I love a good picture book. I especially love a picture book that tackles an adult subject or theme. DB Johnson has found a way to make the Transcendentalist philosophy of Henry David Thoreau and the surrealist vision of René Magritte palatable, digestible and, above all, entertaining for young audiences with his books Henry Hikes to Fitchburg and Magritte's Marvelous Hat. Susanna Reich and Amy June Bates introduced Julia Child and her culinary odyssey in a to picture book readers in a very tasty way with their book Minette's Feast.With Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Sarah Edmonds, A Civil War Hero, Marissa Moss and Jon Hendrix made the brave life of a young American compelling for young readers. Every time I encounter a picture book that tackles one of these adult subjects or themes, my first thought is, "Why?" My second thought is, "What will a child get out of this?" My third thought is, "Does this book work as a story on its own, even if the reader knows NOTHING about the subject?" If a book works, like those cited above, the answer to those questions is, obviously, "yes." When I saw that Robert Burleigh, author of many biographies and non-fiction books for children and adults, and illustrator Ross MacDonald, a favorite of mine, had written a picture book, Hit the Road Jack, about Jack Kerouac, I had to have my questions answered, especially since I was, in my high school days, a bit of a Kerouac fan. Doesn't everybody read Kerouac in high school (and then never again, like Salinger...)?
Since I'm reviewing Hit the Road Jack here you have probably guessed that I was able to answer "yes," to all my questions after reading this gorgeous picture book. First off, Hit the Road Jack works wonderfully as a story book, regardless of any preexisting knowledge of Jack Kerouac. As the Publisher's Weekly review notes, Hit the Road Jack is not "a biography or an introduction to Kerouac's work; instead, it's a tribute to his spirit and his era." Burleigh has written a rambling story about a restless jack rabbit who travels across the country, enjoying the sights, because he wants to ad he can. His text reads like a song and, after a few pages you may have the strong urge to start scatting or be-bopping and slapping your knee as you read. The book begins,
Hey, Jack! Skedaddle! Gotta hop!
Vamoose! Take off and go!
Nose is itching, ears are twitching,
Come on! Get with the flow!
Time to see the road unwind
And feel the wind blow free.
"Hello, America! Here I come,
From sea to shining sea!"
MacDonald's illustrations are glorious, harkening back to the era of Jack Kerouac's book, Virginia Lee Burton. Making Jack into a rabbit makes his glee and enjoyment of his trek translatable to children and, as noted above, more about the spirit of the era than a biographical story.
Burleigh's author's note, "Who was Jack?" is brief, and, like his book, more about the journey than the man, which is ok. Hit the Road Jack reminds me of some of Bill Peet's books, which, although first published in the early 1970s, introduce young readers to a post-WWII America where train hopping and circuses were part of a midwestern sensibility and straightforwardness that infused Peet's stories. Why write a book about Jack Kerouac's most famous work, On the Road, for kids? Because, his travels across America are interesting to readers of any age and his writing style is one that remains iconic. "What will a child get out of this?" an appreciation for the vastness of our country, the regional differences and the great joy in traveling. Finally, "Does this book work as a story on its own, even if the reader knows NOTHING about the subject?" Yes. Without a doubt. Burleigh's writing is a joy to read out loud and, while his book is more of a travelogue than a narrative, that is entirely fitting to the subject matter. MacDonald's illustrations of America in the 1950s and his love of the subject matter are glowing. In all likelihood, an adult is not going to buy this book without some understanding or knowledge of Jack Kerouac, but for those who do, they are sure to be surprised and delighted with their purchase!
More books by Ross MacDonald you should read...
Source: Review Copy