Wednesday, May 18, 2011

When Bob Met Woody--Outsider Narrative Nonfiction

When Bob Met Woody: The Story of the Young Bob Dylan by Gary Golio and illustrated by Marc Burckhardt tells the story of how Bob Dylan became a musician and his early attraction to singer/composer Woody Guthrie's work. The book's publisher describes it as a picture book biography, but I prefer to think of it as narrative nonfiction. Though perhaps all biography is a type of narrative nonfiction.

In the March/April 2011 issue of The Horn Book, author Elizabeth Partridge says in her essay Narrative Nonfiction: Kicking Ass at Last that writers of narrative nonfiction are "making sure we are telling a story." "Nonfiction often gets accused of just being about plot," she goes on, while "narrative nonfiction takes people, places, and events, builds bridges between them, gives them meaning and emotional content."

This is what I feel Gary Golio has done in When Bob Met Woody, as well as in his earlier book, Jimi: Sounds Like A Rainbow—A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix. These are not extensive, complete life stories. Instead, Golio has recognized the narrative possibility of some portion of Dylan’s and Hendrix’s lives and told a story about it. Or, to put it another way, he’s recognized that there’s a story there and tells it.

To bring in some more of my nonfiction reading about nonfiction, both When Bob Met Woody and Jimi: Sounds Like A Rainbow are nonfiction with themes. They have a shared theme, to be more precise, the outsider with a desire to create that is so great that he overcomes his outsider status in order to do it. I like theme, particularly outsider themes, and these two books drip it.

Golio portrays Dylan, as he did Hendrix, as a self-taught musician from a family that couldn’t assist him in his musical training. In fact, in Dylan’s case the family appears to have opposed his musical goals. "Dad didn’t care for Bob’s music and thought playing the guitar was a waste of time." His parents "hoped he’d be an engineer." Both men, as boys, were also influenced by what they heard on the radio, which is probably a factor of their having been contemporaries, with Hendrix being born in 1942 and Dylan in 1941. I wonder what impact, if any, radio has on young people these days but at the time Dylan and Hendrix were growing up, radio would have been an accessible source of music for people without money to pay for records, tickets, or music lessons. Golio even picks a sort of Hendrix-like quotation to describe Dylan’s feelings about Guthrie’s music. "Woody made each word count. He painted with words." This is a kind of imagery Golio used in Jimi: Sounds Like A Raindow, in which he described Hendrix’s music visually, as color.

It's at that point that the two books really part ways. When Bob Met Woody branches off into different territory once Dylan becomes taken with the music of Woody Guthrie. We get a sort of journey/quest story as the twenty-year-old aspiring musician hitchhikes half way across the country to meet the older, established folk singer, who is hospitalized with Huntington’s Disease. Journey stories are terrific for narrative drive, and I was thinking that someone should pitch this tale as a movie as I was reading this part the first time.

I often read children’s books on two levels. I read for my own enjoyment, of course, and When Bob Met Woody’s outsider story makes the book for me, as does all its references to writers and musicians I have at least a familiarity with. Its great post story material in the form of an afterword and author’s note is a draw, too. But while I'm reading I’m also always aware that I am reading a book that was written for someone else, for someone without my years of experience and reading background. I particularly obsess on that question when I’m reading nonfiction for children. With When Bob Met Woody we’re talking about two figures whose names are probably unfamiliar to children, so I had to think about whether or not child readers would be interested.

While children may not have heard Guthrie or Dylan’s names, it’s very likely they’ve heard their music. One of the interesting aspects of their professional lives is that both men were so prolific and so well-regarded by other musicians, that many people of all ages may have been exposed to their work because so many artists have performed it. More importantly, what makes the Bob Dylan story as presented in When Bob Met Woody child worthy is, once again, that outsider theme. The child who had to struggle against his social world to do what he wanted to do is compelling to young readers because to some extent all children are doing that at some point in their lives over one issue or another. That story is relatable.

Regarding Marc Burckhardt’s artwork: The March/April 2011 issue of The Horn Book also includes an article called
What Makes a Good Picture Book Biography?
by Viki Ash and Thom Barthelmess. The authors say that the illustrators of such books use "sophisticated imagery to complement the narrative with a sense of the time and place of the subject’s life." I think Burckhardt’s illustrations have a retro, mid-twentieth century feel that definitely do provide a setting for Golio’s story without the author having to waste a lot of time telling us, say, what radios, cars, and cash registers looked like at the time Bob Dylan was growing up.

Marc Tyler Nobleman describes his favorite scene from When Bob Met Woody. Mine is the one showing a teenage Bob holding a telephone to his ear, his coat and hat already on, while he tells a nurse at the hospital where Woody Guthrie is being treated, "I’m coming out there...Tell Woody I’m coming out to see him."

The When Bob Met Woody blog tour has already stopped at
The Fourth Musketeer and
Noblemania. You can follow it next week at:

Monday, May 23 Picture Book of the Day

Tuesday, May 24 Deo Writer

Thursday, May 26, The Brain Lair

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