5: Three Maurice Sendak books which will most likely not be made into films by Spike Jonze
Outside Over There (1981)
Dear Mili (1988)
We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993)
The fact that And Tango Makes Three had a glowing quote on the back cover from Maurice Sendak in 2005 (“A touching and delightful variation on a major theme,” he called it) held much greater significance three years later, in 2008, when Mr. Sendak officially “came out,” as they say. He was 80 years old.
That was my way of a bridge from the last column, but my guess is that there is quite a bit about Maurice Sendak of which most people are unaware, despite the fact that his name is practically a household word.
Nearly fifty years ago, Where the Wild Things Are was banned for promoting disrespectful behavior, yet now resides on the shelf of most every child with book-loving parents.
Seven years later, in 1970, In The Night Kitchen was also censored and the subject of much controversy – due to the presence of certain prepubescent genitalia betwixt young Mickey’s chubby thighs – yet this too is now considered a classic.
Sendak clearly cares not whether he hits or misses. He does what he does, and has been putting out books consistently for half a century. During the course of his career, he has illustrated the charming Little Bear series by Else Holmelund Minarik, and collaborated with Tony Kushner on a book about the play Jewish children were forced to perform in Nazi death camps prior to being exterminated.
Whether or not we cherish them, ban them or turn them into feature films is entirely our problem, not his.
Speaking of feature films, the first of the three books, Outside Over There, does have a lot in common with a certain major cult film of yesteryear. It was in the back of my mind the first time I read it, years ago: I know this story. I’ve read this before. (This is a very common thought to have while reading children’s literature).
The elements of the book are these:
A young girl, Ida by name, forced to tend her unwanted and unwelcome baby sister.
The goblins, who sneak in through the rear window, carting off with baby sister and leaving – in her place – a changeling made of ice, melting slowly and hideously.
Armed only with her Mama’s yellow rain cloak and a golden hornpipe, Ida must find and retrieve said baby sister before the young one is married off in a wretched goblin ceremony.
Outside Over There was published a full five years before the Jim Henson film, Labyrinth. There are no shifting corridors in the Sendak tale, no immersive M.C. Escher environments, no pop singers in fright wigs and spandex, but the two share both plot-points and also tone.
In neither is there the usual grappling with the fantastic, but rather a matter-of-fact acceptance which somehow makes it all the more appalling. Ida, gripping the dripping remains of her sister’s changeling, immediately knows the score. She seems to have a pre-cognition of the rules of the game. Yes, the goblins came and will marry her sister off. Yes, the hornpipe must be blown. These are not presented as fantastic elements, but a part of the very real world which Ida seems to be inexplicably aware. Normally, we expect to identify with the main character, but when we realize that Ida knows more about this world than we do, she suddenly becomes as mysterious and other as the goblins themselves.
Is that too much? Have I overstated the case?
When I showed the book to Arlo, he immediately balked. “That looks dumb,” is how he put it.
I didn’t blame him. The cover shows Ida wearing a blue nightgown, holding hands with her baby sister. They are standing in the arbor of a garden, and the baby is reaching out a pink, pudgy hand toward a blooming sunflower, a look of wonder upon her face. Surely a charming, pastoral tale which I would most likely not want to get within a hundred feet of, were I a four-year old boy.
“Come on!” I prodded, opening the book. “Give it a chance!”
The title page is quite similar: Ida is now helping the baby take her first steps. Behind them is the white fence, nearly overgrown with majestic blooming sunflowers.
And off to the left-hand side, sitting hunched with knees drawn to its chest, sits a small, hooded figure, its face obscured by shadow.
Arlo stared at this image for a long time.
Then, “Read it,” he said.
The next page intensifies the scenario. We are still standing in front of the sunflower-strewn arbor. But now Ida clutches her baby sister to her more tightly, looking in wide-eyed concern as the seated goblin has now stood and three more identically hooded figures are approaching from stage right. One carries a ladder. One carries a hornpipe.
The story doesn’t properly begin until the following page:
“When Papa was away at sea, and Mama in the arbor, Ida played her wonder horn to rock the baby still – but never watched. So the goblins came.”
One clue that this is a Sendak book is the way he likes to spread out his sentences. Those opening two sentences are broken up into chunks and spread out over the course of 6 gorgeous, full color paintings which cram narrative information galore.
In these opening pages, a full day has passed. The sun has risen over a rocky coast, at which old, mighty ships are moored. Ida and her mother and baby sister stand with their backs to us, dresses rippling.
Next we are at the arbor, in which Ida’s mother sits with dark lines beneath her eyes, a dead look about her, not caring that her baby is now screaming in anguish, writhing in Ida’s arms. Papa has gone to sea – we can still see the boat in the background – and his absence has destroyed this family.
Off to the side, goblins scurry, still clutching their ladder.
Later that evening, Ida stands by her window, playing her horn as the sunflowers creep into her room. The baby nearly leaps out of her crib in joy, but that joy is short-lived. The goblins have pushed open the window, and as darkness falls, the baby is carted away, screaming in terror.
An entire world of story is contained within these drawings. Again, the narrative is simply this:
“When Papa was away at sea, and Mama in the arbor, Ida played her wonder horn to rock the baby still – but never watched. So the goblins came.”
Sendak considered this to be the third volume of a trilogy that began with Where the Wild Things Are (1963) and continuing with In the Night Kitchen (1970). They may not at first seem to have a great deal in common, but he says that they are all about moments in which a parent has turned their back and in that moment, the child must make a decision by themselves.
If you own the former two, you owe it to yourself to pick up this one as well. You may find that it casts Max and his wild things in a new light. And the next time you watch Labyrinth, look for it displayed prominently on Jennifer Connelly’s bookshelf near the beginning of the film.
On September 28, 1983, the front page story of the New York Times was the discovery of a new tale by Wilhelm Grimm.
The Wilhelm Grimm. Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Wilhelm Grimm. The younger Grimm. Nearly all modern fairy tales can be traced back to the Grimm Brothers, with their fantastically gruesome, violent images. I can still recall flipping though a collection a few years ago, reading the story of Bluebeard, with its rooms of dead women impaled on tenterhooks. Of course I knew about the reputation of the Grimms, but it was even gorier than I had expected. I placed it back on the shelf, making a mental note to wait a few years before reading this one to Arlo.
Wilhelm was born in Germany in 1796. He was only 9 years old when he and his brother began collecting folktales, and was 16 when their first collection was published. Over the next few years, they began publishing many hundreds of found and collected stories. While they were enjoying their success, the story goes that in 1816 – when Wilhelm would have been 20 – he wrote a letter to a young girl named Mili.
Strangely, I couldn’t find anything about who this Mili was. Was her identity intentionally kept private, or is it truly an unknown? Regardless, within the letter was a story he had written. It was not, so far as I can tell, a retelling of a folktale which he had collected, but an original piece from his own imagination.
The letter remained in the girl’s possession for her entire life and was passed down through the family for more than a century and a half. In 1983, then, the letter was made public. Once translated and rights were settled, the great publishing house Farrar, Straus, and Giroux was set to publish the letter in book form, and succeeded in securing Maurice Sendak as the illustrator.
It begins thus:
I’m sure you have gone walking in the woods or in the green meadows, and passed a clear, flowing brook. And you’ve tossed a flower in the brook, a red one, a blue one, or a snow-white one. It drifted away, and you followed it with your eyes as far as you could. And it went quietly away with the little waves, farther and farther, all day long and all night too, by the light of the moon or the stars. It didn’t need much light, for it knew the way and didn’t get lost. When it had traveled for three days without stopping to rest, another flower came along on another brook. A child like you, but far far away from here, had tossed it into a brook at the same time. The two flowers kissed, and went their way together and stayed together until they both sank to the bottom.”
This opening is essentially a metaphorical microcosm of the entire tale. We begin with a journey, climax with a mysterious rendezvous, and in the end: the exceedingly romantic deaths of the main characters.
Visually speaking, there is a great deal linking Dear Mili with Outside Over There, though they were done more than seven years apart. Both stories concern the fate of very young heroines. In both, there are no father-figures present, and the mothers have the same drawn and quartered look about them, seated at the same arbor, surrounded by lush plant life. In both, the same faithful German shepherd is yet seated at her side.
In Dear Mili, war has broken out in their small village, and the widowed mother must send her only child far into the woods where no enemy can harm her. “God in His mercy will show you the way,” she says.
The child then embarks on a trek through a treacherous, overgrown terrain, dressed in only her slippers and her nightshirt, praying to her God to help her go on.
When it rains, she says, “God and my heart are weeping together.” Then, later, when the sky clears and the stars come out, she observes, “How bright are the nails on the great door of heaven!”
I was surprised at the strong religious tone of the story. I would have imagined the Grimms channeling much darker spirits. When the young girl comes to a house where an old, bearded man lives, the narrative informs us that this was “Saint Joseph, who long ago had cared for the Christ Child here on earth.”
For three days she stays at the home of the old man, cooks and cleans for him, while he sends her out to pick herbs and roots. After the third day, he tells her that it is time for her to return home. As a parting gift, he hands her a rosebud and says, “When this rose blooms, you will be with me again.”
The young girl is helped on her return journey by a mysterious young girl who could be her identical twin. They have the same pigtails, the same nightshirt, the same blue ribbons. The doppelganger leads the young girl to the edge of the forest, then points the rest of the way.
The last image of the book is a picture spread out over two pages. It is of the same village seen at the beginning, stone ruins, a gorgeous sunset filling the sky with color. On the left hand side of the picture steps the young girl. On the far right side sits an old woman, wrinkled and arthritic, looking nearly blind. Her frail arms are outstretched.
It has not been three days since she sent her daughter off to hide in the woods, it has been thirty years. The mother has been hoping against hope all these years that God would grant her the wish to see her little girl one last time before she dies.
All evening they sat happily together. Then they went to bed calmly and cheerfully, and next morning the neighbors found them dead. They had fallen happily asleep, and between them lay Saint Joseph’s rose in full bloom.
Sendak clearly treated this one with much reverence. These are beautiful illustrations, which stand well apart from his other, more well-known works. As with Outside Over There, the people are all realistically proportioned, and look as though he were drawing subjects modeling for him in his studio. He took no shortcuts, there is nothing suggested. Every petal on every flower, every stem and every leaf, every blade of grass, every dead twig hanging from every dead branch, every root sea-serpenting from the earth… I’ve never been so taken with illustrated vegetation.
Everything about the story itself is quite somber, and Sendak matches that mood straight on, image for image. He doesn’t seem to have allowed himself much playfulness with the material.
However, it was only when I’d read through it for the fifth time that I noticed the presence of a tiny cherub in each page – surprisingly well-blended with the craggy, tulgey woods, the dead branches, the bitter crows.
At first it appears to be just a small baby who has somehow managed to crawl up a tree in their yard and is seated in the boughs contentedly. In the next picture, once war has broken out and black smoke fills the sky, the baby remains in the branches of the tree, this time with the back of its hand across its face.
The cherub – who looks straight out of a Raphael painting – follows the young girl on her journey, and with each picture seems to be growing larger and stronger, the beginnings of wings beginning to appear upon her back.
Sendak has said in interviews that he is obsessed with Angels, ever since he was a child and had an angelic encounter of his own. He likes to incorporate them into his books in honor of his departed friends. Whereas the angels in Dear Mili are of the classic mould, the angels in the last of the three books, We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy are seen doing nothing more romantic than reading the New York Times.
We Are All in the Dumps was published in 1993, and in it Sendak returns to his usual cartoonish playfulness. The colors are bright and bold, the words are hand lettered and large (and rhyme!). The children are short and pudgy and have that Nutshell Kids way about them.
Here is the complete text:
We are all in the dumps, for diamonds are trumps, the kittens are gone to St. Pauls! The Baby is Bit, the moon’s in a fit, and the houses are built without walls.
Jack and Guy went out in the rye and the found a little boy with one black eye. “Come,” says Jack. “Let’s knock him on the head.” “No,” says Guy. “Let’s buy him some bread. You buy one loaf, and I’ll buy two, and we’ll bring him up as other folks do.”
If that sounds like a mother goose rhyme, that’s because it is. Two mother goose rhymes, in fact, completely unrelated, strung together and narratively linked by Mr. Sendak. This was an experiment he’d last done in 1965 with the book Hector Protector and As I Went Over the Water.
With these two nonsensical rhymes, Sendak was able to produce over fifty full-color pages of full, deep, rich and textured narrative illustration. Except, as fun as they first appear to be, the reader may be momentarily taken aback to realize that these fun cartoonish drawings are, in fact, homeless encampments populated by dirty, malnourished, barefoot children. There are no adults present. No authority figures. It’s as though Max from Where the Wild Things Are finally got his wish, only with disastrous, real-world consequences.
With this book, people have seen a message about AIDS. They have seen a message about homelessness and poverty, pollution and capitalism. It was suggested to me recently that it also works as a fable for gay adoption.
It could be all of those things and more. All I can say for sure is that after two monstrous rats straight out of E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker (which Sendak illustrated in 1984) steal a young boy and whisk him away to a bread factory in middle of St. Paul, Minnesota, it is up to our heroes – the eponymous Jack and Guy – to rescue him. They play cards, the moon transforms into a glowing, ferocious cat, and then it begins to get pretty surreal.
The houses are built without walls. That’s the line that got Sendak, from which the rest of the story unfolded. He thought unwanted kids and of the shanty towns in Rio de Janeiro. As fanciful as the story gets, it uses this as its real-world baseline. The houses are built without walls.
I’ve read reviews from well-meaning parents warning against giving this book to children, as they found the social messages far too heavy-hitting. That’s bunk, of course. Arlo loved it, for it also works simultaneously as an adventure story, with every page filled with fantastic creatures and bizarre transformations, escapes and chases. For myself, I could appreciate those New York Times-reading angelic host, fluttering about the stratosphere, and the silent image of Jack and Guy removing the slumbering child from the surface of the moon, his arms outstretched and his head hung like Christ on a cross. There is a lot happening here for both grown-up and child to enjoy equally.
(By way of contrast, I didn’t even try to read Dear Mili to him.)
There were moments, however, which we could both share, and grow closer to each other’s worlds and perceptions.
That final page, for example, after the dramatic rescue, the adventure, the fantasia, after Jack and Guy return to their shanty town, curl up within their cardboard boxes and their newspaper-blankets, Arlo wanted to know why they didn’t just go home.
“Well,” I said. “This is their home. This is where they live.”
“No, their real home!”
“I guess there aren’t any real homes.”
He rolled his eyes. “Yes, there are! Look!” And he pointed to the large, stone monolithic highrise which overshadowed the tiny encampment, like something out of Stonehenge, only more so.
NOTE: After writing, I realized that Bluebeard was not written by the Grimm Brothers, though they did write versions similar to it, including The Robber Bridegroom. The version I was thinking of was written by that other great folklorist, Charles Perrault.
* Every search I’ve done on Dear Mili brings up this song of the same name by the group The Finches. I’ve been trying to figure out if its actually based on the book or not. It’s definitely about a girl being led into the woods, being called home by a mysterious voice… but also makes reference to her grandpa and grandma and a house covered in weeds. Regardless, I’ve listened to it now about ten times and it has a great dreamy fairy-tale feel about it which – whether it was intentional or not – makes for a nice soundtrack by which to settle down, drink some tea, and read some Grimm.
* If you think I think too much about children’s book, check out this lecture by George Bodmer, Professor of English at Indiana University Northwest. Here’s a taste:
“…Sendak’s books are full of eating and orality, as Max in a wolf suit threatens to eat up his mother……and as the parents in most books are understandably described as expressing their love by providing meals. Like Hansel and Gretel, Sendak’s children want their parents’ love and food, but fear their independence will eat them out of house and home. If separation anxiety is expressed in terms of eating in childhood, it is only in We Are All in the Dumps that Sendak moves away from the symbols of hungry monsters and gives us the full brunt of the very real dangers the children face daily. This book has married the timelessness of nursery rhymes to the specificity of a newspaper to highlight the universality and timelessness of interpretation.”
…or you could listen to The Finches again.