Fuse #8

Friday, March 10, 2006

Review of the Day: Bears

Anyone who watches The Colbert Report on Comedy Central knows that when it comes to host Stephen Colbert, there's one animal that inspires an incredible amount of fear. The number one threat on the threatdown? Bears. I only hope that Stephen never has to face this wild horrific animal ("First they'll come after our picnic baskets. Then our children") in the form of Maurice Sendak's re-illustrated Ruth Krauss classic. So far the Amazon.com reviews of the book have been fair to niggling. I went a little crazy with this particular review by actually including a footnote at the end. I've never seen an Amazon review include one but unless there's some wacky anti-footnote claus in the Amazon reviewer contract, I think I'm within my rights. Besides, what could be goofier than a children's book review on Amazon.com with a footnote. Hilarity!

Trust Maurice Sendak to remain mischievous well into his old age. When somebody somewhere proposed that he reillustrate Ruth Krauss's classic and bizarre 1948 title, "Bears", he could have done so without so much as a whimper. Instead, right on the title page, one of the first things you see is a bear hanging by a noose. BANG! Parents who are going to be shocked are shocked and parents who are pretty well aware that kids don't detect any difference between nooses and plain old ropes are nonplussed. The wheat has been separated from the chaff from the very beginning and by the time you've gotten to page 3 you know that you are deep into Sendak's brain without any turning back. "Bears" wasn't without controversy when it first came out, of course. In his book, "Dear Genius"* author Leonard S. Marcus points out that, "Some critics found this picture book, with its nonnarrative, singsong text...bewilderingly offbeat and insubstantial". Now Sendak's given it a narrative and it stars one of his best-known creations. Bizarre, funny, and overwhelmingly bearable (ho ho), the book is sure to be beloved by some and abhorred by others.

It's Max! The hero from "Where the Wild Things Are", is back and he's going to bed. Only thing is, as he goes to retire with his faithful dog at his side he sees that somebody (the grinning pup seems a likely culprit) has hung Max's favorite teddy from the ceiling. Max rescues his toy and is just snuggling down to sleep with it (as a jealous man's-best-friend looks on) when the dog finds he cannot take it anymore and runs off with Max's stuffed bear. What ensues is a chase as Max pursues his dog, stumbling all the while past odd bear-related scenes and images. He runs past them "On the stairs", and "Under chairs". With each two-page spread, Max tries to get closer to his dog and stuffed bear, all the while avoiding the very real bears that trundle around them. By the end, Max has successfully snatched back his stuffed animal but who gets to snuggle up to him in the bed? One very happy puppy.

The book has received numerous accolades with this new production. The New York Public Library, for example, decided that it deserved to be added to The Anne Carroll Moore Collection (the closest thing that library system has to a best book of the year award). The book itself is an interesting look at later Sendak. He's grown far more comfortable with a cartoonish style in his old age. There are plenty of speech bubbles and exclamations popping up all throughout the text. I know that Sendak has always been a great fan of "Little Nemo" so maybe this is his unofficial tribute to the great man (aside from the more obvious tribute, "In the Night Kitchen"). The illustrations to "Bears" are also a little sloppy but are by no means poorly done. Some artists (like William Steig, for example) come into an entirely new style as they age. Here Sendak employs thick black lines and broad details. His bears are sometimes (often, actually) threatening, sometimes unhappy, sometimes joyous, and always interesting to watch.

Of course, you can't go about reviewing a re-illustrated book if you haven't gone about finding the original title (with original pictures) as well. Originally illustrated by Phyllis Rowand, the 1948 production of "Bears" is an exercise in child-friendly surrealism. For example, the page that talks about "Millionaires" shows a group of bears, all different sizes, in top hats, smoking cigars, and swimming in luxurious pools (top hats still firmly in place). "Everywheres", by contrast, is a raucous weirdo conglomeration of images. Perhaps my favorite non sequitor is the mailbox which, for no particular reason, is addressed to the "Wallace Boatyard / Sound Boats, East Norwalk, Conn". Sendak's images, in contrast, are a bit less lighthearted. The two-page spread of "Giving Stares" is of threatening and frightened bears glaring at one another as Max relentlessly pursues his pup. "Collecting Fares", interestingly, is rather similar to Rowand's image. If Sendak were a young man I'm not so certain that a train would be the first thing that comes to mind with those words(let alone a train with the porters in uniform). Both illustrators also thought that "Stepping in squares" referred to sidewalk squares. Where Sendak exceeds Rowand without question is the spread of "Millionaires". Oh he goes all out on this one! There is a bear in a top hat smoking a cigar, yes. But there are also bears in furs, one who bears some resemblance to Josef von Sternberg, one in a turban, and multiple small bears with crowns and fawning features. Each bear-related portion of the book is full of zest and life and a kind of crackling energy. Not bad for a fellow who started in this genre in the 50s.

In "Dear Genius", the great children's book editor Ursula Nordstrom had this to say about the discovery of "Bears". "I remember one day Ruth Krauss brought in 5 manuscripts and had me read them while she sat by my desk and stared at me. I didn't like 4 of them but the 5th was the text of Bears (on half a piece of typewriter paper) and I went into hysterics and took it on the spot `I think you are insane,' Ruth said coldly. And a good thing too". Yup. A very good thing. I seriously doubt an author could walk into a publisher's house today with the same words and come up with a book that has half the originality and plumb gall of "Bears". And I doubt any illustrator would apply the same kind of manic glee that Sendak has shown here. It's a testament to the power of the picture books and capacity children have towards being amazed. It's not for everyone, but for those who get it, it's an exercise in absurd enjoyment.

* Marcus, Leonard S. (1993). Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. New York: Harper Collins pgs. 64 & 280.

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