Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Hit the Road, Jack

Hit the Road, Jack by Robert Burleigh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been a fan of Ross MacDonald's picture books since "Another Perfect Day." His retro style, done in watercolor and pencil crayon, is filled with a warm yellow glow, that looks like sunshine hitting paper. "Hit the Road, Jack" celebrates life on the open road and the joys of traveling cross country and was loosely inspired by Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." Author Robert Burleigh gives us a jackrabbit named Jack who is itching to travel and to see America. Setting out in New York he walks, bikes, hitchhikes and rides the rails from sea to shining sea, where he finally lands in San Francisco. But for Jack, the city by the bay is just one more stop, because for guys like Jack there's only one rule: "Never, Never Stop."

"Hit the Road, Jack" cleverly exalts the world of roadside diners, tourist attractions and taking the time to appreciate our country's beautiful scenery. My only complaint about this otherwise wonderful picture book is that some of the cities that Jack passes through look a little too generic. For example, when Jack lands in Chicago, we see him on South Halsted Street, but with the exception of a few jazz club signs, the buildings lack any real detail. The skyscrapers in the background could be from any big city. The text frequently mentions places that Jack is passing through, but instead the illustrations give us depictions of Jack having a picnic or sleeping in a car. Now, as an illustrator myself, I don't believe an illustrator's job is to literally interpret every word of the text, but I do feel that some of MacDonald's choices seem a little simple and generic. The illustrations are warm, funny, colorful and wonderfully composed, but I do think on a few occasions MacDonald missed an opportunity to do something spectacular. For example when Jack passes through the salt flats the text reads, "Over the salt flats, on and on, The horizon thick with reds, And mesas looming far, far off, Like carved-out giants' heads." The illustration shows Jack running across white ground with his arms upraised to the sky. In the background are a line of reddish-orange mesas which don't appear to be looming, nor do they resemble the giants' heads described in the text. Instead, they look small and insignificant and just don't convey the grandeur of these magnificent natural wonders.

On the whole the pictures and text depict an America of the past, a nostalgic 1940s America where strangers wave to one another, walking the streets was a safe thing to do, and hopping a freight and hitchhiking were inexpensive ways to travel. In this rosy colored world, money is not important "You're broke - but well, so what? 'Cause money's only something, Jack, That gets you in a rut." If only life were so simple.

I love to travel and I love road trips so I recommend this book for it's message of throwing your cares to the wind and seeing the world, even if in real life, that's not always the easiest thing to do. But, after all this is a picture book and kids need to know there's a beautiful world out there, waiting for them to explore it. Robert Burleigh's story conveys that message in a colorful way and kids will love searching MacDonald's illustrations for the little blue bird that follows Jack on his cross country travels. For adults, I think parents will enjoy the rhythms of the delightful text which is perfect for reading aloud.

Detail from "Hit the Road, Jack" illustration by Ross MacDonald

Detail from "Hit the Road, Jack" illustration by Ross MacDonald
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