’s personal experience.
Oliver, the sweet redheaded child whose reflections fill this book, never met his grandpa and sadder yet, grandpa never met Oliver’s dad. Having grown up without a father himself, Oliver’s dad feels like he is self-taught in the hard-knocks school of fatherhood. I dare say as parents we all feel like we’re making it up as we go along, but having a strong role model certainly gives one a rudimentary roadmap by which to navigate the precarious twists and turns of parenthood.
Oliver goes on to imagine what he would tell his grandpa about how special his dad is. Like how he appears to have five eyes and five arms “Even when I am behind him, he always knows what I am doing. If I let go of his hand, he always catches me. Sometimes I call him Octopus Dad.”
He is always there to wipe away his tears. And sometimes they cry together. Dad says “some people say real men don’t cry. I think men who don’t cry aren’t real.”
He’s also not ashamed of being goofy, even if other people are watching. Although I suspect that this is just a regular “dad thing” that all kids must endure with rolling eyes, along with those mind-numbing dad jokes.
And my personal favourite…“He always reads with me at bedtime. He says that a child without books is like a house with no windows.”
Dad says that Oliver can be anything he wants when he grows up, which leads to his conclusion that “When I grow up, I want to be like my dad. But with more hair, that’s for sure. My grandpa never met my dad, but I am sure he would be proud of him. Just like my children will one day.”
Oliver’s account has a heartfelt and “out of the mouth of babes” kind of innocence that any parent would recognise and relate to. Victor D.O. Santos succeeded in conveying the thoughts and words of a child. This book is a great testament to his ability to see the world through the eyes of a child, a perceptivity which reminds me of the writing of Shirley Hughes, who was known to ‘see what a child sees’.
Victor Dias de Oliveira Santos is a language-learning expert and an academic with a PhD in Applied Linguistics and Technology. He is also an award-winning author and a father of two multilingual children raised in a multicultural family with Victor who is Brazilian and his wife who is of Ukranian descent. He is best known as the author of the multi-award-winning children’s series Little Polyglot Adventures, which was inspired by his own family history. Check out Victor’s website for more about his books and to access some great blog articles on raising multilingual children.
Anna Forlati’s illustrations have a muted and dreamy quality which perfectly underscore Oliver’s childlike ruminations. Realistic, warm pastel drawings on a beautifully textured background convey the devotion of this loving father and son relationship. The close-ups and full-spread scenes alternate with comic-style drawing tiles, up to four to a page, making for a visually versatile book despite the uniform artistic style of its artwork.
Anna’s ability to express emotion so succinctly within a single image is quite apparent, like the image below of Oliver crying on his dad’s shoulder. I particularly like this illustration. It takes me back to when I was a child in my father’s arms. If I was upset or hurt, his broad shoulders and strong arms would sweep me up and firmly hold me to his chest and I was left in no doubt that I was safe and everything would be just fine.
My interest was piqued enough to check Anna’s other books and I found an extremely accomplished illustrator who has so far illustrated about 40 books, reaching critical acclaim. Many of the books that Anna has illustrated are written in the magical realism genre (quite different to “My Rock, My Dad”). Magical realism is one of Anna’s favourite genres which as she says, “makes her imagination soar”. I was not surprised then that one of her favourite books is Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita”, coincidentally one of my all-time favourites, read, re-read and re-read again.
Judging by Anna’s illustrations, one may assume that she was an avid reader growing up. Below, we see a cubby house style structure made entirely of books with Oliver and his dad sitting outside reading David McKee’s “Elmer the Patchwork Elephant”.
In the below illustration, Oliver is dreaming of what he wants to be when he grows up. This illustration evokes a scene from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince” with Oliver resting on his little planet, having just tended to his beautiful kindhearted yet capricious Rose.
I was so intrigued by this artist that I asked for a Q&A opportunity to discuss Anna’s illustrating career, her artistic journey, influences and processes. I’m so grateful that she generously agreed and you can find the upshot of this interesting conversation here.
As part of that conversation, I asked Anna a few questions regarding her process for “My Dad, My Rock”. Here is what she had to say:
Question: Can you describe your process for illustrating “My Dad, My Rock”? How did you start? Did you model your characters on any real-life people, your friends or family?
The quest for the boy, Oliver, was quite straightforward, and entirely made-up. On the other hand, the dad took some time to define. My real-life starting point for him was the actor Jean Reno. From the beginning, there was a lot of helpful dialogue with the publisher over the stylistic approach and all other aspects of the book. I seldomly find such involvement and effort in publishers, and I really appreciated it. I started my steps with a mockup full of visual references provided by the publisher himself. It was a very helpful tool for the first part of the design process (the various storyboards etc.) which took a fair amount of time. Other conversations we had considered whether or not the boy’s mom would appear. We decided not to, thus keeping the possibility of a single parenting family and focusing entirely on fatherhood. We discussed furthermore the choice to represent racial diversity in the final family (Oliver’s partner and children), as well as on the use of the tree (a Maple species that is common in Iowa, where Victor is based), seen throughout the book in its growing phases, to make a clear visual connection between generations.
Question: Victor D.O. Santos dedicated his story of the loving relationship between Oliver and his Dad to all fathers and his son. This book appears to be charged with the energy and the emotions of the author’s personal experiences, did this make it more challenging to illustrate than a fantasy genre tale? If yes, why? If not, why?
The book was inspired by an actual, short dialogue between Victor and his son one night at bedtime, which can be found on the very first page of the book. Although many texts contain some degree of personal experiences, it was truly quite peculiar to deal with such a deep biographical reference by an author. The dialogue with Victor has been very intense and I think he’s been extremely generous in letting me go my own way, even when illustrating such personal matters. Then of course I was able to connect it to my personal history and relationship with my father, which is especially important in this moment of my life.
The epigraph from world heavyweight boxing champion Ken Norton at the beginning of this book underscores the magnitude and honour he feels to be a father:
“Of all the titles I was priviledged to have, “Dad” has always been the best.”Ken Norton (world heavyweight boxing champion)
I think it’s fair to say that the father’s role in modern society is often dismissed or underestimated. This book reminds us that a strong father figure can be a powerful and positive role model, providing children with an inspiring blueprint by which to mould and shape their personality and persona and move confidently in the direction of their dreams. “My Dad, My Rock” is a timely and heartfelt testament to the emotional connection and loving ties that bind a father and son. Enjoy browsing more pages of this book below.
Title: “My Dad, My Rock”
Author: Victor D. O. Santos; Illustrator: Anna Forlati