[If you can’t see the book cover at left, you can see it and hear “Forever Young” by clicking on the link to book trailer on YouTube at the end of this review.]
Forever Young. By Bob Dylan. Illustrated by Paul Rogers. Atheneum Books for Young Readers / Ginee Seo Books, 40 pp., $17.99. Age range suggested on Amazon.com: 4–8. Actual age range: 50–70.
By Janice Harayda
Just in time for the holidays, here comes the latest piece of sucker bait tossed to sentimental baby boomers by publishers: a picture book that has no words except for the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s hymn to youth, “Forever Young.” What’s next, Let’s Read and Find Out About “Lay, Lady, Lay”? Or My First Book of “Everybody Must Get Stoned”?
The kindest thing you can say about this book is that it lacks the appropriate special effects: marijuana-laced scent strips so preschoolers can get stoned out of their minds while reading it. Paul Rogers’s coolly antiseptic illustrations suggest none of the heat Dylan’s music generated: A critic for Publishers Weekly rightly said that “the flat, digitally manipulated compositions recall 1960s low-budget animation.”
Rogers’s illustrations amount to a visual biography of Dylan from his Minnesota childhood through his early years as a singer-songwriter in New York (though you wonder if he and his schoolmates fist-bumped and wore waist-length backpacks as in this book). The pictures show Dylan playing only an acoustic guitar, but some details nod to his later electric years. And the book has so many images of celebrities that children could well come away from this book with the idea that Joan Baez, Ben Shahn, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Edie Sedgwick, Albert Einstein, DA Pennebaker and Martin Luther King Jr. once stood shoulder-to-shoulder at an antiwar march as they do here. Rogers needs two pages of end notes to explain all the visual references that will sail right over the heads of four-year-olds, which makes Forever Young something rare: a picture book with footnotes.
“Forever Young” is a sweet song from its opening lines (“May God bless you and keep you always” / May all your wishes come true”) through its closing refrain (“May you stay forever young”). But its simple rhyming lines don’t have anything close to the energy or poignancy – or just the poetry – needed to sustain a 40-page book without a companion tape or CD. And the words reflect a point of view few children are likely to share.
Although parents may wish their offspring to stay “forever young,” children typically want to grow up as fast as they can. This why psychologists advise parents to use such overworked as phrases as “big girl chair” or “big boy school” in talking about new and potentially frightening situations. Few things are scarier to many children than the idea that they may stay “forever young,” which they may equate with powerlessness.
So here’s a suggestion: If this book tempts you in the children’s section of a bookstore, don’t buy it for the kids. Buy it as a gag gift for one of those second-childhood–themed 50th or 60th birthday parties where everybody brings Mickey Mouse ears or Star Trek DVDs. For all its faults, Forever Young is still a lot cheaper than a gift certificate for six months’ worth of Botox or Viagra.
Best line: An end note quotes a 2004 Los Angeles Times interview in which Dylan said he wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 10 minutes: “just put words to an old spiritual, probably something I learned from Carter Family records.”
Worst line: Some end notes are glorified product plugs: “Highway 61 Revisited (1965) is a great album to listen to when you’re on the road – or not.”
Editor: Ginee Seo
Published: September 2008
Watch the trailer for this book on YouTube, which has Dylan singing “Forever Young” as the pages of the book turn, at www.youtube.com/watch?v=eCMgDc2uiWI.
Furthermore: Can’t get enough of the sucker bait publishers throw at boomers? Click here to read about Steve Martin and Roz Chast’s 2007 picture book, The Alphabet from A to Y www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/02/.
Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.