I just checked Maurice Sendak’s little book Pierre out of the library yesterday, in order to write this book/music/video review of it. This morning I found out that Mr. Sendak died. The obit praises him more effectively than I ever could- it’s worth reading. For example, like his parents, I had no idea he was gay. And he felt he never learned how to draw feet properly. I still regret missing his talk at UConn in 1993. I was probably off listening to Jimi Hendrix somewhere.
Strangely coincidental that I should begin this review the day he died. Like when I wore my Beastie Boys shirt for the first time in 2 years, and found out that same day that MCA had died, and then felt the need to explain to everyone I met that day that I’d put the shirt on BEFORE I knew he’d died. Well, I started writing this before Sendak died- so there. That’s right, America- I am psychic! Never mind that I can’t find my car keys. Roll cameras on the new reality series PSYCHIC UNEMPLOYED PARENTAL BLOGGER! TruTV in the hoooouse!
Erm, right, down to business. Pierre is probably the most popular part of a 4-part collection released in 1962 by Sendak, titled The Nutshell Library. You can get them as individual books, or as a tiny little hardbound library in a tiny slipcase for your tiny bookshelf, and then you can hire Tiny Tim to read it to you in a tiny little voice. It’s not dollhouse sized, more teddy-bear sized. So you can actually read it, and though it does tend to strain the eyes a bit, it’s worth it.
Pierre, our protagonist, is an apparently only child who has only one thing to say: “I don’t care.” Whether his parents are trying to bring him to the store, or get him out of bed, or to eat, or not pour maple syrup in his hair, he cares not about any of it. He doesn’t even care when a lion threatens to eat him. Is it wrong to include spoilers in a review of a children’s book? I’m not sure, but I am doing it.
Anyway, he does get eaten, but survives in that miraculous way that people in literature can get eaten by horrible creatures and somehow walk (or in this case, fall) back out of their mouths, completely unharmed, later in the story. It turns out that getting eaten by a lion, followed by a joyous family reunion, were all Pierre needed to stop being such an insufferable brat and to begin to care. The end!
The artwork is classic Sendak, charming, scratched-ink lines of texture and simply drawn faces which easily radiate personality, emotion and style. (Please click the image above and view the image at full resolution, to see his penwork.) This even though the tiny size of the original release forced Sendak to be exacting and sparing with every line, and to forgo most background details. Pierre looks a bit like Max (from his most popular book, Where The Wild Things Are), and is also rather willful, to say the least. He’s practically an antihero. The writing is… well, Sendak. Economy, wit, balls, edge, charm, and some fun, lovely metered rhyme which makes reading these to a child a pleasure.
The sound of the text read aloud highlights the song-like elements of these pieces, something that was not lost on 70’s songstress Carole King. She collaborated with Sendak, writing all four pieces, a bits from another Sendak book called The Sign On Rosie’s Door, into songs for a stage musical called Really Rosie, which were then animated as a 1975 television special. You can see the animated songs on the Scholastic Where The Wild Things Are DVD, included as a bonus feature, though in my mind they are better than the Wild Things feature.
Somewhat randomly, I have two copies of that DVD, and both include slightly different edits of the four Nutshell Kids videos. One DVD includes the original introductory bits from Really Rosie, and the other re-edits the cartoons cleverly and adds still titles to create stand-alone individual animations for each of the four songs. King also released the 12 songs she recorded as an album with the same title. I was three when the full length animated show aired on CBS, and I still haven’t seen it. Even with the magic of the internet, this stuff is not that easy to find. Which I like. A bit of mystery.
When one attempts, for example, to actually FIND the animated video for Pierre on Youtube, one gets the sense that whatever shadowy legal entity protects that video is aggressive and menacing and even knows how to set up automatic daily google searches. A clean, quality video is hard to locate, but they let the crappy rips stay up for some strange reason. So all you get are earnest yet cringeworthy renditions of the song by community theatre groups, and terrible edits where some schmuck decides putting huge glowy subtitles all over the original animation makes it 100 times better (it doesn’t), or badly synched rips which make your head pound. On the plus side, you can also find a cool cover of it by The Dresden Dolls. My own attempt to rip this video also grabbed the subtitles, but it’s still pretty watchable. Observe.
If you haven’t gleaned it by now, I LOVE Pierre. The book is great, the little library is cool and makes a lovely gift, and the Scholastic DVD is probably the highlight of their entire box set. King also does a wonderful job turning this poem into a natural sounding, catchy song.
Highly recommended in all its forms. My daughter started loving it at age 2-3, I started at the age I discovered it, probably 35.