What a blow to lose Maurice Sendak this week. Somehow, he seemed like he would just always be there. I’m glad he was writing, working, and being his straight-shooting, famously cantankerous self right up ’til the end. He was the Book King. I knew this as a kid, too.
Here are two of my all-time favorite Sendak books from childhood. They made such a huge impression, that looking back at them now literally brings me back to being a kid.
First up: Some Swell Pup, or Are You Sure You Want A Dog?
Here’s my dog-eared (haha) copy from 1978. This book is genius, straight up. Every kid (and adult) who is contemplating getting a dog should be issued this book. That is from my adult-perspective view. But as a kid, I found this book hilarious and ridiculously frank. The good, the bad, and the ugly is explored with an unblinking eye.
The story begins when a “mysterious stranger”, who seems to be a dog himself, leaves a puppy on the doorstep of a brother and sister. The initial joy of owning a puppy soon turns to reality when the pup does everything “wrong”… and they do everything wrong.
This book was way ahead of it’s time, if you think about how many books use the “graphic novel” approach. This story is laid out like a comic book, and the details in each panel are spot on. The puppy pees. It poops. It shreds things. The kids fight over it, yell at it, hold it the wrong way, and get aggravated with each other. It’s real. And there is a happy ending, but it’s a realistic one. All is not happy until the kids really get what’s involved in having a dog. And they do, the hard way!
It’s so obvious! You’ve got to love! Love! Love!
Next up: Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or There Must Be More To Life.
I mean, really. Just the title. There was nothing like this on the bookshelves in the early 70s, when I first found it. I recall repeatedly borrowing it from my grammar school library and poring over the illustrations, and the surreal words. The story was weird. It had layers. The pictures felt real to me.
It was moody. And a bit scary. Jennie the dog leaves a life that’s just fine in search of “something more”. She becomes a nursemaid to a baby that won’t eat, and ends up stuffing the baby into her suitcase. But that’s OK, because there’s a lion that is interested in eating the baby, too. Eventually, Jennie ends up in a stage show, in which she eats a mop made of salami every night.
Jennie never returns to her good home. She writes to her old master at the end and tells him to come and visit, except she doesn’t know where she is. Traditional storytelling? Not on your life. I loved it.
Looking back at it now, I am struck by two things that hadn’t occurred to me before. One- I have loved scotty dogs forever. Jennie isn’t a scotty per se, but I think this is where my love of them came from. Two- as an adult, I find myself ensconced in the world of community theater. I write, direct, make costumes and sets, etc. Maybe it was this book that “set the stage” for this hobby. I remember being obsessed with the mini stage play that ends this book. The page turns were theatrical, like watching a little movie (and I know Sendak was himself a theater lover). I just adored it. And now I stage plays of my own. A little seed planted in childhood? Quite possibly.
I’m thankful there were alternative books like this on the shelves when I was a kid, and they will surely endure.
So maybe it isn’t really “the end”.