True classics of children's literature have something fresh to say to each generation of readers. Since 1605, for instance, young readers have found hundreds of new ways to love Don Quixote.
And though "Onion John" was written just 30 years ago, my guess is readers will continue to uncover its secrets for decades to come.In 1960 Joseph Krumgold won his second Newbery Award for the novel. At the time, critics talked about the "goodness" and "happiness" of the main character, Onion John - an old, eccentric tramp who chomps on onions the way most people chomp on apples.
Adult readers saw Krumgold's book as a coming of age novel, a book about rites of passage. The story shows the struggles of young Andy Rusch as he battles to preserve the dignity and rights of a man three times his age; a man no one understands - literally and figuratively. In the end, Andy's sense of commitment alters the lives of those around him until the boy slowly emerges from the shadow of his father.
Thirty years ago, the notion that Krumgold had struck a blow against America's intolerance for people who speak, act and dress differently was not touted as it wouldbe now. "Onion John" did bust up stereotypes. It gave us an East European immigrant who became much more than the punchline to a bad joke.
Yet the book's real relevance for kids in 1989 goes far beyond that.
The true importance of "Onion John" is the way it shows an interesting, honest, engaging adult making connections with kids. Krum-gold gives us an adult worthy of friendship, esteem and even imitation.
Adolescence has always been a self-absorbed time of life. And solipsism has never been stronger than it is in 1989. To a 14-year-old, the Valdez oil disaster is a drop in the bucket compared to the tragedy of a new pimple.
And for years writers and filmmakers have exploited - even pandered to - the self-centered world of America's youth. John Hughes gives us films such as "Pretty in Pink" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" where adults are not only irrelevant but roadblocks to growth. Judy Blume, Gary Paulsen and Robert Cormier write novels that seem to be saying the world would be better off without people over 30. And television programs for kids focus so tightly on their private world that they seldom venture outside of it.
Today, peers are more important than parents, and the generation gap has widened. Loving, moral, understanding adults are a bigger myth for many kids than the tales of Narnia.
How many kids stay with novels such as "Treasure Island" where a young person's mentor - for good or ill - makes all the difference? Few. The teen market tends to reinforce - not challenge - their biases.
In the end, I doubt Krumgold had any of that in mind when he wrote "Onion John." He was a documentary filmmaker who was inspired by ethnic minorities. He likely wanted nothing more than to bottle some of the magic he felt and give it to kids.
But, like Cervantes with "Don Quixote," the author also seeded important lessons into his book that even he couldn't have anticipated. Today, more than in 1960, kids need Onion Johns. They need them in their reading. They need them in their lives.
For that reason alone, Krum-gold's little masterwork is as fresh and vital as any novel about to come off the presses.