Heartfelt tribute to a wild imagination
| BETWEEN THE LINES
A number of my friends cite Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are as their favourite book as a child. First published in 1963, it went on to sell more than 19 million copies.
The first time I read it, I didn't like it. I didn't understand why Max, the main character in the book, would choose lawlessness over the safe confines of home. My reaction to this story reveals more about my own character than the quality of the Sendak's evocative prose and well-crafted illustrations. I grew up as a rule-loving conformist.
Then one day last summer, while browsing at a bookstore in Taipei for the third consecutive day, I came across Sendak's Outside Over There. I was drawn to it because I am a book lover and appreciate that Sendak is a leading author of children's books. I also took a quick glance and saw that it was a story about a young girl and her baby sister, which would be perfect to read aloud to my elder daughter. I hastily bought the book and went about the rest of the day in Taipei.
That night, back at the hotel, my daughter was too tired for a bedtime story and fell fast asleep. I stayed up and began to read Outside Over There. My eyes widened and my jaws dropped as I read this unsettling story about a little girl who was instructed by her father to take care of her little sister. And for the brief moment she took her eyes off her baby sister, the baby was kidnapped by goblins and forced into a wedding as a goblin's bride. I finished the story, paused to take a deep breath, and went on to read it two more times. Thus began my recent love affair with Sendak.
Next came In the Night Kitchen, in which three bakers, all in the likeness of rotund Oliver Hardy of the Laurel and Hardy comedy duo, make Mickey cake by mixing a batter containing a little nude boy named Mickey. The laughing faces of the bakers are at once jolly and eerily ominous.
Mommy? is the most elaborate and surreal pop-up book I've ever encountered, with magnificent paper engineering. Containing just six pop-up scenes, it follows a little baby through a house of horrors fraught with life-threatening danger as he searches for his mother. The only pop-up book by Sendak, it is reminds me of Tim Burton's Corpse Bride.
It confounds me that visionaries like Sendak and Burton create in a genre for children, and yet the content of their stories is unsuitable for children. What madness.
The only Sendak book I've read aloud to my daughter is Brundibar, which also happens to be my best-loved of his storybooks. Based on a Czech opera that was performed dozens of times by children at a Nazi concentration camp, this picture book is cleverly illustrated by Sendak, and retold with side-splitting humour by Tony Kushner. The best TV mini-series I've ever seen is Kushner's Angels in America, adapted from his brilliant play and starring Al Pacino and Meryl Streep. I am in awe that a Pulitzer prize-winning playwright such as Kushner would collaborate on a children's picture book. This demonstrates Sendak's appeal.
A couple of weeks ago, I spent the evening reading through my entire collection of Sendak's books, ranging from Very Far Away, first published in 1957, to last year's Bumble-Ardy, the first book in 30 years for which he was both author and illustrator. The next day I learned that he had passed away, a coincidence as disquieting and exhilarating as Sendak's oeuvre.
With admiration, then, I dedicate this column to Maurice Sendak, who died on May 8 at the age of 83.
Annie Ho is a board governor of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong (bringmeabook.org.hk) a non-profit organisation devoted to improving children's literacy