“Where The Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak is the picture book that changed picture books forever.
The picture book began to be understood, after Maurice Sendak, as something extraordinary – a fusion of images and limited vocabulary which authors such as Julia Donaldson, Lauren Child, Alan and Janet Ahlberg, Emily Gravett and more have turned into a post-modern art form.
When I started reading books about picture books the first thing I noticed was how much the books of Maurice Sendak are referenced as primary sources, especially Where The Wild Things Are. Handy hint: If you’re thinking of reading academic literature in a bid to understand children’s books, have the Sendak oeuvre at your side. (Also Rosie’s Walk, the picturebooks of Anthony Browne and Chris van Allsburg.)
I find it ironic that the Book Depository description of Where The Wild Things Are includes the phrase: ‘Supports the Common Core State Standards’. Sendak famously did not write for children, saying, “I write stories, then someone else decides that they are for children.” I wonder what he would have to say about the heavily pedagogical motivations behind adults encouraging children to read his stories.
Sendak readily acknowledged his inspiration for his stories, and this one was apparently inspired by King Kong.
As outlined by The New Yorker, which delivers its own plot spoiler for “The Sutton Place” by John Cheever:
A little girl gets lost through the carelessness of her nurse who leaves the child with a friend of the family’s while she goes to church. The parents are frantic and have sharp feelings of guilt until at last the police find the child wandering about the streets.
SETTING OF “THE SUTTON PLACE”
This story takes place in the city but from this part of new York you could ‘throw a stone onto Welfare Island’, it seems. Welfare Island is these days called Roosevelt Island. It was named Welfare Island between 1921 and 1971, because it was principally known for its hospitals. It is an island between Manhattan and Long Island City. It’s a part of Manhattan.
You may recognise the author’s name from her bestselling The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, which was first published 8 years later in 2005.
WHAT THE STORY IS ABOUT
A girl feels overlooked because her important father gives names of significant family members to each of her siblings except to her. She tries in vain to win his attention and affection, but unfortunately, she only wins attention by trying to smother the baby twins which have lead to a long, worrisome labour for their mother. Eshlaini’s father then names her after his own mother, which is no compliment whatsoever. When Eshlaini comes of age, the father turns away all of her suitors, because like his own mother, this daughter Eshlaini must care for him in his old age. Continue reading “Short Story Study: The Great Chain Of Being by Kim Edwards”
No Roses For Harry by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham is a sequel to Harry The Dirty Dog. I like this story less due to its increasingly outdated message about masculinity.
WHAT HAPPENS IN NO ROSES FOR HARRY
Human grandmother sends partly anthropomorphised pet dog a coat for the dog’s birthday. The coat has roses on it, and the dog does not like it. He goes to great lengths to lose the coat. It ends up being used by a bird to make a nest.
Written in the early 1960s, “A Glutton For Punishment” is about a man who gets the sack from an unspecified office job in New York City. He considers keeping this information from his wife.
In this post-Mad Men era, it’s impossible to read Yates and not envisage scenes from Mad Men.
Yates’s revival might simply be one example of our current fascination with mid-century America. Another example — or cause — of this fascination is Mad Men, which recently won the Emmy Award for best drama series, and has replaced The Wireas the show serious-minded people watch seriously and write about seriously in serious-minded publications.
The hustle and bustle of New York, in which everyone seems to have somewhere to go, contrasts against the aimlessness of Walt as he struggles with what he is to do and where he should go now that he is between jobs.
Walter Henderson works on Lexington Avenue. Here’s a photo from the mid-seventies:
This collection, first published in 1962, pinpoints, like a lepidopterist, a particular epoch in American history – the postwar world of dissatisfied veterans, young men swaying uneasily on the lower rungs of the career ladder, married to unsatisfactory women without whose typing job they would be destitute; ambitious but miserable young writers trapped in inappropriate jobs; unglamorous pre-dinner martinis, jazz bars, teachers despised by their pupils….can describe a world, and the state of mind it creates, so economically, so persuasively, that you stay your hand even as it reaches for the full bottle of paracetamol or opened razor.
Some short stories exist mainly as character studies. Fun With A Stranger by American author Richard Yates is one example. The story paints a portrait of a particular kind of old-fashioned school teacher. The reader feels empathy for everyone involved,, from the young pupils to the teacher herself.
How young readers love to hear about naughty children. If this were a story by Roald Dahl or Edward Gorey, the naughty Millie would definitely have met a nasty end, but this particular naughty child remains the apple of her parents’ eyes. Since all children have bad thoughts sometimes, this story is a comfort-read, and would be especially so as a bedtime book at the end of a bad day.
Just Me And My Puppy is worth a close look because, like many others in this long-running series, it is a wonderful example of ‘counterpoint irony’ in picture books.
Though the title may annoy purists, the grammar of the title foreshadows a story told from the point of view of a toddler-aged creature. As a child I always wondered what ‘critters’ were. I thought a critter must be some sort of American animal in particular.
Apart from ‘counterpoint irony’, another useful concept when considering any disconnect between words and pictures is ‘symmetry’. Nikolajeva and Scott have attempted to create a sophisticated taxonomy of picturebook interactions (between words and pictures) and came up with a sliding scale. Symmetry is at one end, in which the pictures pretty much repeat what the words have already explained. At the other end is ‘contradiction’, in which the pictures say something completely different from the words, often creating irony or humour. The problem with having ‘symmetry’ at the extreme end is that pictures cannot help but say more than the words, since ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ (or thereabouts). So there will never exist a perfectly symmetrical picturebook.
Anyone who has helped an emergent reader with assigned readers knows the difference between an interesting early reader and a ‘slog’. Bears In The Night by the Berenstains is an early reader with a focus on positional words. This book is an example of a successful early reader because the story is engaging and children will want to return to its fun creepiness over and over. This is achieved by:
Creating an eerie story with just the right balance of scary and humour
Creating words with wonderful rhythm and judicious use of repetition.