INSPIRATION…Maurice Sendak

If you ask me, the picture book was one of the very best artistic forms to evolve in the 20th century. It’s up there with the three-and-a-half-minute rhythm and blues song, the animated film, the television drama series, or any other remarkable creative innovation you can think of that came out of the same period.

There were illustrated books for children long before 1900. But something seemed to happen around the time of the first commercial edition of Beatrix Potter’s ‘Peter Rabbit’, in 1902.

A taste developed for short, affordable, colour-illustrated storybooks for younger children. And in the decades that followed, the illustrations in these books became ever less decorative, ever more a part of the storytelling. So, sometimes step by step, sometimes in leaps forward, the special form of the picture book that we know today came to be.

It’s a special form because it’s such a mix of delights. Inside good contemporary picture books you get characters that children love from the opening words…engaging themes…page-turning stories…inventive, skilfully-crafted illustrations…flights of imagination…colour…humour…emotion  and  –  as if all that wasn’t enough  –  endings which uplift, provoke, surprise (or do all three!)

That’s a lot of delight for an adult reader and child to share  –  all packed into 12 (or so) double-page spreads.

And it would be wrong to speak only of delight. There’s a notable history of picture books going into uncomfortable, shadowy subjects too. And for that aspect of  picture-book making, I’d say we should raise our hats to the American author and illustrator, Maurice Sendak.

 

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Sendak was a fiercely independent, honest, funny, questioning character. (Have a watch of this short film, capturing him at home, in his later years. You’ll see what I mean…)

 

 

He wasn’t the only one to push back boundaries around what can be in a story for 2 to 6 year-olds. But his picture book, “Where the Wild Things Are” was such a brilliant challenge to the conventions of its day, and became so popular, that it ended up paving a good bit of the way for other challenging picture books that have followed.

The story of Max (the protagonist of ‘Where The Wild Things Are’) is a simple one. It’s a tale of leaving and returning. It’s only 338 words long. But over that short distance, Sendak touches on a many difficult themes: cruelty, uncontrolled anger, punishment, loneliness, ecstatic release and fear (among others.) The ‘wild things’ themselves are wonderfully complex. (Are they going to be friends with Max, or are they going to eat him up?) It makes for one of the most fantastic journeys in all of children’s literature.

And it’s telling that, despite being one of the best known children’s book makers of his generation, Maurice Sendak didn’t like to be described as a children’s author.

He broke the mould with his picture books. He went searching for truths about what it is to be human, whether you’re a child, a grown-up, or somewhere in between. In other words, he approached picture-book making with the sharpness of a genuine artist’s sensibility.

And it has been a wonderful thing for children’s literature that this sensibility found its way into the making of books for very young children.

Picture books could have evolved into pretty, soothing boxes of delight to help parents get children to sleep. Thanks to the likes of Maurice Sendak, they are a much more exciting and wild prospect.

 

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FROM SIDE TO SIDE

A long time ago, I met a Zimbabwean film maker who had travelled from his country and was living in England.

We were talking about the differences between his country and mine: differences between the way people live and work and talk…differences in the attitude towards time…

And the man told me this story.

“After a couple of years of living in England, I went back home to visit my family members in Zimbabwe. My grandmother was watching me when I got back. And, after a day or two, she said to me, ‘You’ve come back different. You’ve come back looking straight ahead. Please, don’t forget to look from side to side as well. You see the most interesting things when you look from side to side!”

 

Four quotations about COMEDY

American author, Mark Twain: “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.”

British writer and comedian, Barry Cryer: “Analysing comedy is like dissecting a frog. Nobody laughs and the frog dies.”

British actor, Peter Ustinov: “Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.”

American film director, Woody Allen: “I’m thankful for laughter, except when milk comes out of my nose.”

 

 

What do you think?

A friend of mine in Brazil left the hectic megacity of São Paulo in the 1970’s to live a quieter life, a thousand miles or so to the north west, in the state of Mato Grosso.

While there, he got to know some native Brazilians of the Xavante people. And he brought one of them – a young man called Rubens – with him on a visit to São Paulo.

Rubens had never seen a large town before, let alone a city on the scale of São Paulo. So, before anything else, my friend took him to the top of a downtown skyscraper where he could take a proper look at the place.

The young Xavante took his time, staring out at the city, which stretches off as far as the eye can see.

He didn’t say anything. He walked across to the other side of the building.

There he looked down at the same urban scene, sprawling in the opposite direction.

Still he didn’t say a word.

So my friend asked, “O que que você acha?” (“What do you think?”)

Rubens replied, “Não vai dar certo.” (“It’ll never work out.”)

 

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