Tag Archives: Maurice Sendak

The right kind of eyes

nutcrackerA quick post before I take a holiday break. N and I finished The Nutcracker by ETA Hoffmann. It was a wonderful read, and N loved it right the way through — at least until quite close to the end.

One night while I read aloud, she worked away on a Nutcracker scene in her room, placing a doll in a cradle as Princess Pirlipat, with a larger doll playing the role of Marie Stahlbaum nearby. A Yeoman of the Guard tree ornament played Nutcracker himself, and several other dolls and animals filled in the backdrop.

Now and then she paused from her work to study Maurice Sendak’s drawings. “He’s good,” she said solemnly. “He’s really good.”

marie sleeping

As the story drew to a close, it became clear that Marie and Nutcracker, aka young Drosselmeier, had fallen in love. “In a year and a day he called for her in a golden carriage drawn by silver horses. At the wedding, two and twenty thousand of the most brilliant figures adorned with pearls and diamonds danced, and Marie is believed to be still the queen of a country where sparkling Christmas woods, transparent marzipan castles, in short, the most wonderful things, can be seen if you have the right kind of eyes for it.”

maurice sendak nutcrackerN does have the right kind of eyes, to a point. She has no problem with transparent marzipan castles, with dolls that come alive at night, with mice that have seven nasty heads, with towns made of candy, and sweet-toothed giants swallowing sweet towns whole, with cities made of gingerbread, and rivers made of honey, orange and lemonade, all emptying into Almond Milk Lake, where the plump little fish look just like hazelnuts. That houses are made from chocolate, roofed with gold, and trimmed with shelled almonds and candied lemon peel, is no surprise to her. Was Marie dreaming or was the world she traveled through (in a jewel-encrusted gondola drawn by golden dolphins) real? Either way, N accepted it.

But what was absolutely unfathomable — what yanked her right up off the page and straight out of this winter wonderland — was the news that Nutcracker and Marie would marry.

“What?!” she cried as I read the last words. “She’s seven! Mom! Marie is seven years old! She can’t get married!”

As Godfather Drosslemeier would say, “Stuff and nonsense!” Then and there, N was through with The Nutcracker, classic or no. But I suspect she’ll be drawn into its candy world once again next year.


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The Nutcracker by ETA Hoffmann

danse des mirlitons

Ivan Vzevolozhsky’s Nutcracker costume sketch for The Dance of the Reed-Flutes, 1892

Fellow blogger Nathalie Foy offered a fabulous post today: she plans to make an advent calendar of Christmas books, their own or the library’s, and unwrap one each night to be read aloud.

My mind has turned to Christmas too. Just last night N and I looked over our own collection of Christmas books and picked one we added to the pile at this summer’s library sale: The Nutcracker by ETA Hoffmann, wonderfully illustrated by Maurice Sendak.

Most people  nowadays are probably more familiar with the ballet version, which simplified the story a great deal, but also brought it to new life through dance and music. The ballet is hugely popular. I have many friends who see it every year and consider it a Christmas tradition. I remember seeing it here in Toronto about a decade ago, when my lovely niece Sophia was one of the dancers, handpicked from the National Ballet School.

maurice sendak nutcracker

Interestingly, the ballet was poorly received when it was first staged in 1892, one of the main criticisms being that it was not faithful to Hoffmann’s story. We’re just a couple of chapters in, and loving it from the first-page description of Godfather Drosselmeier, a strange family friend with a dark but compelling presence:

“Judge Drosselmeier was anything but handsome. He was short and very thin, his face was seamed with wrinkles, he had a big black patch where his right eye should have been, and he had no hair at all, for which reason he wore a beautiful white wig, a real work of art. And Judge Drosselmeier was himself a skilled craftsman, able to make and repair clocks. When one of the fine clocks in the Stahlbaum house was sick and unable to sing, Godfather Drosselmeier would come over, remove his glass wig and yellow coat, and put on a blue apron. For a while he would stick sharp instruments into the clock. Little Marie felt real pain at the sight. But it didn’t hurt the clock in the least; on the contrary, it came back to life and made everyone happy by whirring and striking and singing merrily.”

Every year at Christmas, Drosselmeier makes gifts “of wonderful artistry” for the children Fritz and Marie — but the gifts are too wonderful, and the parents always put them away for safekeeping, so the children can never actually play with them. On Christmas Eve when the story opens, Drosselmeier offers a magnificent miniature castle with chimes playing, doors opening and closing, and tiny ladies and gentlemen in all their splendour, strolling around rooms aglow in candlelight.

It’s a beautiful creation, but mechanical rather than human, and since the things inside it move like clockwork, with no possibility for surprise, the children quickly lose interest. Fritz turns to his toy hussars, and Marie discovers a nutcracker made in the shape of “an excellent little man…. With Marie it was love at first sight, and the longer she gazed at the sweet little man, the more delighted she was with his good-natured face. His light green, slightly too prominent eyes were also full of kindness, and his well-curled, white-cotton beard was most becoming, as it brought out the sweet smile of his bright red lips.”

The family takes turns cracking nuts with him, but Fritz chooses a huge, hard nut, which breaks the Nutcracker’s jaw. From here, the story turns increasingly strange, as Marie is drawn in to the Nutcracker’s magical world.

franz, post nut crack

Sendak’s illustrations, as always, are delightful. I can’t help but see little Max from Where the Wild Things Are in careless nut-cracking Fritz. These are so different from the images that normally come to mind when I think of The Nutcracker — swirling sugar plum fairies and elegant ballerinas en pointe.

It’s amazing to think that this story was written almost 200  years ago, in 1816, and that now in 2012 I’m curling up with my daughter at night, reading a tale that has lasted all this time. Last year she loved A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, and was not at all daunted by the old-fashioned language and the delicious but cumbersome descriptions. So I’m thrilled to add The Nutcracker to our eclectic collection of this season’s books, which includes:

The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
The Friendly Beasts by Tomie dePaola
Names for Snow by Judi K Beach
The Huron Carol by Ian Wallace
Bella’s Tree by Janet Russell
The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski
The Little Tree by e.e. cummings
The Olden Days Coat by Margaret Laurence
Sadie and the Snowman by Allen Morgan
How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
A City Christmas Tree by Rebecca Bond
The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
Owl Moon by Jane Yolen

Thanks Nathalie for inspiring this post!


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Goodbye, Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak died today. The news, as I type this, is so fresh that Wikipedia still has a mix of “is” and “was” in its article about him. I bought Where the Wild Things Are for N on one of my first trips away from her, when I was in Winnipeg, on the jury for an arts council grant. It became a favourite in our house for many years, with its toothy, hairy monsters and its forest-room, and Max in his wolf suit, making mischief of one kind and another. When his mischief lands him in his room, supperless, his imagination takes flight.

Sendak’s muted illustrations are gorgeous here, and the story’s rhythm makes it feel like a poem, lovely to read aloud. The long sentences are carefully placed, so that you’re forced to pause at just the right moment, in order to turn the page. The monsters are scary and wild, but the words flow gently.

That very night in Max’s room a forest grew

and grew —

and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around

and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max and he sailed off through night and day

and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.

In the Night Kitchen, published in 1970, continues to be controversial because little Mickey appears without his pyjamas. Ludicrous. Is this offensive to you?

The book was controversial when it was first released in 1963. But it was a lasting hit with children. According to Sendak, an eight-year-old boy once wrote to him to ask, “How much does it cost to get to where the wild things are? If it is not expensive, my sister and I would like to spend the summer there.” What treasures such letters must have been for a man many describe as melancholy.

In an interview last year with The Guardian, Sendak spoke plainly about his sadness. When Eugene Glynn, his partner of 50 years, died in 2007, he “caved in …  life is pretty dreadful most of the time. Even in the country that’s so pretty with the flowers and leaves and sunshine. And I was abandoned when he died! I’m alone. I feel like an old bubba. And I’m not kind all of the time, I’m not nice all the time.”

But what a body of work he has left behind. The New York Times obit says he trusted “the essential rightness of children’s perceptions of the world around them,” and perhaps this was what gave his work its lasting quality. Like Roald Dahl, he didn’t talk down to children, and he didn’t make their world seem easy. And yet Sendak apparently loathed Dahl: “The cruelty in his books is off-putting. Scary guy. I know he’s very popular but what’s nice about this guy? He’s dead, that’s what’s nice about him.” Nevertheless, Sendak felt strongly that children’s books today are “too safe … I’m not always sure if they’re truthful or faithful to what’s going on with children.”

I wonder if he felt proud, by the end, of the work he’d accomplished? It seems to me I often read of children’s authors and illustrators who feel their work is less respected because it’s made for children. “I have to accept my role,” Sendak told The Guardian. “I will never kill myself like Vincent van Gogh. Nor will I paint beautiful water lilies like Monet. I can’t do that. I’m in the idiot role of being a kiddie book person.”

And yet when I read about Sendak (or PL Travers or AA Milne, who had similar complaints), I see reams of respect. So is it just a case of being human, and feeling small in the grand scheme of things? Do we respect children’s writers enough? After all, they give us our first taste of books, and we remember our favourite ones forever — if not the stories themselves, then the feeling the stories gave us when we first discovered them.




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Michelle Berry: “Reading (and writing) is a noisy thing for me”

Even though the books I write are for grown-ups (who “don’t believe in anything,” according to N, and don’t see the magic of illustrations), the books I read with N feed me and my work. Articulating those thoughts on this blog over the last while has got me wondering how other writers feel about children’s literature — what books meant to them as children, how stories stayed with them over the years, or what it’s been like for them as parents reading to their own kids. So now and again, interspersed with my own ramblings, I’ll post the words of other writers sharing their own ideas about the power of children’s literature. First up is the self-proclaimed noisy writer Michelle Berry, who writes:

It was mostly my father who read to me as a child. To me and my brother. We would sit on the couch after dinner, each of us flanking my father, leaning our heads on his shoulders, and he would read. He would shout when the character shouted, he would cry when the character cried, he would supply all necessary sound effects—hiss, boom, eergh!—he would play with the rhythm and beat of the words. Mostly, he would make it fun and fascinating—almost better than watching TV. My mom would be listening from the kitchen, washing dishes or reading the newspaper. We often heard her laugh. I would have the cat on my lap. My brother would bite his fingernails throughout and place the little half-moon nails on his lap in a pile to collect them later and throw them away.

We went through almost all of Dickens, we read The Hobbit and the first book of The Lord of The Rings. We read Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer and other Mark Twain books. Watership Down, Alice in Wonderland. The key was to find books that would appeal to both of us—my brother is two years older than me. There were books I didn’t understand but loved the sound of, like Paradise Lost. Or plays like Hamlet.

Then one day—I won’t even tell you how old we were—my brother and I looked at each other. We cleared our throats and said, “Dad, we’re getting a little too old to be read to.” Heartbreaking, I think, for my father. And sad for us. But we all knew we’d had a great run. We’d had that time together. We’d learned a lot without even realizing we were learning.

It wasn’t until I started to write seriously that I realized what my father had done. He had given voice to words. He had made me read and write in a way that was completely different from most people I know. I hear the words. I hear the sounds. I hear the rhythm. Reading (and writing) is a noisy thing for me. And this is why certain books stood out as my favourites:

Dr. Seuss. Anything he wrote. Read them aloud. You’ll see why. “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” Plus, Dr. Seuss loved me and he constantly told me so: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”

Alice in Wonderland. Not only the quirky characters (which, if you know my writing at all, you’ll know I love) and the strange morals and lessons (“Begin at the beginning, and then go on til you come to the end: then stop.” “We call him Tortoise, because he taught us.”), but the beat behind the sentences. As the Duchess says, “Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves.”

But then there were also the books that stood out because of the art. I would peer over my father’s shoulder and marvel at the beautiful or simple work—Harold and The Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson, is a book I remember fondly. Harold can’t sleep and so he draws himself a world with his purple crayon. It’s quite an adventure. Of course, Maurice Sendak’s work both frightened and enchanted me: Where the Wild Things Are. I still have a series of very small brown-covered books by Sendak, Chicken Soup With Rice, and In the Night Kitchen. Always nasty little boys who learned lessons well (or didn’t, and died).

Every Christmas Eve my family would sit down and listen to a record (yes, a record!) of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Read by Dylan Thomas in his rolling Welshman’s deep-booming voice: “All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find.” Of course I’ve burned a CD of it and now make my own children listen to it every Christmas Eve. Every year my youngest understands a little more, and laughs at parts she didn’t “get” last year. It’s wonderful to see.

So, to sum up, I liked the quirky stuff, the beauty of a book, the moral tales (learn your lessons or you’ll undoubtedly die), the sound of the words. I think my writing now reflects all of this. I read my writing out loud, always. It’s the only way I can see it. It’s the only way it comes alive.

Michelle Berry is the author of three short story collections. Her most
recent collection,
I Still Don’t Even Know You won the 2011 Mary
Scorer Award for Best Book Published by a Manitoba Publisher. She has
also published four novels, the most recent of which,
This Book Will
Not Save Your Life, won the 2010 Colophon Prize. She lives in
Peterborough, Ontario.


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