Review: Bruce Springsteen-inspired children’s book “Born to Run: The Story of Johnny 99”

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How it’s Irish: Bruce Springsteen is hugely popular in Ireland!

Matthew Orel, a Springsteen scholar and contributor to “Backstreets,” reviews “Born to Run: the Story of Johnny 99.” This review assumes some knowledge of Bruce Springsteen’s music… for a review of the book primarily as a children’s book, visit Backstreets.com.

The book description:

Johnny 99 has been caught racing in the street─again. Now he’s in trouble with his dad─again. Wanting to assert his independence and in hopes of finding adventure, Johnny 99 leaves his hometown to travel across the country. He returns home a changed car. 

The book is for sale, signed by the author, at the Backstreets website, too, so Springsteen parents might want to take a gander. Backstreets also wrote: 

  • “KID, YOU BETTER GET THE PICTURE BOOK… You don’t have to be familiar with Springsteen’s work to appreciate the sweet story and Johnny’s road trip… but for those of us who are, you can play Spot the References and see if you get all 99. Wendy’s story is beautifully illustrated by Matt Hall.”
    – Backstreets

I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen in concert a bunch of times. I’ve written blog pieces about him. When I write those pieces, whether for myself or publications such as Backstreets magazine, I might toss a lyric reference in to the title, or sprinkle references in to the body of the text. It’s fun for me, especially if I can get the context right; or maybe add a bit of nuance to whatever is being discussed. Then I’ll see if readers pick up on the references and how they’re interpreted. For example, when discussing Bruce’s just released box set from The River that includes a new CD of previous unreleased outtakes, I tried out Stray Bullet as it’s both a song title and also a description of the songs; it’s also my favorite song on the disc. Occasionally, I’ll find a columnist doing likewise; a local gossip columnist where I live used to throw Springsteen references in to his daily columns, daring fans such as myself to locate them. When the late Jeff Zaslow took over the Ann Landers column, he’d also routinely toss Springsteen references in to the daily advice.

Born to Run: The Story of Johnny 99, takes this relatively simple concept of sprinkling references in to a narrative to an extreme level.

This new picture book by Wendy Parnell, illustrated by Matt Hall, crams nearly 100 credited references (and a few more that are either un-credited or accidental) in to a total of just 150 lines of text,

sometimes with three or more references on a single line. Some of these are obvious enough, for example, the scene in town (“Lucky Town,” of course) at night being described as “From the Factory on E Street to the mansion on the hill,” while nods to songs by Joe Ely and Mike Ness in which Bruce lent a harmony vocal, are obscure even to many hardcore fans. One reference, to the small town of Marfa, Texas, managed to escape me… assuming that’s a Springsteen reference. I can’t ever be sure.

Does it work? If you’re a hard core fan, or if you’re inspired by seeing song titles, or lyrics, or place names or famous dates sprinkled through a short text, and if you don’t care much beyond that, you might enjoy this. It’s basically, “boy meets world, buffeted by Springsteen titles.”
Hall’s artwork is colorful, and some of it is pretty enjoyable; I particularly liked a 2-page spread collecting images of the Asbury Park postcard, The Palace Amusements building in Asbury Park, a ferris wheel and the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas.
Screen Shot 2016-01-15 at 8.54.20 PMOther readers may find things to like in other references. But some references — starting with the book title paying homage to a convicted murderer (“Johnny 99” being about an unemployed auto worker who murders a night clerk, receives a 99-year jail sentence, and then begs the judge to give him the death penalty instead) — might induce cringes, too. Of course, children won’t know this reference.
I like the idea of a picture book “inspired by the music of Bruce Springsteen.”  Frank Caruso’s book based on Outlaw Pete, a true case of art-imitates-life-imitates-art, came out last year, with Bruce himself supplying the afterword. In that afterword, Springsteen wrote that he wasn’t sure if Caruso’s adaptation of the song was really a children’s book, but that Bruce believes “children instinctively understand passion and tragedy.” In Born to Run: The Story of Johnny 99, that approach might also apply, just without the tragedy. Of course, The Story of Johnny 99 isn’t a Springsteen story: it’s basically a simple story of a child spiritually growing up and his parents standing back and letting it all be, with no one ending up either wounded or even dead.
The narrative more or less follows the approach of Mark Teague’s Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters from Obedience School, a book about a dog writing letters home, and if you like that book and want something Screen Shot 2016-01-15 at 9.04.31 PMsuperficially similar with lots of Springsteen references and a car in place of the dog, maybe this book is for you!
The opportunity for clever use of Springsteen lyrics and themes isn’t fully realized, which is disappointing.
There are many discussions between parents and children in Springsteen songs, many instances in which an ethos is communicated, in songs such as I Wanna Mary You, Sinaloa Cowboys, Long Walk Home, and many others that would fit neatly either as direct quotes or paraphrases. Springsteen occasionally has children talking to their parents, too, in songs such as Independence Day and The Wish. There is a travelogue on Born to Run: The Story of Johnny 99, and there’s plenty of that in Springsteen lyrics as well, in songs such as From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come), Screen Shot 2016-01-15 at 9.04.42 PMWorking on the Highway, Darlington County and others. And of course there are many driving songs; for all of the references that are the book, it seems there are many overwhelmingly obvious ones (e.g., Wreck on the Highway, Open All Night) that are not, never mind that this car never once stops for gas, not under any giant Exxon sign nor anywhere else.
How cool might it have been to incorporate some of the parental advice from Bruce’s songs, or the children speaking, or even to have one of the letters say “life is just heaven in the sun” while the parents are waiting for young Johnny to come back?
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