MAURICE Sendak is about to become a household name in Malaysia, thanks to the movie, by Spike Jonze, of his picture book, Where the Wild Things Are. If I had to pick just one favourite children’s book, this would be it, but I love many of Sendak’s other books and think they make great gifts for children of all ages. Continuing my Christmas recommendations, here are my top picks.
Sendak’s Nutshell Library collection (Harper-Collins, ISBN: 978-0060255008) is, as they say, a great thing in a little package. This mini boxed-set of books comprises four titles: Alligators All Around, Chicken Soup with Rice, One Was Johnny, and Pierre.
Alligators All Around is an alphabet book revolving around the antics of a family of alligators. A is “all around”, B is “bursting balloons”, C “catching colds” and so on. “Shockingly spoilt” is my favourite, featuring a very smug looking young alligator clutching a bunch of lollipops.
Chicken Soup with Rice takes the reader through the months of the year, One Was Johnny is a counting book and Pierre is about a disagreeable boy who cares about nothing, not even being eaten by a lion.
These books are all written by Sendak and feature illustrations made up of simple lines and minimal colours, and characters bursting with personality and attitude.
Outside Over There, a much darker tale than the previous four, is about the abduction of a baby girl by goblins, who leave a changeling made of ice in her place. Big sister Ida sets out to find her young sibling. Having neglected her baby-sitting duties, she is filled with guilt, yet can’t help but be so seduced and distracted by the glamour and importance of her role as rescuer that she fails to focus on the task at hand and nearly loses her sister forever.
Sendak’s art for this rather disturbing but compelling story is sumptuous and highly dramatic. Idyllic pastoral scenes are juxtaposed with wilder, more haunting ones, and they bleed into each other, as if to suggest that the line between reality and fantasy, and happiness and tragedy is a very fine one.
Outside Over There is a thrilling adventure that also examines the ambiguity of feelings experienced by a young girl for her family. Like all Sendak’s work, it acknowledges the complex and difficult emotions a child can feel.
Higglety Pigglety Pop! (HarperCollins, 80 pages, ISBN: 978-0060284794) was written by Sendak after his beloved pet, a Sealyham like the heroine in this book, died. It is Sendak’s tribute to the little dog and may be read also as the way he came to terms with his loss. Sealyhams, in fact, frequently appear in Sendak’s illustrations.
In Higglety Pigglety Pop!, Jennie the Sealyham feels that there is something missing in her life (the subtitle of this book is There Must Be More to Life) and leaves her home and master to seek her fortune.
She wants to join the World Mother Goose Theater that she comes across but the pig who runs it tells Jennie she lacks experience. Well, a close encounter with a hungry baby and an even hungrier lion transforms Jennie into the perfect candidate for the theatre and she spends the rest of her life happily ever after at Yonder Castle, the theatre’s home.
Is Yonder Castle meant to be heaven? Perhaps Sendak was comforting himself with the idea that his pet had moved on to a better, happier place. In any case, Higglety Pigglety Pop! will definitely raise smiles and laughs galore with its interesting and humorous developments and characters, and its amusing pen illustrations.