Thursday, December 1, 2011

Blowin' in the Wind

Lyrics by Bob Dylan
Illustrated by Jon J. Muth
With CD of Dylan's original recording
Sterling, 2011
$17.95, ages 5 and up, 28 pages

In this sublime picture book adaptation, a paper airplane gliding across the sky becomes a breathtaking metaphor for the roles we all play in making a better world.

Award-winning Jon Muth meditates on Bob Dylan's remarkable 1963 protest song with sweeping illustrations steeped in symbolism, the most resonant being that of the toy plane.

Four children of differing skin color are taken by skiff across expanses of water and shown scenes that make them at turns reflective, sad, uncomfortable, and ultimately, ready to face up to a difficult truth:

That unjust things occur in the world and it is up to each of them to do something about them.

Passing overhead in almost every spread, a folded airplane symbolizes "the answer" in Dylan's refrain, "The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind," a figurative verse about opening one's heart to all of humanity.

The idea, it seems, is that if one's heart and senses are receptive, the answer to what to do about life's injustices can be heard or felt, though it's up to each of us to want to act on it.

"Just as each of the children in my illustrations has his or her own paper airplane, each of us knows what needs to be done in our worlds," Muth writes in an end note.

Dylan himself in 1962 compared the "answer" in his song to paper, and one wonders if this played into Muth's choice of a paper airplane as his guiding metaphor.

"Just like a restless piece of paper it's got to come down some," Dylan wrote. "…But the only trouble is that no one picks up the answer when it comes down so not too many people get to see and know …and then it flies away. I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it's wrong."

Muth's use of the paper airplane is brilliant. A symbol of freedom, it is a toy that can be created by anyone, even a child, and can go anywhere with the flick of a wrist. It begins simply, with piece of paper, then takes off from people's hands.

In aeronautics, a paper airplane is a flying machine that is strictly theoretical, but here Muth seem to shout: No, it's not just a dream to solve the world's injustices, we can choose to see what's wrong and find a path to peace.

Every misty, color-washed landscape seems to ache for our compassion. Soft grassy hills and serene seas lull readers in and make them want to linger, even as a paper airplane draws their eyes to the next pages.

Adding to the book's appeal is a CD of Dylan's original recording tucked inside the front cover, the note by Muth and another end note by renowned music columnist Greil Marcus.

On the first spread a boy in a green striped shirt with arms wrapped around a big red ball looks out across roads rolling this way and that over hills, as his paper airplane takes off in their direction.

Standing still, he seems to consider what he sees, as the beginning verse of the song lingers on the wind. The verse questions why some people continue to be treated unjustly.

How many roads (or how much sorrow) must one man endure before we call him a man and give him respect? the verse seems to ask him.

By the next spread, the boy is floating in a bright red skiff across an expanse of still water, as a dark-haired girl all in green stands at the stern with a scull.

How many seas must the the white dove (the bird of peace) fly before she can rest and not worry about war? the second verse seems to asks.

The water's edge at the horizon is blurred, perhaps to suggest the uncertainty of how far it must go on.

The boy sees a relic of violence on shore, a rusted cannon on a grassy hill, and there beside it is a little girl with pigtails, the epitome of innocence, picking Flanders poppies.

Then later as an older girl and boy are added to the skiff, they see a glacier breaking apart, a sign that nothing lasts forever, then drift before a brick wall keeping people in white on one side of a waterway.

The girl in green moves the boat slowly, lingering at each scene as the younger children react to what they see.

At the brick wall, the little girl spreads poppy petals on the water, as the current carries them toward the people there waving to be noticed.

The other boy stands beside her and lets a red helium balloon he's brought with him rise as high as it can go without releasing the string, as if he's almost ready to give his heart and help the men.

But the boy in the striped shirt turns away. He sits cross-legged in the hull, holding tightly to his red ball, looking down at his reflection in the water.

With his back to the wall, he cannot see one of the men on the wall drop his guitar into the water, or, in the next picture, the guitar drifting ashore just behind the skiff.

At the bank behind him, a girl in a red dress discovers the guitar and wonders, "How many times / must a man look up / Before he can / see the sky?" as if thinking of the boy and his refusal to see what these men have lost.

The acoustic guitar looks like one Dylan would use, and here it seems to symbolize the common people, their need to be heard, and ultimately their need to be free and express who they are.

The girl seems to be saying to herself: Will the boy ever change? Will he ever share the ball? The ball, like one's heart, is full of potential, capable of great of love, yet the boy guards it so.

On the next page, the girl kneels in shallow water before the guitar. It is now snapped in two, and the boy, having finally heard her cry, hands her his ball, ready to face the truth and open his heart.

There's so much here to contemplate: the wind seems to represents things that are all around us but that we cannot see or choose not see, and the Flanders poppies suggest remembrance.

The red of the balloons, the skiff and the girl's dress evoke the power of love and survival, and the green of the boat woman's jumpsuit suggest renewal and well-being.

White as a color has the potential to move toward every other color, and perhaps this is why boy's shirt is striped both green and white; he has the potential to reach out to others and start fresh.

Muth's paintings feel intimately tied to Dylan's words. It's as if the illustrations were there in the lyrics all along, just waiting for Muth to pull them out and brush them on the page.

This is surely in the running for a Caldecott, but whether it wins or not, it is an amazing pictorial that will have children and adults discussing it long after the first read  -- just as people continue to do with Dylan's song.

What the reader should know is that this is not a book to give up on.

At first it may seem puzzling, but as children pour over it, read it again again, and talk about, the messages it imparts, like the meanings of the song itself, will reveal themselves -- like beams of sunlight pouring out of a cloud.

Muth's work here is extraordinary. His watercolors reference disturbing things, injustice and war, and yet they are also serenely compelling -- so you don't look away, even though this is a story about the world refusing to see things for what they are.

Above all, the messages here is of hope: that it's never too late to make things right.

One of the most heartening paintings is on the endpapers. There, readers see silhouettes of all of the children as they run down a beach at sunset, their arms waving excitedly as they reach toward a dove flying above them.

Muth is the author-illustrator of the Caldecott Honor-winning Zen Shorts and the acclaimed The Three Questions.

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