friday feast: jon j muth’s adaptation of bob dylan’s “blowin’ in the wind”

When I first heard Jon J Muth was doing a picture book adaptation of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” I fairly swooned.

The mere thought of DYLAN (my best bud who’s probably writing a song about me even as we speak) paired with MUTH (who had me years ago with his panda wearing baggy shorts) made me hyperventilate with anticipation. Just how would he make an iconic, somewhat ambiguous protest song meaningful for children?

Muth cleverly used a paper airplane as a visual metaphor. The “answer,” perhaps written on this folded piece of paper, sails on the wind, ever present but always out of reach. It’s quite an apt metaphor, perfectly in tune with what Dylan himself said when the song was first published in 1962:

Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won’t believe that. I still say it’s in the wind and just like a restless piece of paper it’s got to come down some  …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 paper planes travel through lush, dreamy watercolor landscapes, each scene reflecting a different lyric. Four children and a woman, depicted singly or in groups, appear in the narrative — a journey traversing green fields, hillsides, forests and an ocean. The paper airplane is always present — a silent lodestar which takes on spiritual connotations (“How many seas must the white dove sail/Before she sleeps in the sand?”). I am reminded that the Native Americans view birds as messengers between heaven and earth. The ethereal, capricious wind, invisible but for the flittering of a paper plane, can gently usher in change or cause mass destruction.

Ironically, Dylan didn’t consider “Blowin’ in the Wind” a protest song. It was adapted from the Negro spiritual, “No More Auction Block,” and contains Biblical rhetoric, so it “follows the same feeling” — inspirational as gospel music is, but not political. He claims he wrote the song in ten minutes!

Muth’s idyllic landscapes, characterized by a soothing, inherent stillness, reflect the song’s entreaty for peace, harmony and freedom. The sheer majesty of these natural scenes are in keeping with the spiritual feeling Dylan intended. Each child has his own plane, must travel his own path, find his own answers. By the end of the book, the children and the woman are all playing together with a big red ball. Nearby, there’s an old cannon draped with the flags of several nations, a single red balloon tied to it.

The final spread shows all the paper planes gliding in unison high in the sky. There may be different answers, but only one human truth. Basically we all want the same things. A fleet of planes, the collective unconscious. Single notes join in 12-part harmony, a beautiful chorus.

This new picture book will make it possible for parents and teachers to share Dylan’s song with a new generation of children who’ve never known a time when America was not at war. It comes with a CD of the original studio recording of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and there’s also an Author’s Note and a Note from music historian Greil Marcus, which discusses the song’s universal, timeless message and describes what the world was like when the song became a civil rights anthem in the 60’s.

The open-ended narrative and use of enigmatic symbols (red balloon, red ball, red boat, acoustic guitar passed down to the children from a man living in a walled city), will challenge children of different ages (and adults) to draw their own conclusions, interpret as they will. Muth’s use of red, in particular, could spark interesting discussion: is it the color of strength and love, or a reminder of blood shed in senseless wars? Is it the rising sun, the dawn of new hope (since the boy on the cover, the only one able to touch a plane, is wearing a red shirt)? Or is it fire — to complement the earth, air and water so prevalent in the pictures?

For almost 50 years, “Blowin’ in the Wind” has reminded us of these painful unanswerable questions. Muth says:

Freedom and joy are not care-free. Escape from the burdens of life isn’t freedom. Freedom is full of care for everything. That means we must be a part of what all people want for themselves and for humanity. The doors of the heart will then be thrown open to wind from every direction.

Reach for the paper airplane, unfold it and read what is written there.♥

*Dylan first performed “Blowin’ in the Wind” at Gerde’s Folk City in NYC on April 16, 1962. Since then, he’s performed it live 1050 times, the most recent being last night in Leipzig, Germany. Enjoy this live television performance from 1963:


written by Bob Dylan
illustrated by Jon J Muth
published by Sterling Children’s Books, November 2011
Picture Book for ages 5+, 28 pp.
Includes CD
*On shelves now!

I’d love for you to share any thoughts or memories you might have related to this song. Do you remember when you first heard it?


♥ Related reviews on this blog: Man Gave Names to All the Animals illustrated by Jim Arnosky (Sterling), When Bob Met Woody by Gary Golio and Marc Burckhardt (Little, Brown).



“Bob Dylan sets up a number of questions, like ‘how many deaths will it take till he knows/That too many people have died? and finds that ‘The answer is blowin’ in the wind.’ This is a poet’s answer to an unanswerable question, and it has the effect of poetry, which is to open up the sky.” ~ Frank Kermode and Stephen Spender (“The Metaphor at the End of the Funnel”, Esquire, 1972).


*Spreads posted by permission, copyright © 2011 Jon J Muth, published by Sterling Children’s Books. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2011 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.



26 thoughts on “friday feast: jon j muth’s adaptation of bob dylan’s “blowin’ in the wind”

  1. Good morning, Jama.

    It’s another one of your enticing reviews — I’ll certainly look for this book.

    One of my favorite versions of Blowin’ in the Wind is the performance, in English, by Marlene Dietrich. She sings it quietly and softly, with a special poignancy that reflects her experience. She had gone into exile during the Second World War as the war-mongering Nazis destroyed her native country of Germany.



    1. I knew the song has been covered by tons of people, but had never heard this version. Thanks for sharing, Maria. It certainly takes on yet another meaning in view of her circumstances. It would be very interesting to know which covers Dylan likes most.


  2. I’ll have to order a copy of the book for the library. I imagine it will be very popular.

    Dylan wrote the song in 10 minutes? Sometimes those things happen…


    1. Me too. I have trouble folding my planes, let alone getting them in the air.

      In Scorcese’s documentary, “No Direction Home,” Dylan said when he was younger he could write lots of songs very quickly — because “the process was new to me.”


  3. Wow – thanks for sharing, Jama. This looks like a gorgeous and quietly powerful, powerful book. Oh, and what did Dylan have for breakfast that day he wrote the song in ten minutes? Well, he obviously time-travelled forward to your blog and helped himself to an inspiring feast of muffins, cookies, chocolate, poems…. ;0)


    1. Robyn, yours is the perfect comment! 😀 Rather than all those goodies, though, I suspect he had Jack Daniels and meatballs . . .


  4. Great critique Jama! It’s disheartening to realize how relevant his words still are, and yet, quite heartening to know that a whole new generation will be exposed to this thought provoking song. When I taught folk guitar, I always included it in my lessons. I liked Marlene D.’s version because the song’s universal message is very clear in the simple rendition … Hugs, Syl


    1. Yes, isn’t Dietrich’s version interesting and different? The tone of the song is very changeable, too — it can be sad or poignant, or even angry.


  5. A timeless song and now a timeless book. I did not know about it’s origin as a spiritual, though – that just makes its message all the more powerful. Thanks for sharing!


    1. I imagine trying to illustrate this particular song was very daunting. The paper plane was definitely an interesting choice — and the portrayal of a diverse group of children playing together offered an element of hope for the future.

      Glad to hear your eyes were nourished with this week’s candy offering :). . .


  6. You have such tasty treats this week, Jama. Bob Dylan is a special favorite. I’m doing a study on a Filipino musician who was known formerly as a protest singer, and one of his greatest musical icons is Dylan.

    I reviewed the picture book “Forever Young” for our “Picture Books that Sing” theme sometime last year – I’m sure you must be familiar with that. Illustrated by Paul Rogers – that one is not to be missed as well. This is the first time I heard of Jon Muth – and I am so glad that you shared this book. I have half a mind to purchase the book and give it as a Christmas gift to my beloved Filipino musician who adores Dylan. 🙂


    1. Yes, I know Paul Rogers’s book :). Seems Dylan songs have been good subjects for recent PBs. Three different illustrators have breathed new life into those timeless songs. Have you seen Jim Arnosky’s adaptation of Man Gave Names to All the Animals? All three make nice gifts for Dylan fans :).

      I think you’d really enjoy Jon J Muth’s other books, too. His series about the giant panda, Stillwater, is especially interesting — Zen Shorts, Zen Ties, and Zen Ghosts. Nice to have some spiritual tranquility in one’s life.


    1. You’re right — Muth’s approach is well suited to this spiritually inspired song. It’s a quiet book on the surface, but the more you study the pictures, the more you notice and it gets you thinking.

      I can see this PB as an excellent jumping off point for discussions about protest songs, the civil rights movement, etc. I love how great anthems like these unite people. Only music can cut across all boundaries.


  7. Late as usual, Jama, but stopping in to say that at first glance this song didn’t strike me as a good candidate for a picture book. Your review, however, helps me know that Jon Muth has brought thoughtful, accessible (yet indefinite) meaning to the text for young people. ….how to afford all the books I want? (Just bought Dumpling Soup, finally–somehow had not connected you to it; isn’t that funny?)


    1. Happy to hear you got a copy of DS! Hope you enjoy it and are inspired to make some soup of your own or visit a Korean restaurant :)!


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