Written and Illustrated by Jack Kent
Parents Magazine Press, 1968
Once upon a time, a long time ago, if you count Sundays and holidays, there was a little boy named John.
The plot in a nutshell: A boy who enjoys pretending to be other things wants to know what it would be like to truly change
John has gotten a little tired of being John, so he starts pretending to be other things, including a circus elephant, a giraffe at the zoo or a kangaroo. Unsatisfied with just pretending, John goes to visit Mrs. Walpurgis, who sells hexes and spells in her shop. He buys a penny magic spell and doesn’t ask for details, as he wants to be surprised. When he gets home, he looks in the mirror and is surprised to see that he hasn’t changed at all. But when his mother calls him her ‘little lamb,’ he instantly becomes a lamb and he turns into a bunny when she refers to him as her bunny. When she says his name, he becomes himself again. Worried, they go to see Daddy at work. Along the way, John eats too many jellybeans and his mom calls him a pig, which makes him turn into a pig. Before they can tell Daddy about the spell, he calls John his little man, which causes him to grow a long white beard. Daddy suggests that he keep telling himself he’s just only John, to stay connected to who he really is.
Author/illustrator Jack Kent wrote and illustrated the comic strip King Aroo from 1950 to 1965 before writing this, his first picture book. He wrote and illustrated 40 books of his own and provided illustrations for more than 20 books by other authors. His background as a comic strip artist is reflected in his art style, with characters who would feel right at home in the Sunday funnies. Although his artwork is more comical than realistic, he was excellent at capturing emotion in his drawings, so you always knew what the characters were feeling.
This particular book has been a favorite of mine for as long as I can remember. Even as a kid, I really appreciated the book’s quirky sense of humor, such as having Mrs. Walpurgis do hemstitching as well as selling magic spells (because, you know, the market for magic spells was so volatile back then). Probably my favorite detail, though, was the fact that the book says that Daddy was an important man who worked in an office with his name on the door. When John goes to Daddy’s office, you can clearly see ‘Daddy’ painted on the door, which I thought was hilarious and somehow very touching, as it captured the way that children see the world. And the message, about staying true to yourself, is as meaningful today as it was back in the 60’s.
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is the moral that the author himself adds at the book’s conclusion: “Be yourself, because somebody has to, and you’re the closest.”