Only a few people have been both great writers and great illustrators of children’s books. In the nineteenth century there was Edward Lear, and in the twentieth Dr. Seuss and—perhaps the most gifted of them all—Maurice Sendak, who died in May at the age of eighty-three.
Sendak’s best-known work, Where the Wild Things Are (1963), shocked some adult readers at first; later it was recognized as a brilliant breakthrough. It gave graphic expression to what every parent knows—that kids are sometimes angry and even violent; and it proposed that these impulses could be explored and enjoyed rather than repressed and denied. Within a few years Where the Wild Things Are was a recognized classic. It wasn’t a fluke: the same originality and psychological insight was already evident in Sendak’s earlier work, most notably perhaps in Pierre: A Cautionary Tale, the best of the four tiny books (each less than 3 by 4 inches) in his Nutshell Library (1962).
The classic cautionary tale is a story, often in verse, in which a child misbehaves and is severely punished. Usually the tone is exaggerated and comic, but it can also be frightening. In Heinrich Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter (1845), which terrified generations of kids, a little boy who sucks his thumbs gets them cut off by giant scissors. Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales (1907) are lighter in tone, but they follow the standard plot of bad behavior and awful retribution.1 As usual in such tales, adult friends and relatives utter warnings, but they don’t do anything to protect the child or seem very upset by what happens. In Belloc’s “Jim, who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion,” his mother merely remarks afterward:
“Well—it gives me no surprise,
He would not do as he was told!”
His Father, who was self-controlled
Bade all the children round attend
To James’s miserable end,
And always keep a-hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse.
This is a joke, of course, but not a very pleasant one.
Sendak’s Pierre suffers from what looks like bad temper and sulkiness, but could be the kind of apathy that, according to psychologists, is one of the symptoms of depression. He rejects his parents’ love:
One day his mother said
when Pierre climbed out of bed,
“Good morning, darling boy,
you are my only joy.”
Pierre said, “I don’t care!”
With similar angry indifference, Pierre responds to offers of cream of wheat with syrup and a trip to town. No matter what anyone says, he replies, “I don’t care!” After his parents leave, “a hungry lion” appears:
He looked Pierre right in the eye
and asked him if he’d like to die.
Pierre said, “I don’t care!”…
“Is that all you have to say?”
“I don’t care!”
“Then I’ll eat you, if I may.”
“I don’t care!”
So the lion ate Pierre.
When his parents get home they find the lion sick in Pierre’s bed. Unlike Jim’s parents, they do not accept this with equanimity:
They pulled the lion by the hair.
They hit him with the folding chair.
His mother asked, “Where is Pierre?”
The lion answered, “I don’t care!”
His father said, “Pierre’s in there!”
There are several ways of understanding this. One is that the incorporation, physical or psychological, of hostile, unpleasant persons can make you ill. It may also be that the lion, like Max’s Wild Things in Where the Wild Things Are, is an emanation from Pierre’s psyche, or Pierre turned inside out. It would be a mistake to think that Sendak was unaware of these possibilities, or of the psychological sophistication of his story. After all, he lived with the child psychiatrist Eugene Glynn for fifty years—until Glynn’s death in 2007 at the age of eighty-one.
Unlike most earlier cautionary tales, Pierre has a happy ending. The parents take the lion to a doctor, who turns him upside down, and Pierre falls out:
He rubbed his eyes and scratched his head
and laughed because he wasn’t dead.
The lion looks happier too; he goes home with Pierre and his family, and stays on “as a weekend guest.” As in Where the Wild Things Are, disruptive impulses are not rejected or suppressed, but accepted and incorporated into real life, though within limits: the lion visits but does not join the family. Pierre is not punished, but saved. As Sendak says at the end:
The moral of Pierre
A brilliant illustrator can transform any story, revealing its possible meanings and sometimes changing them. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass would be less scary without John Tenniel’s drawings (especially those of the Duchess and the Jabberwocky), and Winnie-the-Pooh less lovable without the help of Ernest Shepard. Maurice Sendak brought his artistic talents to over seventy works by other writers, always making them more interesting.
Most popular illustrations of the Grimms’ fairy tales, for instance, soften and prettify them. Sendak turns them into crowded dreams full of strange birds and beasts, in which there is understanding for the villains, including the crippled witch in “Hansel and Gretel” and Snow-White’s stepmother with her fading beauty and fixed stare. He also notably illustrated three collections of tales by Isaac Bashevis Singer with drawings full of wise animals and flying demons that heighten their fantastic side and recall the paintings of Marc Chagall.
As well as interpreting classic tales, Sendak could make something wonderful out of almost nothing. In We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993), for instance, he transforms two old British nonsense rhymes into a tale about homelessness, crime, and charity. His pictures make it clear that the story takes place in New York, and that the first lines can be understood in different ways:
We are all in the dumps
For diamonds are trumps
Sendak’s characters are both depressed and living in a kind of abandoned dump. Evil-looking rats are cheating at cards, and the Trump Tower and a huge, worried-looking moon rise above a city where money triumphs over everything. Lost children shelter in cardboard boxes or huddle under pages of The New York Times full of ads for cheap mortgages and news of lost jobs.
Presently a lot of kittens and a little African-American boy are kidnapped by the rats. But up in the sky three angels are reading all about it in the newspaper, and help is on the way. The moon turns into a huge white cat who rescues the kittens. The kidnapped boy escapes and is discovered by two young toughs:
Jack and Guy went out in the rye
And they 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 folk do
The last picture in the book shows all three of them and other homeless children asleep in their urban jungle, surrounded by smiling kittens. Life in the city is scary, mean, and precarious, Sendak’s pictures tell us, but impulsive goodness also exists. There are other possibilities here too: one critic has interpreted We Are All in the Dumps as, among other things, a kind of Christian allegory.3
One proof that some work of art is a classic is that each time you revisit it you see it differently. When I reread We Are All in the Dumps this week, I realized that it can also be viewed as a story about the interracial adoption, by two males, of an abused and abandoned child. No doubt other readers will continue to find new meanings in all of Sendak’s best work, for many years to come.
Belloc also illustrated his own verses, but not always very well. ↩
In an odd coincidence, over thirty years later Sendak would illustrate another book called Pierre: Herman Melville’s strange and awkward novel, whose eponymous hero is far more conflicted and negative than the earlier Pierre, and fails to escape his problems. ↩
See Peter F. Neumeyer, “We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy: Two Nursery Rhymes with Pictures by Maurice Sendak,” Children’s Literature in Education, Vol. 25, No. 1 (1994). ↩