Just Only a Book

In 1968 Jack Kent published a children’s book. I was three years old. I don’t know when it came into my life, but I know I had it three years later. Just Only John was one of my favorite books, but it had more significance in my life beyond the story inside the covers.

John was a boy about my age and was tired of being himself. He wanted to know what it would be like to be someone else. After ingesting a magic pill from the friendly witch down the block who sold penny spells, John turned into whatever creature someone happened to call him. Lamb. Bunny. Pig. The life of a kid is hard.

Daddy, who has his name on his office door, tells John that this situation has been caused by “wanting to be something you’re not.” And in his role as Deus ex machina, Daddy solves the problem by telling John, “the magic spell won’t bother you if you’ll just remind yourself that you are you.” It is a kid’s book after all.

John has to repeat over and over, “I’m just only John.” And the narrator tells us that he was. And probably still is.

So besides my being riveted by the story, the book figured at the center of a long-standing family argument between my sister and me.

She stood in the doorway to my bedroom and threw Just Only John towards me. The book hit me in the bridge of my nose. Nobody was sure if it broke my nose, but 6-year-old Jeffrey cried. Probably a lot. We all went to the hospital to get my nose x-rayed. It was not broken.

My sister and I did not always get along. It was mostly just a big sister picking on her little brother. Nothing cruel or traumatic. But on that day I was convinced that she threw the book at me. And I said so.

That day – and for most of our adult lives – she insisted that she threw the book to me, not at me. And that became part of the story of Just Only John. Every so often I would bring it up, and she always insisted that she was throwing it to me.

In retrospect, I’m sure this distinction meant much more to me than it did to her. She probably doesn’t even have strong memories about this incident and she only remembers it when I bring it up.

When my kids were small, this picture book loomed large in my memory. I wanted to get it for them, but it was long out of print. This was the early days of Amazon and they offered a service to find out of print books. This was not an easy thing to do in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

My then-wife put in a request for the book using an early work email address and promptly forgot about it. And in the kind of moment that only exists in movies, several years later she was notified that those early hard-working Amazon employees had found a copy of the book. Her old email address was being shut down, not forwarded. If the notification had come one day later, she would not have received the message.

We ordered a copy of the book and I read it to my kids as much as they could stand it. The story gets old quickly. Even for a a kid’s book. And a little boy turning into a lamb in the 2000s just isn’t as funny as it was in the 1970s.

We moved on from picture books to chapter books and Just Only John sat on a shelf for a while before it went into a box in the attic. And life moved on too. I moved out. We got divorced. Those boxes of books moved from one attic to another. “If you come across Just Only John, I’d like it,” I told my ex-wife.

Nine years later she is going through every box in the attic before moving to a new house. I got a text that she found Just Only John. Within a few hours of knowing that it had been found, I read it again. Still not sure what it was that captured me, but it still feels good to have a childhood memory back. It’s not my copy, but almost no books from my childhood made it through the years. There were just too many moves.

Oh yeah, in the last couple of years, my sister finally admitted that maybe she did throw Just Only John at me after all. I felt vindicated.

Jeffrey L Cohen

Jeffrey L Cohen