Friday, October 16, 2009

Let's continue reading my essay on Maurice Sendak!

Ow, my thumbnails. And pretty much everything else. I may have gone a little overboard gardening yesterday.
Anyway, the second half of this essay (here's Part One) is made up mainly of book reviews (for the record, I was required to consider whether each book was appropriate for a school classroom) and a brief summary of the author's biography and Bibliography:

The Sign on Rosie's Door, Written and Illustrated By Maurice Sendak
As in the Picture Book Analysis Project*, I will be considering these eight books in chronological order. In this way, I will be able to review Maurice Sendak's growth as a writer and artist.
The Sign on Rosie's Door is the thirty-ninth book illustrated by Maurice Sendak. However, it is only the third book that Sendak himself wrote, based upon his own original ideas. The story is about an imaginative little girl whom Sendak has since identified as an amalgamation of several children he'd known in real life in his Brooklyn neighborhood. Like her real-life counterparts, Rosie is a born actress with a wildly creative imagination. She has a talent for bringing other children into her fantasy role-playing and refuses to break character for anyone, even if the play is interrupted.
This is a book that celebrates a child's ability to use her imagination. Rosie is the typical Maurice Sendak child-hero. She's spunky, artistic, and not always appreciated by adults and less imaginative children. Her story is both hilarious and achingly ironic (the ending of the first chapter is a great combination of humor and pathos).
The illustrations are charming and energetic. We feel like we know these children, as their faces and gestures convey a great deal of personality. Sendak's style of illustration in this book tends to be less concerned with realistic detail and more with animation and characterization.
Sendak's books are almost always better for older children, but Rosie is appropriate for all ages. Overall the book feels like an episode of an animated series (one can easily imagine the further adventures of Rosie and her friends). As it happens, Rosie and the four little books of the Nutshell Library formed the framework for the animated feature "Really Rosie", one of Sendak's disappointingly rare excursions into film.
* - I had to review a series of picture books by one illustrator in chronological order. I'll have that up sometime later, possibly December. (You'll see why when you see who that illustrator is.)

Where the Wild Things Are, Written and Illustrated By Maurice Sendak
Here is Maurice Sendak's signature book. Wild Things caused a sensation when it was first released in 1963. It would go on to win the Caldecott Medal, and it is today regarded as a classic of its genera.
However, it is also a book that tends to make adults anxious. Are the titular monsters too scary? For some children, especially very young ones, they could be. You might not want to read this as a bedtime story to a preschooler. However, it's wonderful as an energetic read-aloud for second-graders and other children around the age of the hero, Max. You'll notice, in the book, how Max finds the Wild Things more comical than menacing.
In fact, Sendak has recently explained that his inspirations for the Wild Things are none other than his older relatives. More specifically, they are caricatures of how he saw them as a little kid.
The pen and ink and watercolor artwork in Wild Things is evocative, and once again brings to mind a particularly lavish animated film. Much has been said about Sendak's creative use of borders and of blank, white space. As Max travels to and from the world of the Wild Things, the images grow until they fill the page, and then shrink back down again.
It took Maurice Sendak quite some time working on the story of Wild Things before he finally decided he'd got it right. The language of the text is understated and adds to the dreamlike quality of the images. There is great humor in the story and a sense of fun, and above all Sendak respects the child's ability to use his imagination.

Hector Protector and As I Went Over the Water, Written and Illustrated By Maurice Sendak
This book contains two obscure Mother Goose rhymes illustrated by Maurice Sendak. He hasn’t changed the rhymes at all, but he has expanded considerably on their plot. The illustrations are once again pen and ink and watercolor and very animated.
Hector Protector, in Sendak’s version, is a little boy who’d probably rather be outside playing but instead has to get dressed up nicely and deliver a cake to the Queen. He protests this unspeakable injustice by screaming “no!” repeatedly, and drop-kicking the cake the moment he’s outside. After encounters with a lion (who may have wandered in from the island of the Wild Things), and a boa constrictor, our hero makes a truly memorable appearance in the Queen’s court.
In the second story, “As I Went Over the Water”, another little boy sails about in a ship that is swallowed by a rather silly looking sea monster. The boy heads to an island where he meets two accusatory birds. After taming them in a fit of violence, the boy heads back into his boat (recently regurgitated by the monster) and makes the repentant animals his skippers.
It’s obvious that Sendak had much more fun expanding on “Hector” than “Water”. The first story is so hilarious and memorable that the second pales in comparison. It’s hard to say how this book could be used in a classroom, but it’s fine for older students to read by themselves.

Higglety Pigglety POP! Or There Must Be More to Life…, Written and Illustrated By Maurice Sendak
1967 was a very hard year for Maurice Sendak. His mother had fallen very ill. While on a trip to England, he had a severe coronary attack. After recovering from his near-death experience, Sendak returned home to find that his beloved terrier, Jennie, was suffering from cancer. Higglety Pigglety POP! was published less than a month after Jennie died.
This book is a love letter to a dear, lost friend. It is illustrated in loving, intimate pen and ink drawings that simulate the look of Dürer engravings. Many of these drawings are based directly off of photographs Sendak had taken of Jennie.
The story is an engaging modern fairy tale. Our furry heroine heads off on a voyage to find her destiny, meeting a series of unusual characters along the way. (They are also very patient characters. For example, the first living thing Jennie converses with is a potted geranium who accepts Jennie's appetite, her most prominent personality trait. The plant does not complain as the dog rapidly eats off all its leaves.) Jennie lives happily ever after, safe and loved in a mysterious castle that no one can quite remember the directions to.
This book can be enjoyed by children of any age. However, it is perhaps most profoundly moving for older readers. It should be noted that the book is actually quite humorous in tone and its underlying themes of loss and remembrance are kept very subtle. Perhaps there aren’t many young children who could understand the subtexts. But you never know with some children, so I wouldn't use this in a classroom if I knew that a student had just recently lost a pet.

In the Night Kitchen, Written and Illustrated By Maurice Sendak
Bizarre, unique, and ultimately unforgettable, this book is one of Sendak's personal favorites. Night Kitchen contains a wealth of pop-culture cross-references, and it is a celebration of everything Sendak remembered well from his childhood.
The hero, Mickey (named after Mickey Mouse of course) has a very strange dreamlike adventure in a realm where three fat, happy bakers bake cakes all night long. The story is inarguably weird. It works, however, because the text is bold and brassy and has the feel of an old nonsense-rhyme.
The artwork is colorful and energetic. It is straight out of a Windsor McKay comic illustration, and is packed with wonderful details and inside jokes.
With all that said, this book might not be for all people.
All of Sendak's books have a dreamlike quality, but this one actually takes place within a characters' dream. That means that the story doesn't use the same logic that more normal stories do. This could be a little much for the classroom. Not to mention the fact that Mickey is unabashedly naked for most of the story. It's hard to say how In the Night Kitchen would fit in a classroom, but it is worth reading. The book is a hallmark of Sendak's career and it was made into a delightful animated short film by surrealist director Gene Deitch.

Some Swell Pup! Or Are You Sure You Want a Dog? Written By Maurice Sendak and Matthew Margolis and Illustrated By Maurice Sendak
Two little children, a boy and a girl, sit in the windows of their playhouse longing for a puppy. A mysterious stranger (who happens to be an anthropomorphic dog) overhears them and drops an adorable puppy on their doorstep. The children are overjoyed by their good fortune.
Their new puppy proceeds to urinate on their carpet.
The puppy then goes on to maul the upholstery, defecate on the floor, and generally trash the playhouse. So Maurice Sendak, with the help of Matthew Margolis, the director of the National Institute of Dog Training, has created an unflinching, warts-and-all guidebook about the reality of raising a puppy. His use of comic book style art and formatting adds much-needed humor to the mayhem. He makes it very clear that pets can be a handful sometimes. Yes, it is funny when the puppy pees on the floor... but guess who’s going to have to clean up afterwards? This is a book that faces issues up front that very few children’s books are willing to acknowledge.
But Sendak has faith in the fact that having a pet is well worth the effort. The love is rewarding. In the end, the children accept their new responsibilities. This book is an excellent resource for parents who want to discuss with their children exactly what to expect after bringing a pet into the house.

Outside, Over There, Written and Illustrated By Maurice Sendak
This is perhaps the best of Maurice Sendak's more recent books. It is an eerie modern-day fairy tale based upon a wide variety of elements that had been floating around in its creator's unconsciousness for decades.
Ida, the greatest Sendak heroine since Rosie, takes her eyes off her baby sister for a split second, and in that second the baby is snatched away by mysterious, cloaked goblins. Furious, Ida immediately sets out into the weird demon playground of the title in search of her sister. She finds an ingenious way to defeat the creatures and returns with baby… and her mother and father have no idea of her dangerous adventure.
Visually, this book contains the most astonishing artwork Sendak has ever produced. The colors are intense and reflect Ida's changing moods. The bizarre other world of the goblins is as strange and scary as a horror movie. In fact the book is without question too frightening for small children (and unnerving for adults as well; the eyes on the ice doll the goblins replace the baby with will haunt you for days).
The story is exciting and the writing is offbeat and poetic. It follows the strange logic of folktales, and Sendak isn't shy about putting his characters through serious danger. Sendak has since hinted that each of the characters and events in the story has a real-life counterpart from his childhood in the 1930's. Ida could be Sendak's older sister. Baby could be the kidnapped Lindbergh baby, and the entire story could have been sparked by Sendak's horror about the case and its outcome. The goblins might be caricatures of the Dionne quintuplets, there is a cameo from Mozart, and the ironic ending is clearly inspired by "the Wizard of OZ". While not as familiar as Where the Wild Things Are, Outside, Over There is a masterpiece.

We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy, Written and Illustrated By Maurice Sendak
This is easily the strangest Maurice Sendak book of all and that's saying a lot.
Dumps is fairly recent, published in 1993, and is one of the last of Sendak's books to receive significant attention in the mainstream press. It is about as far removed from Sendak's previous nursery rhyme books (such as Hector Protector) as you could possibly get. Instead of happy and funny, this is rather downbeat and more than a little disturbing.
Here's the story. In the first rhyme, a group of orphans live by themselves in a little shack. They are tormented by nasty, scary-looking ratlike monsters who kidnap a huge litter of kittens and a tiny baby. The story continues into the next rhyme, where two of the orphans, Jack and Guy, rescue the baby and the kittens with the help of the ever-present and increasingly angry moon.
This book is bleak, even though the story ends happily. All of the environments are dirty alleyways, smog-belching factories, and overgrown ditches. The bad monsters are terrifying and the helpful moon isn't any less scary. I like Sendak, but this book was a bit too much.
It isn't hard to see why this book gained notoriety. It pushes a lot of thematic buttons. It is very difficult to decide who out there would enjoy a book like this and I haven't the slightest idea what you could do with it with children in a classroom. Nonetheless, it is so unusual that it is worth it for adults to read.

* - Born Maurice Bernard Sendak on June 10, 1928 in Brooklyn, New York;
* - Parents were first generation Polish immigrants;
* - Sendak never enjoyed good health as a child. He entertained himself by making up stories with his older brother and drawing pictures to go along with them;
* - Took inspiration from the daily life of the city around him;
* - Sendak’s art is most profoundly influenced by Disney films and Windsor McKay comics;
* - Sendak’s books never speak down to children. He celebrates childrens’ use of imagination and love of fantasy;

Books and Films

Books Maurice Sendak wrote and illustrated himself (selected):
Kenny’s Window, Harper, 1956
Very Far Away, Harper, 1957
The Sign on Rosie’s Door, Harper, 1960
The Nutshell Library, Harper, 1962
Where the Wild Things Are, Harper, 1963
Hector Protector and As I Went Over the Water, Harper, 1965
Higglety, Pigglety, POP! -or- There Must Be More to Life, Harper, 1967
In the Night Kitchen, Harper, 1970
Some Swell Pup -or- Are You Sure You Want a Dog? Farrar, Straus, 1976
Seven Little Monsters, Harper, 1977
Outside, Over There, Harper, 1981
We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy, HarperCollins, 1993

Selected books Maurice Sendak illustrated for other authors (starred writers are frequent collaborators, so to speak):
* Ruth Krauss, A Hole is To Dig, Harper, 1952
* Else Minarik, Little Bear, Harper, 1957
Hans Christian Anderson, Seven Tales, Harper, 1959
* Randall Jarrell, The Bat-Poet, Collier, 1964
Isaac Bashevis Singer, Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories, Harper, 1966
George Macdonald, The Golden Key, Harper, 1967 (currently published by Farrar, Straus)
Frank Stockton, The Griffin and the Minor Cannon, Collins, 1968
* the Brothers Grimm, The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm, Farrar, Straus, 1973
E.T.A. Hoffman, The Nutcracker, Crown, 1984

Maurice Sendak’s only director credit (so far) is the animated film, “Maurice Sendak’s *Really Rosie*”. However, a feature film was made of “the Nutcracker” with sets and costumes based upon his designs. Surrealistic animator Gene Deitch made a delightful short film adaptation of “In the Night Kitchen” which is well worth hunting for. It and “Rosie” have been released on home video by Weston Woods. Both Little Bear and Seven Little Monsters have been adapted into ongoing animated series.

Online Resources
Curiously, Maurice Sendak doesn’t appear to have his own official website. His publishers have very brief information to share. Here are their websites:
Harper Collins
Hyperion Books


The main reason why I was moved to publish this online is because it seemed last week as though someone had cried out, "Let the 'Where The Wild Things Are' backlash begin!"
Listen, Maurice Sendak says he loves the hell out of the film*, and that's enough for me. And it turns out that the few people who have seen "Wild Things" and disliked it have also admitted a dislike for the thematically very similar "My Neighbor Totoro". Apparently, the slow and whimsy-heavy pacing of "Wild Things" is very Miyazakian.
They act like that's a bad thing in a movie for kids.

* - He very succinctly shares his opinion on an issue I brought up earlier: "The controversial content of the book hardly bothered anyone, but for some reason now that it's a movie everybody panics. WTF?"

Boston Comic-Con is a week from tomorrow! I'll be there, of course, at the Comic Artists Guild table, and as of right now I am scheduled for mid-day both Saturday and Sunday. Come by and pick up a promotional postcard!

And if you live in New York City, you can go see some at WizardWorld this weekend!

And I'm very glad that ToughPigs recently posted a blog about this television special which, as you'll see, was so strange I thought I dreamed it.

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