Forever Young: Bob Dylan’s book for Jonah

Forever Young
Author: Bob Dylan (words), Paul Rogers (pictures)
Simon & Schuster
September 2008, 40 pages, $17.99

Jonah was born on 2 September 2008. He is our first child. The riches of parenthood are too profound and numerous to discuss here, but one of the more noteworthy pleasures insofar as PopMatters’ audience is concerned is that he has introduced to me a world of books that had heretofore been a mystery. We have three ceiling-tall bookshelves that are double stacked and topped off sideways, so it is no surprise that his own modest shelf is already overflowing with books. (A stipulation that attendees of our baby shower had to bring a book for the pending boy certainly helped jump start his library.)

A genre isn’t legitimate until one can separate its good representatives from its bad, and it didn’t take me long to realize that “Children’s Literature” is for real. You know the bad when you see it — overly sentimental, overly cute, overly opportunistic — and there’s no point in me calling them out by name as we all have a different idea about what qualifies.

The good examples are less subjective. My own bent leans toward contemporary American fiction, but, if pressed, I would probably name Charles Dickens as my favorite novelist, so it’s no great shock that I am drawn to the strong narratives of the classics. The fairy-tale structure and the simplicity of both goal and message in Watty Piper’s The Little Engine That Could continues to delight; the subtle social commentary of Corduroy caught me pleasantly unawares; and my wife Leu and I healthily disagree about the meaning of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, with me contending that it’s about parenthood and her insisting that it’s about the abuse of resources (for his part, Jonah just really, really wants the corner of the book in his mouth).

There are, of course, an untold number of exemplary contemporary children’s books, too. The work of Todd Parr has quickly become a favorite, with his colorful illustrations and progressive worldview. Mo Willems’ Pigeon series cracks us up more than it does Jonah, and with crayon drawings to boot! And Sam McBratney’s Guess How Much I Love You is damn near the sweetest thing you will ever read in your whole entire life.

And then there are the celebrity authors. Before Jonah was even born, I had hoped that a special circle of hell was reserved for these people who thought that, just because they’re famous, they are qualified to write a book. (I found it even more condescending that they conceivably thought “it’s just a children’s books”, as if anybody can write a children’s book.) Here’s a list of some of the celebrity children’s book authors that appear on Barnes & Noble’s Web site, the top of which announces “Books by famous folks!”: Lynne Cheney, Jeff Foxworthy, Jamie Lee Curtis, Caroline Kennedy, John Lithgow, Brooke Shields, Whoopi Goldberg, Jenna Bush, Emeril Lagasse, Helen Thomas, Dionne Warwick, and two books by Tiki Barber. To say nothing of Billy Crystal, Madonna, Jerry Seinfeld, Will Smith, Ally Sheedy, Deborah Norville, Jimmy Buffet, Fred Gwynne, Leann Rimes, and Katie Couric. There’s even a Web site that’s called “How to Publish a Children’s Book if You’re Not a Celebrity”.

In fairness, I’ve not read any of these, and something like Maria Shriver’s What’s Happening to Grandpa?, which addresses a family dealing with Alzheimer’s disease, does sound like it has merit beyond the notoriety of its author. But, for the most part, I steer clear of the endcaps that feature books with the author’s name printed in larger font than the title.

So you can imagine my reaction when I was browsing through the shelves and saw “Dylan” on one of the spines. The title, Forever Young, suggested that it was Bob. Sure enough, it was.

Now, I have written on this very site about what Dylan means to me. I have stood by him when he did commercials for Victoria Secret (and another during this year’s Super Bowl with Wyclef Jean for I don’t remember what). I have vouched for his 1987 movie Hearts of Fire. I have even defended Under the Red Sky as being, quote, not that bad, unquote. But, given my attitude toward celebrity children’s books authors, I was in a quandary. Was this just another money maker written by one of his handlers, designed to capitalize on our nostalgia for all things 1960s? Or, worse yet, was it a book that advocated for some kind of – gulp — moral? I picked it up and saw that the first page included only a cartoon drawing of Dylan circa 1966 with a placard reading “Dig yourself”. On the second page, a boy on a stoop watched a folk singer play the guitar. The folk singer’s guitar case featured a sticker that said “This machine kills fascists”. I read no more. The book was mine.

Forever Young functions on two levels. Textually, the book is nothing more than the lyrics to Dylan’s classic song from the 1974 album Planet Waves. From “May God bless and keep you always” through to the song’s final repetition, it’s all here. But visually, Paul Rogers’ illustrations tell the story of a boy who is given a guitar by his idol and who then grows up to become a leader and an idol himself. SPOILER ALERT: In the end, the boy, now all growed up, passes the guitar on. La ronde, and all that. At times the words and the images work together — “May you always be courageous, / Stand upright and be strong” is accompanied by a booth in Washington Square where people are invited to “Save the Planet” — but, for the most part, the words do their thing and the pictures do another.

It’s a great book for kids because it’s about a kid who succeeds by following his dreams. But it’s an even better book for adults — especially adults in the know — because Rogers is a Dylan-ologist, who has, to paraphrase Joyce, put so many Dylan references in there that it’ll keep the Dylan fan busy for centuries (or at least an hour).

The man who passes on the guitar is, of course, Woody Guthrie, and the boy on the stoop is Dylan’s proxy. The book is set during the early 1960s and takes place in New York City’s hotspots of the time: Gerde’s Folk City, the aforementioned Washington Square Park, and various other locales around the Village. But, most irresistible of all, other references to Dylan’s songs are scattered throughout. One of the book’s joys is discovering them for yourself, so I’ll say only that the boy wears a shirt with a “61” emblazoned on the back, and the kids wait on the corner of “Positively 4th Street” for the bus that will take them to “The Finest School Alright”. The decorations in the boy’s room are a veritable Who’s Who of influences (my only qualm is that the top right-hand corner of the shelf seems to include the book that accompanied Ken Burns’ baseball documentary, which would be an unfortunate anachronism, but you get the idea). For the uninitiated, the back of the book includes two pages of “Illustrator’s Notes”, where even the hippest cats can learn where Dave Van Ronk, DA Pennebaker, and Edie Sedgwick appear.

Obviously, Jonah is oblivious to all of this. All he knows is that, when I bust out a book, it’s time to lie on the bed with Daddy, and when Daddy has this book in hand, chances are he’s going to sing more than read. I would like someday to take Jonah to a Dylan concert. I don’t want to be one of those dads that trades being a parent for being cool, but the idea of sharing one of my favorite things with another appeals to me on a level that I’m not sure I even fully understand yet. I’ve randomly chosen five as the age that Jonah needs to be before we do this. Dylan will be in his early 70s by then, but at the rate he’s going, it’s not impossible. Until then, in the absence of a full set, at least we have this song.