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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 first chapter of 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: 

Part 1:

Part 2: 

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:

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.

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.

There's a bit of a power struggle between Lenny and Rosie until it gets really late and they all have to go home.

Rosie/Alinda is left all alone and she quietly sings the song she had wanted to sing before her audience from beginning to end.

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.

That evening, when their 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:


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!

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