The Book that Changed My Life

For the Books Combined blog, we asked authors to write about the books that had a significant impact on their lives – whether personally, politically, or professionally. We’re sharing posts from the Books Combined archives about the books that have the ability to stop us in our tracks and make us feminists, life-changing books and – perhaps counter-intuitively for a publishing blog – the books not read.

From the archive this month, a beautiful piece by University of Illinois Press author Joe Saltzman, originally published in 2015:

Joe Saltzman

The book that changed my life is a children’s book called The Jester Has Lost His JingleIt was written and illustrated by my son David Saltzman as his senior project at Yale before he died of Hodgkin’s disease 11 days before his 23rd birthday in March 1990. 

My wife Barbara, our older son Michael and I promised David that The Jester would be published as he envisioned, that it would always remain in print and be available to the children David wanted to reach. It took us five years. We mortgaged our home to publish 30,000 copies of the book, making sure that 10,000 were donated to every child in the U.S. diagnosed with cancer in 1995. We hoped to sell the rest to pay off our debts. Then something extraordinary happened – PeopleGood Morning America, the Los Angeles Times and hundreds of other magazines, newspapers and television programs nationwide discovered David’s story. Before we knew it, The Jester Has Lost His Jingle became a N.Y. Times best-seller. David’s dream of bringing hope and joy into the lives of disadvantaged, ill and hurting children and adults was starting to come true.

David’s book taught me how to be a more charitable person, a more caring person, a better person. But at first, I couldn’t think about what had happened to David. For five years, I buried myself in researching a subject that I thought was important but that few academics cared about – the image of the journalist in popular culture. Five years later, when I began to emerge from my depression, I discovered that I had more than 10,000 pages of notes in my computer. Ironically, when I tried to open a file, I started crying because they all reminded me of my son’s death. Friends told me I had to do something with the research, that it was too valuable to just let go. So I started the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture (IJPC), a project of the Norman Lear Center at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, at the University of Southern California where I have been teaching for nearly half a century. Today, the IJPC is a world-wide success and its website the definitive source for this subject (

Now, I finally was ready to embrace David’s legacy. Our family started a charity – The Jester & Pharley Phund – based on the overwhelming national response to David’s book ( There are now 330,000 books in circulation, 166,000 Jester books and dolls have been donated to ill children and in support of literacy. More than 160 schools have participated in Jester & Pharley literacy programs, reading more than 40 million pages to give Jester books and dolls to ill children.

The Jester Has Lost His Jingle conveys a universal message of hope, laughter and self-empowerment that is especially meaningful to anyone coping with cancer, tragedy or any special challenges. It tells the story of a Jester who wakes up one morning to discover that no one finds him funny anymore. So, he and his sidekick Pharley go on a quest to discover where laughter has gone. They search everywhere, ending up in a city where no one smiles and everyone seems angry. “It’s up to us to make a difference. It’s up to us to care,” the Jester reminds Pharley as they enter a hospital. The duo ask a “little girl in bed” why she doesn’t smile. She quietly replies: “Here I lie, I have a tumor…And you ask me where’s my sense of humor? I’ve been very sick I’m so tired of trying. I don’t feel like laughing. I just feel like crying.”

The Jester responds: “Whenever I feel like crying, I smile hard instead! I turn my sadness upside down and stand it on its head!” He then asks the little girl to laugh with him, and he entertains her as he entertained the king. But she begins to laugh. Her laughter fills the room, then the city. The Jester & Pharley carry rainbows of laughter back to the kingdom. Soon everyone begins to join in, even the King. The Jester reminds us all as the story ends: “So when you’re feeling lonely or sad or bad or blue remember where laughter’s hiding…It’s hiding inside of YOU!”

I re-read David’s book many times until my sad face became a smiling face again. What originally seemed to me to be a bit of a simplistic way of dealing with life turned out to be the most powerful message imaginable. I saw how The Jester has changed the lives of thousands of children and adults. David’s story gave me a new way of dealing with unbelievable tragedy – and a future without David.

The Jester helped me realize that children with cancer don’t think much about the past and have little idea about the future. They live in the present. If we can fill that present with laughter and joy, then each day that child survives is a day with less, pain, less sadness, less worry. David’s Jester does that job better than anything else around.

We have been inspired daily by all the letters and e-mails from grateful readers thanking us for bringing The Jester into their lives. Their gratitude underscores how important it is that we get as many Jester books and dolls to children in distress as possible.

David Saltzman

One letter stays with me: “Each night we read The Jester Has Lost His Jingle and each night my child went to sleep with a smile on her face. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me and my daughter. To forget the pain of what she was going through was such a gift. Thank you – and David – so very much.”

Yes, thank you David – so very much for creating a book that changed my life forever, for making me a far better person filled with charity and love for others, and for making me someone you would be proud to call Dad.

Joe Saltzman is a professor of journalism and communication at USC Annenberg. He is the co-author, with Matthew Ehrlich, of  Heroes and Scoundrels: The Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture (University of Illinois Press, 2015).

All images courtesy of Joe Saltzman