Knockin' On Wood

By Lynne Barasch
Illustrations by Lynne Barasch

Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates was a legendary tap dancer of the twentieth century. As a young boy, Clayton loved to dance, but when he lost his left leg in a factory accident at age twelve, no one thought he would ever walk again, let alone dance. But Clayton’s musical spirit was still alive. Soon he was dancing using crutches, then a peg leg. Within a short time his peg leg matched the dancing ability of his other leg.

Peg Leg Bates performed throughout the United States and Europe, winning the hearts of audiences with his unique style of dancing. He was an amazing showstopper and an inspiration to everyone he met. With determination and a love of life, he turned misfortune into triumph. His most lasting achievement might just be the extraordinary example he set for us all.

Lynne Barasch’s initial inspiration for KNOCKIN’ ON WOOD came many years ago when she learned about Peg Leg Bates from her daughter’s tap dance teacher.

Clayton Bates, born in Fountain Inn, South Carolina, began dancing when he was five. Despite losing a leg in an accident while working in a cottonseed gin mill, Bates was determined to keep dancing. Using a wooden peg leg carved by his uncle, he resolved to become as talented as any two-legged dancer. He took the steps he saw performed by metal tap-shoed dancers and modified them for himself, adding his own flair and acrobatics. Over the years, he performed in minstrel shows, in carnivals, and finally in vaudeville variety shows. By age fifteen, he had created a career for himself as a professional tap dancer. During his career, Peg Leg Bates performed on the same vaudeville bills as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Gene Kelly, and Fred Astaire; he appeared on the Ed Sullivan television show; and he received several awards. In 1998, he died just a mile and a half from where he lost his leg in Fountain Inn, South Carolina.

Tap dancing is an American art form, born in the 1880s and still vibrant today, as evidenced by the popularity of shows and movies, tap dance festivals, current-day dancers such as Savion Glover, and more than 376,000 Web sites devoted to various aspects of tap. KNOCKIN’ ON WOOD, “taps” into this continued interest in tap dancing by focusing on one of the great tappers of the early- to mid-20th century.

Teaching Tip
Narrative nonfiction texts are a great way to introduce younger readers to the biography genre. Identify and discuss both the fiction and nonfiction text features of this story.

Before Reading

Prereading Focus Questions
Before introducing this book to students, you may wish to develop background and promote anticipation by posing questions such as the following:

  1. Do you like to dance? What kind of dancing do you like most? Why do you like it? How does dancing make you feel?
  2. This book tells about a period of time (1912–1951) in the life of a performer named Peg Leg Bates. What do you know about this time period? How were African Americans treated in the United States during this time?
  3. KNOCKIN’ ON WOOD is a true story, but the author wrote it in the same style as many fiction picture books. How is reading a nonfiction book different from reading a fiction story? What kinds of things do you have to pay attention to in each kind of book?

Exploring the Book
Write the title KNOCKIN’ ON WOOD on the chalkboard. Lead a discussion about what the title might mean. Then add the second part of the title, "STARRING PEG LEG BATES,” and talk about how this part of the title might relate to the first part.

Take students on a book walk and draw attention to the following parts of the book: dedication, title page, illustrations, backmatter, and back cover photograph.

Have volunteers identify different parts of the book including the title page, the copyright information, dedication, and quotes and photograph at the end. Plan to discuss the quotes with students when they finish reading the book.

Setting a Purpose for Reading
Have students read to find out:

  • who Peg Leg was.
  • the most important events in Peg Leg Bates’s life.
  • why Peg Leg Bates is an important person in American history.

Have students compile a list of new or unfamiliar words as they read the story. Suggested words/phrases to highlight:





mill amputated


peg leg

Time Step

Cramp Roll turns






resort hotel

country club

variety show

brought down the house



After Reading
Discussion Questions
After students have read the book, use these or similar questions to generate discussion, enhance comprehension, and develop appreciation for the content. Encourage students to refer to passages and illustrations in the book to support their responses.

  1. What was Clayton Bates’s childhood like? Where was he born? Where did he grow up? What was he passionate about as a child?
  2. Why do you think Clayton goes to the barbershop to find an audience for his dancing? What does this tell you about him?
  3. Why did Clayton’s mother drag him home from the barbershop? How does she feel about Clayton dancing for the white men?
  4. Why did Clayton want to work at the cottonseed mill? Would you have made the same decision? Why or why not?
  5. If Clayton had his terrible accident today, how would his treatment have been different? How might the rest of his life been different if he lived today?
  6. After the accident, how did Clayton behave? What does this tell you about the type of person he was?
  7. How does Mama feel about Clayton’s future after his amputation? How do her feelings change throughout the story?
  8. How did Clayton feel about performing? How do you think it feels to perform on a stage in front of hundreds of people? Is that something you would enjoy? Why or why not?
  9. What sacrifices did Clayton make to perform? Why did he make these sacrifices? How do you think he felt about having to make these sacrifices?
  10. Notice the words that the author uses. Where are they precise and powerful? Pick one sentence that you think really painted a clear picture of Peg Leg Bates and explain how this sentence helped you picture the action in the book.
  11. How do you think this story would have been different if it was told from Clayton’s perspective? If it was told from his mother’s perspective?

Literature Circles
If you use literature circles during reading time, students might find the following suggestions helpful in focusing on the different roles of the group members.

  • The Questioner might use questions similar to the ones in the Discussion Question section of this guide.
  • The Passage Locator might look for sentences or passages that help tell about Peg Leg Bates’s character.
  • The Illustrator might draw a map showing the places where Peg Leg Bates performed, and make a chart illustrating some of the different tap steps Bates would dance.
  • The Connector might locate other books about tap dance, Peg Leg Bates, or discrimination during this period in United States history.
  • The Summarizer might provide a brief summary of the group’s reading and discussion points for each meeting.
  • The Investigator might find out about other African American performers who were successful in the face of discrimination and adversity.

There are many resource books available with more information about organizing and implementing literature circles. Three such books you may wish to refer to are: *Getting Started with Literature Circles* by Katherine L. Schlick Noe and Nancy J. Johnson (Christopher-Gordon, 1999), *Literature Circles: Voice And Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups* by Harvey Daniels (Stenhouse, 2002), and *Literature Circles Resource Guide* by Bonnie Campbell Hill, Katherine L. Schlick Noe, and Nancy J. Johnson (Christopher-Gordon, 2000).

Reader's Response
The following questions or similar ones will help students personalize their responses to the book. Suggest that students respond in reader’s journals, in oral discussion, or in written form. Also encourage students to use details from the story to support their responses.

  1. What did you like about this book? Why? Is there anything you didn’t like? Why didn’t you like that part?
  2. What questions would you like to ask Peg Leg Bates about himself if you could meet him?
  3. How do you think Peg Leg Bates felt when he was dancing? Would you like to try tap dancing? Why or why not?
  4. Why do you think the author, Lynne Barasch, wrote this book? What did she want readers to learn from the story?
  5. What would you tell someone who has not read KNOCKIN' ON WOOD about this book? Why?

Other Writing Activities
You may wish to have students participate in one or more of the following writing activities. Set aside time for students to share and discuss their work.

  1. Retell part or all of the story of Peg Leg Bates from Clayton’s perspective or from Mama’s perspective.
  2. Pretend you are in the audience attending one of Peg Leg Bates’s performances. Write a critical review of the performance. Include details about the dancing, setting, costumes, reaction of the audience, and so on.
  3. Make a list of questions you would ask Peg Leg Bates if you could interview him about his childhood and the beginning of his career while he was on the road performing in vaudeville shows.
  4. Find out how Peg Leg Bates is honored in his hometown of Fountain Inn, South Carolina. Write a short report to share with the class.

ELL Teaching Strategies
These strategies might be helpful to use with students who are English language learners or who are learning to speak English as a second language.

  1. Read aloud a sentence from the book and have students read it aloud after you, pointing to each word as they speak.
  2. Make a recording of the story for students to listen to. Have them follow along in the book as they listen.
  3. Assign ELL students to read the book aloud with strong English speakers/readers.

Interdisciplinary Activities
Use some of the following activities to help students integrate their reading experiences with other curriculum areas.

Social Studies

  1. Students may be interested in learning more about tap dance. Here are some aspects of tap students may want to research: 
    • Where/how did tap dancing originate?
    • Who are/were some famous tap dancers?
    • What kind of training is necessary to become a professional tap dancer?
  2. While reading the story, students will have noticed the discrimination that Clayton Bates encountered when he performed at vaudeville theaters. Have students research blackface and African American performers in the 1930s through 1950s. Let students report on what they learned about the history of and challenges faced by African American performers in the United States during that time.{: style=”margin-left: 18px;”}

Language Arts/Sports

  1. The author uses some powerful words in the story (for example: endured, denied, despair, unfair, adversity). Encourage students to select five juicy vocabulary words from the story, define them, and then write new sentences related to the content of the book.
  2. Have students reread the quotes from Peg Leg Bates that appear on the last page of the book. If you have not already done so, discuss each quote with students and talk about what Peg Leg was trying to convey. After reading the last quote, discuss what the phrase “knockin’ on wood” means. Why is this phrase a good title for the book?

Have students create an advertisement or poster (on poster board or on a computer) for the Peg Leg Bates Country Club. Encourage students to include specific information in the ad or poster that would entice travelers to make a reservation.

About the Author/Illlustrator
Lynne Barasch has written and illustrated several award-winning picture books for children, including KNOCKIN' ON WOOD, Hiromi’s Hands, and First Come the Zebra, all published by Lee & Low Books. About her inspiration for KNOCKIN' ON WOOD, Barasch says “I first heard him speak in a video interview and was overwhelmed by his humor. . . . His personality swept me along as I wrote.” Barasch and her husband live in New York City.


About This Title

Guided Reading:




Interest Level:

Grades 1 - 5

Reading Level:

Grades 3 - 3


Nonfiction, Identity/Self Esteem/Confidence, Overcoming Obstacles, History, Dreams & Aspirations, Discrimination, Dance, Disability, African/African American Interest, Biography/Memoir, Persistence/Grit, Optimism/Enthusiasm, Pride


Fluent Dual Language , Fluent English, Biography and Memoir Grades 3-6, Appendix B Diverse Collection Grades 3-6, Nonfiction Grades 3-6, Art and The Arts Collection , Black History Collection Grades K-2, African American English Collection Grades PreK-2, Persistence and Determination Collection, African American Collection English 6PK, English Guided Reading Level Q

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