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Monday, 3 November 2014

Sendak's Windows

Last month the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators in Spain (SCBWI) had invited me to give an informal talk on Sendak. 

Over twenty-five people came along to what had initially meant to be a 'bring along a few books and talk about them' kind of affair, so I had to prepare more of a presentation, the notes of which I share below for anyone interested. These are notes for my own personal use, with only some references included (I'll be completing those over the next few days).  


Scanned cloth cover of The Sign on Rosie's Door overwritten for the presentation.

Who am I? 
"As I imagine most of you know. I'm a writer and translator of, among other things, Maurice Sendak's Outside Over There, which will be coming out in Spanish before the end of the year, published by Kalandraka, with the title Al otro lado. I write too many blogs –one on children's literature, focused on the experience of reading out loud (We Read it Like This in English and Lo leemos así in Spanish), and several on philosophy for children -I am also a teacher and writer of philosophy for children.

When the SCWBI kindly invited me to give this talk a few months ago, I asked them what kind of thing it was, what I was expected to do. 'Nothing too formal', came the answer. 'Just come and transmit us some of your passion for Sendak.' 


I know I could have come here loaded with lots of marvellous books and we could have sat here and read them and said how wonderful they all are. We could have sat here and repeated SENDAK IS MARVELLOUS, SENDAK IS MARVELLOUS, SENDAK IS MARVELLOUS for two whole hours.

But I thought that besides getting together and enjoying how marvellous Sendak is, I would take the opportunity to share with you a few things I've been thinking about for a while now. Over the last few years, every time I read a Sendak book, every time I read something about him, or watch a documentary or interview, I find myself thinking about a series of elements that keep coming to mind. 

Windows!
I'm going to talk about windows. Sendak has lots. 

Here is Higglety Pigglety Pop heroine Jenny looking out of the window and thinking 'there must be more to life than having everything'. It is quite obvious she has a clear inkling that the 'more to life' is that side rather than this side of the window. Here the window serves as a frontier of the routine-like, desperately complacent life that is too well known to our heroine, and the hope for something better, more entertaining, that brings sense to the dog's life.  

Also in Higglety Pigglety Pop but a little later, another window in another house becomes the void down which 'everything' disappears. The dog no longer has everything. Baby in the suitcase makes quite sure of that.  


The following image does not belong to a book but to a poster to raise hunger awareness. The baby next to the window, inside over here, is solid, with those sunflowers pushing through the window and injecting life inside.  



This other baby outside over there seems rather less solid. It is The Light Princess, by George MacDonald. Here the window separates us from the well-anchored everydayness of the interior and the weightless fantasy of the exterior.  

There are also moving windows. In Ruth Krauss's I Want to Paint my Bathroom Blue, the windows travel with the boy.  



In Kenny's Window (the first book both written and illustrated by Sendak), the window serves as a frontier between the reality of the boy's bedroom and the real but unknown world outside over there:


But it also separates the reality of the bedroom and the fantasy within the boy's mind:

In the book, Kenny has a dream and in the dream he meets a four-legged rooster who asks him seven questions. One of these questions is 'What looks inside and what looks outside?' 'A window' is the answer. 



And, indeed, windows are not always lookout points. They can also be 'lookin' points, they can offer an interior horizon: 
Scanned from Maguire, Gregory.
Making Mischief, A Maurice Sendak Appreciation. Image from Jack Sendak. The Circus Girl.
Illustrations by Maurice Sendak. 
 
Windows are also good as protection from the unknown world that is out there. One of Kenny's lead soldiers mutters thoughtfully, while considering whether to escape or not: 'That's the world. And it's miles long. We'll get lost.'



It is also a measure of the world you yearn for or the world you are satisfied with. Of the world you see and the world you don't see: of one's horizon.  

Another scene from Kenny's Window: 'In a house across the street, a window opened and a man holding a baby leaned out. "Look", said the man, pointing his finger. "Look at the pretty snow flakes". But the baby only laughed and pressed her finger against the man's mouth. And the man kissed the little finger. “Look outside the window!", he shouted. "Outside!". But the baby saw only the man's face." 


And again, the window as the border line between reality and fantasy and that great rooster with four legs. I just had to show him:





In Outside Over There, a window lets the dark reality from beyond into the safe comfort of the home but also lets Ida out into the dream/nightmare reality where the goblins dwell so that she can straighten things out. 







In fact, in Outside Over There, the window metaphor is overarching. Sendak often referred to the other side of the window as 'Outside Over There' ("Really Rosie", in Caldecott & Co. [page 180]), referring to the side we look at, but don't necessarily touch, what's out there, and commands our respect and fear. The world of fantasy, yes, but also the real world, with all the fears it may arouse in us. In an interview, talking about Kenny’s Window, he referred to it as 'the first time I was brave enough to go “Outside Over There”. [reference to follow]. But we will read and talk about Outside Over There in a while. Back to windows.   

In Sendak's work, the window is a frontier -a very permeable one at times -between reality and fantasy. It is a symbol of inside and outside, safety and uncertainty, but also of perpetuation and transformation. Outside there is risk, but also 'the only way forward' in a sense, if one wants to come out of childhood and life alive. The 'only way' of facing the reality we live in and managing to transform oneself in order to continue surviving. 

But I am also and particularly interested in Sendak's literal window: the window of his childhood home in Brooklyn. I am interested because it takes us back to Sendak's beginnings as an illustrator and author of literature and I think it gives a series of pointers for reading his work and starting to understand the reasons why he is so marvellous. 

One of the windows of his house gives us a pretty, picturesque view. It places us in Brooklyn, but perhaps doesn't tell us a whole lot more. 
Brooklyn rooftops, a background painting for the animated film Really Rosie,
starring the Nutshell Kids
, 1974. Pencil and tempera. 9 x 21".
Scanned from The Art of Maurice Sendak, Selma G Lanes. 
What was really interesting was what went on outside the other window:  
Scene from The Sign on Rosie's Door

What was going on? What was the girl doing? It makes you want to stay and find out more. It makes you want to stay and watch for a while. 

Sendak's Gaze  
And that is just what Sendak did. He stayed and watched for a while. And he watched and watched, drew and drew and listened and listened, scribbling hurried notes of all the fantastic things that came out of the mouths of the kids in the neighbourhood playing under his window. Sendak was a sickly child, and this gave him plenty of chance, as a young kid, teenager and into his twenties, to look out and watch, observe, listen and draw what he saw and write down what he heard. 

What a literary education! Sendak learnt how to look with literary purpose (even before knowing what he was doing, perhaps) and he trained that gaze. He learnt how to pick out fiction from reality, developing an author's gaze and ear.  

This is what interests me. The window as observation point. As a point for learning how to observe reality. As a point from which to acquire and develop an author's gaze. Simply choosing what to draw and what to write down is already a literary act in itself, or could be the basis for one. To select what is worth telling from life so that when it appears retold, remolded and relocated in fiction, it reads like life itself. 

All the sketch books he filled while leaning out of his window were essential groundwork for his illustration career, from several points of view. 

One of Sendak's most interesting collaborations in his early career was with Ruth Krauss, a match made in Harper-heaven by the fabulous and influential editor Ursula Nordstrom. When she saw Sendak's sketchbooks, she knew she had just the text for him. Ruth Krauss had recently taken her a text made up of actual definitions Krauss had compiled from four and five year old kids. When Krauss saw Sendak's 'little people', it was love at first sight and so A Hole is to Dig came about.  

[READING OF EXCERPTS FROM A HOLE IS TO DIG]



















Ruth Krauss had attended the Bureau of Educational Experiments, which would later become the Bank Street College of Education (which still exists today) and incorporated the philosophy of the founder of the Bureau, Lucy Sprague Mitchell, and her appeal to the here and now in children's literature. Together with a small team, LSM had founded the Bureau with a view to developing a new kind of education system, founded on the ideas of John Dewey and others that education should focus on what children are, what they respond to and what interests them or attracts them, rather on that what they should become. Based on this, the idea was to develop educational material and create an adequate environment for learning. 

One of the fields this Bureau of Educational Experiments focused on in particular was the literature available for children at the time, and the lack of 'child-centred' literature. In 1921, Mitchell published her The Here and Now Story Book where, based on lengthy and systematised observation of children, their use of language and their relationship with language at different ages. The book contained a prologue/manifesto and brief stories, divided by age, composed attending to the psychological, linguistic and cognitive life of children at each age. The idea was always to start with children's direct experience to build fantasy if desired, but a fantasy always rooted in something children can understand and attend to naturally.

The stories contained in the book are not great literature, nor do they pretend to be, but they do aim to point the way of what LSM thought literature should at the very least take into account, when it comes to ages 2 to 7-8, and it did give rise to examples of literature that was more child-focused, with here and now as a starting point, rather than the remote. 

Mitchell created a Writers Laboratory, a workshop for professional writers and students, some of whose first members were Ruth Krauss and Margaret Wise Brown.

Despite certain misinterpretations of what the here and now school was really about, with the difference between the near and the remote being somewhat charicaturised, over time it came to be understood that it was not about embracing the tangible over fantasy, but rather about calling for a fantasy that came from the child as the centre. 

And this sort of fantasy with the child at the centre, Sendak was simply magnificent at. 

His collaboration with Ruth Krauss is interesting and greatly influenced his future development as a writer and illustrator. It is interesting because their collaboration appears to bring together a series of elements that come from rather different places and have seemingly different intentions, but they came together with a bang, partly because both of them were genuinely interested in observation and both of them were wonderfully good at extracting fiction from observation. 

But where, in my view, Sendak takes the here and now tradition to the next level and raises it to the all the time and everywhere is in The Sign on Rosie's Door, based on a particular girl by the name of Rosie in real life too, whom he watched for sketchbooks and sketchbooks over a period of a couple of years.  

Rosie sketches, froma Brooklyn sketchbook, 1947. Pen and ink line.
Scanned from The Art of Maurice Sendak. Selma G. Lanes. 
Dummy of In Rosie's Backyard, which would eventually become
The Sign on Rosie's Door, Rosenbach Museum. 


[READING OF THE SIGN ON ROSIE'S DOOR]

 

I quote Sendak on Rosie: I was twenty and she was ten.[...] I was out of a job, out of sorts and money, and (worse) had to live at home with my parents, wthout a clue as to what to do next. Rosue occupied both hand and head during that long, languishing time and filled my notebook with ideas that later foun their way into every one of my books. 

Rosie was a fierce child who impressed me with her ability to imagine herself into being anything she wanted to be, anywhere in or out of the world. She literally forced her fantasies on her more stolid, less driven friends, and the tremendous energy she put into these dream games probably activated my own creativity. 

These easrly, unprecise, wvery sketches are filled with a happy vitality that was nowhere elese in my life at the time. They add up to the first rough delineation of the child al my future characters would be modeled on. I loved Rosie. She knew how to get through a day. 

There is Rosie, the living thread, the connecting link between me in my window and the outside over there. 


I did finally, get outside over there. I did a Rosie and wrote my own [book].” 

[From Caldecott & Co. Really Rosie, Page 179]

Isn't it a beautiful thing that a child's fictional play might be contagious for an adult creator of fiction? I like this.  

Watching from his window, Sendak also learnt a lot about children's play. And about the relationship between children's fictional play and the construction of literary fiction in terms of the relationship between different levels of reality. 

He watches the kids playing without feeling watched. Fiction in children's play. 'You be so and so and I'll be so and so', yes, but also 'I am so and so' and 'this really did happen' withouth the need for any subsequent explanation that it was a fabrication, a lie, an invention. Fiction in children's play is not separate from reality. It blends into it. Children are generally not particularly interested in unveiling 'the truth', or they are not necessarily concerned. The truth can spoil the flow, behave like a bull in a china shop, burst the balloon or simply be uninteresting and irrelevant. The truth. So what? 

I am interested in Sendak's windows, in fiction and play and the relationship between them both. Observation with literary purpose. How rare a thing it is in much of children's literature. It is not necessarily that Sendak watched with a literary creation in mind. He was perhaps not particularly aware of the purpose to begin with, What he was was genuinely interested. It's more of a literary gaze, an attitude than a literary strategy Of course you can train your literary gaze. But I'm convinced it only works if there is a real interest there.  

I also think of Sendak's representation of childhood, of the place from which he relates childhood and I find it very remarkable how Sendak tells everything from children's here and now, from children's reality to then extrapolate wherever he wants. 

One of the things that most interests me about Sendak is that in his work reality and fantasy are never two entirely separate realities. The line between the two is absolutely permeable. They touch, blend and mingle to a point where it is sometimes difficult to tell one from the other, but it is not so much a question of not being able to tell them apart, it's more a question of it not mattering. Just like with kids at play. I like this. 

I think that often in children's literature where fictional play between children or fictional play tout court there is a tendency to propose as the final 'surprise' the revelation of reality. It wasn't what it seemed! It was something else! It wasn't what we thought it was! But often the child prefers us to keep telling them the story or for them to continue the story in their own mind. The truth in this sense is overrated, even in fiction within fiction. 

To end with, I want to tell you a fantastic anecdote told by Sendak in the 2003 May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Descent into Limbo (minute 56:34 to 1:03:29)  

"I'm obsessed with childhood and no good for anything else," admits Sendak before introducing his story about the real Rosie: "I want to relate some anecdotes concerning children which have permanently coloured my view of human nature."
"This is a story about Rosie. Rosie was this kid in Brooklyn, who became prototypical. She was everything I ever did. [...] It was 1943. I studied Rosie for about a year, 43 to 44. During the War, my brother was missing in the Philippines. Those were the darkest days of the Holocaust, and the only way I could survive was to take a bench, put it by the window and stare at Rosie, who was just right in front of me ... and she performed in the street. She seemed completely oblivious of me, which was good. And she would come down every day, and she would be all dressed up, and she would have this gigantic yellow hat, and a big feather, and a short of scruffy, fuzzy, fluffy shawl, stole or scarf, and a red dress, a long red dress with her feet sticking out. And I would just watch. I filled about maybe 14 to 20 large sketchpads: what Rosie said, what Rosie did, how Rosie looked, all the other kids in the street, what happened between them. A lot of it I did use later. Anyway, this one particular incident, it was a very hot day, and her job, she knew that, was to keep the whole thing going, cause the rest of the group were a bunch of lumpy, moribund kids, and they both adored and hated her because they knew she had that something, and when she gave it to them, an imaginary story or whatever, they adored her. If she failed, they hated her. ... And she took her job very seriously. And to watch her start, to watch her get the engine going... And there was this day, it was very hot, in June, hanging on the stoop, and she was there with her brother, Pudgy, who was much younger than her, was her football and best friend. And she sat there, and said, after a long silence, (it had to begin soon), and she said: "Did you hear who died?" Well, everybody looked up. Best line in the world. I looked up. As well as I knew her, I fell for it all the time. And they looked up: "Who?". She said: "Grandma, my grandmother died. In the dawn. And Pudgy pushes her and says: "Grandma..:" and she says "Shut up". And he knew his place. And here's what happened. And it was full of details that I could recognise and she was so clever an artist that she had thought of every possible detail to enrich and make real this totally bizarre fantasy. So I looked out of the window, I lived in a four family house and Rosie lived in a one family house. And on the top floor, in the attic part of the house her grandmother lived. She was a very corpulent, coarse woman. And what she did and what my mother did and what other women did is you had to hang the pillows out of the window and then you had this straw thing and you bashed them, and the dust goes flying. Everybody did it. What happened on this dawn is Rosie heard the swatting and wondered why was her grandmother doing it so early, and her room and Pudgy's room were just under the attic apartment, and she heard this creaking and this groaning and this gasping and and this huge woman fell. She heard this crash. And Pudgy woke up and said "What do you think...?" and Rosie said "Shhhh. Don't wake Mamma and Pappa. They'll just get nervous." So by herself, she went up the stairs, and there was Grandma, struggling to breathe, dying. And Rosie, knowing what to do, because she'd seen all these Irene Dunne and Bette Davis movies, jumped on top of her grandmother, punched her in the chest and then when it didn't look too good, or her grandma didn't look too good, she leaned over and gave her the big kiss of life. She had to do it three times. To no avail. Grandma was dead. She sushed Pudgy up. She went to the phone. And she called the place where dead people go. And the place where dead people go came, and the first thing they did was put a chicken on her toe, so she would be identifiable in the dead place. And then they took her away. (And the kids said: "Nobody heard? Did nobody..?" "Nobody heard. I did not want to upset my parents"). And the dead people wagon came and they were taking her away and towards the end of the story... you have to imagine these kids were glued, as was I... her Grandma comes walking up the street. Two big, heavy shopping bags, wearing  heavy slippers, and sort of sloppering over, terrifying woman, terrifying. She spoke only Italian and she sounded like she was cursing everything in the world. And when she got to the stoop, she glared and all the kids parted like the red sea, they all just went like that. And she went schlumping up the stairs, gave a black look to Rosie and something with her teeth and her thumb, like she was saying, or I interpreted like that, when you get upstairs, you'll get killed! She slams the door, chumping up the stairs, and all the kids crowd in again and one of them says: "Rosie, tell us how your Grandma died". 
[For those who asked whether Sendak ever saw Rosie again, the anecdote Sendak relates right after this one, told with no less spark, is about how he actually found the real Rosie again, as a middle aged woman, many years later. (Descent into Limbo min 1:03:30 to 1:11:03). It really is worth listening to it too.]  

The grandmother's arrival breaks the magic of what is being told. It unveils it as a lie. But fiction is more powerful, more interesting than reality and one must never let reality spoil a good story.

I generally find children literature does not often portray child's play (I find this somewhat surprising and I am aware that some of you may pop up will a whole list of fantastic examples - please do!-). Generally, portrayals are limited to baby's playing, but representation of pretend play of older kids is less frequent. I wonder why? That's what they do all day!

“Children", said Sendak in a conversation with Virginia Haviland [Caldecott & Co., page 1974]" do live in fantasy and reality [...]. They have a cool sense of the logic of illogic, and they shift very easily from one sphere to another. Fantasy is the core of all writing for children, as I think it is for the writing of any book, for any creative act, perhaps for the act of living.”.

We ended with a reading of Outside Over There first in English and then in Spanish, in my own translation, soon to be coming out with Kalandraka, under the title Al otro lado. Kalandraka is also publishing it in Portuguese, Catalan, Basque and Galician at the same time. 

Here is is a reading in English: 



When I get a moment I'll update this post with a few missing references and with the few but great questions we talked about after the presentation. For now, though. Here it goes!

I really enjoyed it. Thank you all for coming. 


References (to be updated and completed): 
Sendak, Maurice. Caldecott & Co. Notes on Books and Pictures. Michael di Capua Books, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988. 
—. Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life. 1967. New York: HarperCollins, 1979.
—. Kenny’s Window. 1956. New York: HarperCollins, 1984.
—. Outside Over There. New York: HarperCollins, 1981.
—. The Sign on Rosie’s Door. 1960. New York: HarperCollins, 1988.
“Descent Into Limbo.”  May Hill Arbuthnot Lecture, MIT, April 2003.
Krauss, Ruth. A Hole Is to Dig. Pictures by Maurice Sendak. 1952. New York: HarperTrophy (HarperCollins), 1989.
Lanes, Selma G. The Art of Maurice Sendak. 1980. New York: Abradale Press/Harry N. Abrams, 1993.
Marcus, Leonard S., editor. Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work. New York: Abrams, 2013.
Maguire, Gregory. Making Mischief. A Maurice Sendak Appreciation. William Morrow, Harper Collins, 2009. 

(c) of all the illustrations in this post, Maurice Sendak's Estate.  
(c) of the text, Ellen Duthie. You may copy this or reproduce it, but please be nice and credit the author and the site.



Many Happy Returns, Where the Wild Things Are!

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The Sign on Rosie's Door: "I'm the biggest red firecracker in the whole world and here I go! BOOMM-BOOMM-aWHISHHHH!

The Sign on Rosie's Door. Story and pictures by Maurice Sendak.
Harper, 1960.

To listen to the way we read The Sign on Rosie's Door, click here:


The other day we watched for the umpteenth time, but the first in a while, the wonderful little film Really Rosie, written and directed by Maurice Sendak, with music by Carole King and broadcast for the first time by CBS in 1975: 


The film is based on the book that is the subject of this post, The Sign on Rosie's Door, and on the four little books contained in the Nutshell Library (1962). Rosie is the prima donna of the show, giving each of the others an "audition" (each of the numbers is based on one of the books of the Nutshell Library) to determine whether they are good enough to act in her film. 

Watching Really Rosie, I remembered something I had thought the first time we read The Sign on Rosie's Door, which was how marvellously well Sendak portrays relationships between kids, specifically power relations of children at play, on the one hand, and on the other, the harmony and tension between fiction and reality in relationships among children and between children and adults.  

I also thought of how uncommon it is to see portraits of children playing with other children in picture books today, and even how relatively uncommon it is to find picture books showing interesting and significant relationships between children. I was speaking about this with a bunch of kidslit friends, and we had rather a lot of trouble coming up with examples. In fact, when I asked what picture books they could think of about children playing, all of them, without exception thought of The Sign on Rosie's Door without me saying anything beforehand and then, racking our brains a bit more, we all thought, also without prompting, of Stian Hole's Garmann books. (Conceded, I have children's literature-y friends who have similar influences and interests to mine, but I thought it was funny that we had such a hard time coming up with many other names).

The other thing that caught my attention was the part where the kids play choking to death, as naturally as they'd play anything else. And I thought, that's what's missing from most children's literature! This is the kind of thing nobody dares do! Kids playing matter-of-factly at such 'awful' things with no consequence, no moral lesson to be drawn. A faithful portrait of kids when they play freely: they are irreverent, they are subversive rogues and they have a whale of a time being just so. What is more important, they are perfectly able to distinguish play from reality. So go on then! There is nothing wrong with playing at choking on a chicken bone stuck in your throat and dying as a group with your friends. It can even be rather fun, as we can see in this drawing done as a study for the film:



Rosie explains to Kathy that she's really Alinda. 
But I'll get on with it, after this rather long introduction. The Sign on Rosie's Door is a costumbrista portrait of a child's Brooklyn in the late 50s. It s also a wonderful, faithful, 'harsh' and fun portrait of play and relationships among children. It has a wonderful opening:
"There was a sign on Rosie's door. It read, "If you want to know a secret, knock three times". Kathy knocked three times and Rosie opened the door. "Hello, Kathy". "Hello, Rosie. What's the secret?" "I'm not Rosie any more," said Rosie. "That's the secret." "Then who are you?" asked Kathy. "I'm Alinda, the lovely lady singer." "Oh," said Kathy.  

What follows is typical make-believe children's play, where Rosie pretends to be Alinda and is determined to offer a show for all her fans.

On the left, Rosie/Alinda tells Kathy she can be one of her dancers.
On the right, Sal, Pudgy and Dolly wait patiently for the stars of the show to appear. 



To start with, everything seems to be going well, but soon another member of the gang, Lenny, interrupts with a fireman's outfit and offers them all a chance to go and put out fires with him.

"Can I play too?," he asked. "We're not playing," Alinda shouted.  


















There's a bit of a power struggle between Lenny and Rosie until it gets really late and they all have to go home.
"I caught it, it's mine" shouted Rosie. "Hooray for me!"

























Rosie/Alinda is left all alone and she quietly sings the song she had wanted to sing before her audience from beginning to end.
Before singing, Rosie/Alinda introduces herself in a whisper.
"Ladies and Gentlemen..."



















The following day starts off with scenes of all the children's houses, starting by Rosie's, where all the kids are complaining there's nothing to do.  

There was nothing to do. "I have nothing to do, Mama," said Rosie.
"Well, do something," her mother said.  






They eventually all end up at Rosie's place, where another game awaits them. This time they'll all have to sit still and quiet and wait for Magic Man to arrive. He will tell them what they can do. They sit still and quiet for a long time, until Dolly announced it's late and she has to go home. "Me too", says Pudgy. Before they all leave, they agree to meet again on the following day, in the same place, at the same time.
"I guess Magic Man isn't coming today," said Kathy.
"I guess not," said Alinda. 























That evening, whent heir mothers asked them what they had done all afternoon, they said they had done so much there wasn't even enough time to do it in and they were going to do it all over again tomorrow. "Good!,", all their mothers said.  

A typical evening in Brooklyn in the late 1950s.  


The following day is the Fourth of July. Rosie wakes up and asks her mother for a firecracker, which her mother denies her. And here's one of my favourite dialogues in the book: 

"They are dangerous and I do not want my little girl to get hurt." 
"I'm not your little girl," said Rosie. "I'm a big girl and everybody else has firecrackers."
"I don't believe that," her mother said. 
Rosie didn't say a word. 
"Play with your cat Buttermilk," said her mother. "That would be much nicer." 
"I don't believe that," said Rosie.  

And so the time comes to go and wait for Magic Man again. They all turned up.

















They whispered and waited still, with their eyes closed. Lenny comes all dressed up as a cowboy, but they persuade him too to sit and wait with his eyes closed. And then they hear Alinda say:

"Hello, Magic Man -Oh, how nice- thank you so much. 
"Good-by, and please give my regards to your wife."

They remain quiet until one of them asks if they can open their eyes. "Did he wear a cowboy hat?", asks Lenny. And a mask? And wings? And earmuffs? They were all keen to know more. Alinda confirms all their questions and they all agree that if he wore all those things, it must have indeed been Magic Man.




















But what did the Magic Man tell Alinda she could do? "He told me that I could be a big red firecracker!" Alinda tells them. "And he told me that all of you could be little silver firecrackers".

And boom! boom! boom! the party gets started:

Sal stood on his head and said, "I didn't go off yet"







BOOMM! BOOMM-BOOMM-aWHISHHHH!



























At this age, you may be forbidden to have a firecracker, but nobody can stop you from being one! And they all went home as exhausted as happy, straight to bed:
In a little while her mother went up to see if they were asleep. She opened the door
and saw Buttermilk in bed with the blanket pulled up to his chin and Rosie curled up
on the rug. "Rosie!", she said. "Shhh!", said Rosie."Buttermilk is asleep." "Why are
you on the floor, dear?", her mother whispered. "Because I'm a sleepy cat", answered
Rosie. "¡Oh!, said her mother, and she tiptoed out of the room. "Good night", she
whispered as she closed the door. "Meow", answered Rosie. 
























Reading The Sign on Rosie's Door out loud
The Sign on Rosie's Door is written as a narrated play. It is almost all dialogue (a natural, elastic, living dialogue that shows what an ear and what powers of observation Sendak had). Reading it, therefore, has to be rather theatrical. In our case it's also quite physical, with the movements of the clumsy Arabian dancer, the diva body language of the lovely lady singer Alinda, the BOOMS and the WHISHHHES of the firecrackers and their jumping and landing.

It is a story with a fair amount of text (somewhere between a picture book and a short novel for children). It takes approxiately 15 minutes to read, but because there is so much dialogue, it never drags, even for very young children. We have been reading it to our son since he was three and he loved it from the word go.

The Sign on Rosie's Door also contains wonderful whispering, sudden shouting, lots of voices and plenty of play. It's a real please both to read it out loud and to listed to it being read out loud.

What we like about The Sign on Rosie's Door
There are so many things we like about this book that it is difficult to know where to start.

My son sees himself very clearly reflected in these children. Some kids play make-believe more than others (my son in particular spends around three quarters of his day being anyone but himself and roping his parents in on the act too), and this book is particularly attractive for kids who enjoy imaginative play. But not only for them. It is a book that portrays the dynamics of play among children like no other book I know and children catch on to the authenticity of the portrait and are rather grateful for it.

My son loves looking at the little parallel goings on in the images. He likes to look at the way Alinda glares at Lenny when he interrupts her, how Sal and Pudgy look at each other as if they hated each other when they are playing not talking to each other.

I love the way the book portrays the power relations among children, the decision making process involved in what game to play, how the bossy organiser of the game causes fascination and irritation in equal measure, but ultimately an acceptance of the fact that she is rather good at what she does. I like the way it portrays children's pain as bi-directional: Rosie bosses others about and denies others the right to join in the game, but she also cries, singing her song alone. My son does a lot of smiling out of experiential recognition when we read this book.

Like much of Sendak's work, The Sign on Rosie's Door is about how children survive in their daily lives: in this case, how they survive boredom, how they make do with what they have and how they are not at all bad at doing it, if left to their own devices.

To go back to the start of this post, and of what crossed my mind while watching the fantastic Really Rosie film, based on The Sign on Rosie's Door and on the four books contained in The Nutshell Library, I'd like to summarise my thoughts:  

1. Sendak portrays relationships between kids better than anyone. Specifically, power relations of children at play, on the one hand, and on the other, the harmony and tension between fiction and reality in relationships among children and between children and adults.  

2. How important it is to know how to observe! This is not meant as an invitation to picture-book authors to run and get a pen and take down everything their charming children/nieces or nephews say and then turn it into a picture book. (Although it isn't a bad thing for them to spend time with kids, watching and listening). But it is essential to learn how to observe, to know what to extract from what you observe and then to know how to recreate it, of course, with the same artfulness Rosie used in order to make her fantasies credible to her audience and Sendak used to heighten the reality he observed so that it would continue to seem real once it had been passed onto paper.  

3. Why are there so few picture books that portray children playing with other children, and show interesting and significant relationships among children? More examples welcome in the comments to this post.  

4. Where are the scenes of kids playing choking to death on chicken bones in current picture books?

One last thing about the book. I love the dialogue, which makes you feel you are spying on a group of kids without them seeing you.

The anecdote
And this ties in with the last part of this review: The Sign on Rosie's Door is based on a Real Rosie from the Brooklyn neighbourhood Sendak grew up in. Sendak would spend his hours looking out of the window, watching, drawing the kids at play and writing down some of what they said.  

Maurice Sendak himself tells the anecdote in the 2003 May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Descent into Limbo (minute 56:34 to 1:03:29)  

"I'm obsessed with childhood and no good for anything else," admits Sendak before introducing his story about the real Rosie: "I want to relate some anecdotes concerning children which have permanently coloured my view of human nature."
"This is a story about Rosie. Rosie was this kid in Brooklyn, who became prototypical. She was everything I ever did. [...] It was 1943. I studied Rosie for about a year, 43 to 44. During the War, my brother was missing in the Philippines. Those were the darkest days of the Holocaust, and the only way I could survive was to take a bench, put it by the window and stare at Rosie, who was just right in front of me ... and she performed in the street. She seemed completely oblivious of me, which was good. And she would come down every day, and she would be all dressed up, and she would have this gigantic yellow hat, and a big feather, and a short of scruffy, fuzzy, fluffy shawl, stole or scarf, and a red dress, a long red dress with her feet sticking out. And I would just watch. I filled about maybe 14 to 20 large sketchpads: what Rosie said, what Rosie did, how Rosie looked, all the other kids in the street, what happened between them. A lot of it I did use later. Anyway, this one particular incident, it was a very hot day, and her job, she knew that, was to keep the whole thing going, cause the rest of the group were a bunch of lumpy, moribund kids, and they both adored and hated her because they knew she had that something, and when she gave it to them, an imaginary story or whatever, they adored her. If she failed, they hated her. ... And she took her job very seriously. And to watch her start, to watch her get the engine going... And there was this day, it was very hot, in June, hanging on the stoop, and she was there with her brother, Pudgy, who was much younger than her, was her football and best friend. And she sat there, and said, after a long silence, (it had to begin soon), and she said: "Did you hear who died?" Well, everybody looked up. Best line in the world. I looked up. As well as I knew her, I fell for it all the time. And they looked up: "Who?". She said: "Grandma, my grandmother died. In the dawn. And Pudgy pushes her and says: "Grandma..:" and she says "Shut up". And he knew his place. And here's what happened. And it was full of details that I could recognise and she was so clever an artist that she had thought of every possible detail to enrich and make real this totally bizarre fantasy. So I looked out of the window, I lived in a four family house and Rosie lived in a one family house. And on the top floor, in the attic part of the house her grandmother lived. She was a very corpulent, coarse woman. And what she did and what my mother did and what other women did is you had to hang the pillows out of the window and then you had this straw thing and you bashed them, and the dust goes flying. Everybody did it. What happened on this dawn is Rosie heard the swatting and wondered why was her grandmother doing it so early, and her room and Pudgy's room were just under the attic apartment, and she heard this creaking and this groaning and this gasping and and this huge woman fell. She heard this crash. And Pudgy woke up and said "What do you think...?" and Rosie said "Shhhh. Don't wake Mamma and Pappa. They'll just get nervous." So by herself, she went up the stairs, and there was Grandma, struggling to breathe, dying. And Rosie, knowing what to do, because she'd seen all these Irene Dunne and Bette Davis movies, jumped on top of her grandmother, punched her in the chest and then when it didn't look too good, or her grandma didn't look too good, she leaned over and gave her the big kiss of life. She had to do it three times. To no avail. Grandma was dead. She sushed Pudgy up. She went to the phone. And she called the place where dead people go. And the place where dead people go came, and the first thing they did was put a chicken on her toe, so she would be identifiable in the dead place. And then they took her away. (And the kids said: "Nobody heard? Did nobody..?" "Nobody heard. I did not want to upset my parents"). And the dead people wagon came and they were taking her away and towards the end of the story... you have to imagine these kids were glued, as was I... her Grandma comes walking up the street. Two big, heavy shopping bags, wearing  heavy slippers, and sort of sloppering over, terrifying woman, terrifying. She spoke only Italian and she sounded like she was cursing everything in the world. And when she got to the stoop, she glared and all the kids parted like the red sea, they all just went like that. And she went schlumping up the stairs, gave a black look to Rosie and something with her teeth and her thumb, like she was saying, or I interpreted like that, when you get upstairs, you'll get killed! She slams the door, chumping up the stairs, and all the kids crowd in again and one of them says: "Rosie, tell us how your Grandma died". 
The second anecdote Sendak relates right after this one, told with no less spark, is about how he actually found the real Rosie again, as a middle aged woman, many years later. (Descent into Limbo min 1:03:30 to 1:11:03). It really is worth listening to it too.  

A final gift

Dummy of In Rosie's Backyard, which would eventually become
The Sign on Rosie's Door, Rosenbach Museum. 




















(c) of all the illustrations in this post, Maurice Sendak, 1960. 
(c) of the text, Ellen Duthie. You may copy this or reproduce it, but please be nice and credit the author and the site. 

Many Happy Returns, Where the Wild Things Are!