With the publication of his not-quite-for-children children’s book, “Outlaw Pete,” Bruce Springsteen has surprised even himself. Writing such a book “was the last thing I saw coming,” he says, never mind the many other rock stars who have delved into the children’s section lately — including, most recently, Keith Richards with “Gus & Me.”
The Boss says “there’s no grand plan behind this.” Still, he admits publishing the book, inspired by his song of the same name, is a kick, and in a phone interview joked, “maybe I’ll have a whole series now.”
Despite the many Springsteen songs that might make a good children’s story — he admits that “Blinded by the Light,” with its antic rhymes, “would be fun to read” — this book is not the first of a series. “Outlaw Pete,” which comes out Tuesday, was a bit of a lark, and, he writes in the afterword, “I’m not sure this is a children’s book.”
Indeed, the book deals with some heavy themes — death, violence and abandonment among them — and does not sugarcoat them. The book’s illustrations, by cartoonist Frank Caruso, include vivid scenes of a knife fight and a man lying dead in a pool of blood.
Essentially an illustrated version of the song from his 2009 album “Working on a Dream,” the 50-page picture book begins with Pete, as a 6-month-old, robbing a bank and follows him through the course of a life as “an outlaw killer and a thief.” Wherever he goes, “women wept and men died.” About midway through the story, Pete seeks redemption, marrying a Navajo girl and having a child.
But for him there is no escape from who he is — “I’m Outlaw Pete” is the refrain he repeats more fervently as the book moves into its dark second half. A bounty hunter comes to remind him, “you think you’ve changed but you have not.” And to prove the point, Pete kills him. “We cannot undo these things we’ve done” are the man’s final words. Pete rides off into the proverbial sunset — in this case an icy ledge — into legend, a bereft young girl calling out after him: “Outlaw Pete! Outlaw Pete! Can you hear me? Can you hear me?”
The story, Springsteen writes in the afterword, “is not easy.” But, he adds “I believe children instinctively understand passion and tragedy. And a 6-month-old, bank-robbing baby is a pretty good protagonist.”
On the phone, he describes the book as a cross between the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and “Goodnight Moon,” a favorite book of his three children, Evan, Jessica and Sam, who are in their 20s.
“The characters are outlandish. They’re not real. They’re mythical. The tale is a fable,” he says. And while it has an admittedly a challenging lesson “about the difficulty of redemption,” this shouldn’t scare off kids — or their parents.
“If ‘Bambi’ is for kids, this is fine,” he says. “If ‘Lion King’ is for kids, this will be fine also.”
“The act of growing up is filled with so much raw passion and tragedy that they can’t escape it,” he says. “Children’s lives revolve around these things, and as parents we do our best to guide them through these things, but we can’t protect them from occurring.”
As a friend once told him, he recalls, “Parents give their kids the best they have to offer, and the world takes care of the rest. There’s no escaping from the blues or whatever you want to call it.”
Springsteen had no plans to make a book — children’s or otherwise — out of the song until he heard from Caruso. The cartoonist was immediately drawn to the dark tale when he first heard the song version in 2009.
“I stopped what I was doing and thought it was like a story being read to me,” Caruso says. “Everyone’s got to be seeing this.”
He made some pencil sketches and presented them to Springsteen and Caruso’s mutual friend, music critic Dave Marsh. About a year and a half later, Caruso got a call out of the blue one Sunday morning from Springsteen, who was excited about the project. “This was the first time anyone has approached me to do a book of this kind,” Springsteen says.
The collaboration went smoothly, according to both the writer and the illustrator, with about three or four dummy copies of the book passing back and forth between them. “He dug the pencil drawings,” Caruso says of Springsteen. “It was just a matter of tweaking a color to get the right emotion.”
On the eve of the book’s publication, Springsteen says he feels the work has a universal appeal.
“It’s a very human story,” he says. “We start carrying some of the baggage of our past as small children. And then at some point we either try to sort it out or outrun it. You can’t outrun it, which is what this character tries to do. And it’s very difficult to sort it out. But it’s the only way to go.”