The deal went like this – Dad would read me a story, I would go to sleep. Nothing in that deal said I couldn’t be a little f$%*!er about which stories I wanted him to read. My favorite was Zorro, followed closely by Fury, the Wonder Horse, which I insisted on calling Furry, just to piss. him. off. I still laugh at that one.
I also really liked a book called Pierre. I called it “Pierre: the boy who said ‘I don’t care,’” but its real name is Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and a Prologue.
For it me, it was one of the smallest books in my collection of Golden Readers and picture books, part of the Nutshell Library, along with One Was Johnny, Alligators All Around, and Chicken Soup with Rice.
I’m old enough to have been too old to care when Really Rosie came out as an animation in 1975, with songs based on the above books. It was no more than amusing, really. I recalled the books of my youth, of course, but that was like a million years ago, when I was a baby!! No way I was getting excited about baby stuff. Chicken Soup With Rice was still pretty cool, though.
When Really Rosie went Off-Broadway musical, I was in college and still, honestly, didn’t care. I mean, sure, it was cool, and a whole new generation would learn to love Sendak, but I had no money, wasn’t ever going to see it and besides, musicals were so….
It’s only natural that when I became an adult that baby stuff became interesting again. And of course, by that time I had lost that little Nutshell Library collection of books. Amazingly, after looking around, I found the very same 1962 edition I originally owned. So, clearly Sendak hadn’t yet become the household name he is now. This was still in the pre – Where the Wild Things Are days. But that’s not the moral – the moral is, like Pierre, I learned to care.
If you read the social feeds this week, you’d think that Where the Wild Things Are was Sendak’s greatest work. Maybe it is, I don’t know…and I don’t care. When I think of his work, I think of alligators, crocodiles and lions that may or may not eat children if they don’t care enough for their surroundings.
One of the things I genuinely enjoyed about Sendak’s books was the cheerfully typical selfishness of the children that populated them. Whether they were singing paeans of joy to chicken soup with rice as they did bizarre and dangerous things, or running off from their bedrooms to become monsters, there was shockingly little consequence to their actions. The children riding the crocodile were not eaten, Pierre, although eaten, was fine in the end. Real and fake monsters are not the enemy of children that adults seems to think. The lion doesn’t eat Pierre because he is inherently dangerous – after all, he gives the boy fair warning. He does it because Pierre clearly needs an object lesson in manners and his parents aren’t holding up their end of the deal.
My Dad had bought that Nutshell Library because when he was young, Sendak lived in the basement of the building he lived in. Years before Sendak came out in a New York Times interview, my Dad told me that everyone referred to him as the “fag in the basement.” It was a tale told to me many decades after the fact, with a nostalgic smile, as if that was a cute, harmless nickname.
I sometimes imagine Sendak huddling in the basement, sensing the disdain with which he was regarded by the other tenants. I have no doubt that the children – those very same children Sendak wrote for, and are now beloved by as adults – were warned away from him, as if he were diseased.
Or maybe, Sendak didn’t really care.