Review of the Day: Mommy?
In the April 17, 2006 edition of “The New Yorker”, there was a remarkable article by Cynthia Zarin on Maurice Sendak. In the article was a whole host of interesting information regarding Sendak’s past, literary achievements, and current untouchable status as an icon. At one point, Sendak discusses the character of Max from “Where the Wild Things Are”. He says of his character, “My God, Max would be what now, forty-eight? He's still unmarried, he’s living in Brooklyn. He’s a computer maven. He’s totally ungifted. He wears a wolf suit when he’s at home with his mother!” Later, Zarin touches a little too close to the subject of the author’s parents. “If I had a real mother and she made me happy, and a real father who made me happy, I would be working in the computer store with Max”, he points out. Now, I don’t like to come off as a person who reads too much into a cute l’il ole pop-up book, but it seems to me as if a thorough reading of, “Mommy?”, could only be helped by knowing the above information. This is probably the most interesting, most elaborate, and most enjoyable Sendak creation to hit the market in years. It deserves a bit o' critique.
A small boy in blue footie pajamas, sporting a red cap on his head, bursts through the front door of a magnificently haunted castle. Our intrepid hero offers a quizzical, “Mommy?” on every page before defeating a variety of different movie monsters in wholly original ways. Right off the bat he stumbles past Doctor Frankenstein before popping a pacifier into a spooky Nosferatu lookalike. No Frankenstein’s monster fears he. It’s amazing what the removal of those bolts around his neck can accomplish. Whether he’s unraveling a mummy or causing the Wolfman to drop trou, the kid has everything well in hand. Finally all our villains are out for a spectacular double spread. The little boy gives a final “Mommy?” at a door and behold! The Bride of Frankenstein appears with a resounding, “Baby!”, to set everything ah-right.
It seems only natural that our greatest living picture book artist should join with one of the greatest living pop-up book artists (one Mr. Matthew Reinhart) to create something together. What I doubt anyone could have predicted was that that “something” would turn out to be “Mommy?”. Oh sweet heaven above it’s weird. Weird and wonderful. I don’t think I’m the only person in the world who takes a perverse pleasure in watching a certain breed of parent freak out while their kids take great delight in “inappropriate” children’s fare. First of all, I’d just like to point out that The Bride of Frankenstein is undoubtedly the sexiest Sendak female the man has ever drawn. This is an odd thing to say, but I feel it really needs to be pointed out. She’s a cutie. The reason this book works, first and foremost, is because our hero never shows anything resembling fear at these various beasties. At one point he looked vaguely pissed off at The Mummy, but he soon has a handle on the situation.
Both the art and the pop-ups are stronger for the rare Sendak/Reinhart partnership. Getting to work with the great man himself, Reinhart seems to have gone all out with this one. As with all his other book, he’s designed the title so that you have to open a smaller pop-up section within the larger two-page spreads. But while this was always an option in his past books (“Encyclopedia Prehistorica Dinosaurs”, for example) here it becomes a requirement. The story only moves along if you open the small pop-up within the larger pop-up. At the same time, Reinhart is doing all kinds of neat tricks that you wouldn’t think would necessarily work. Open one little pop-up and a picture’s eyes move. Open another and the little boy is unraveling the mummy. This is nothing short of amazing, by the way. It involves string, a spinning plastic centerpiece, and who knows what-all. I’ve been spinning the mummy back and forth for about an hour now and I’m still not bored with it (nor, for that matter, has it broken yet). The Wolfman frowns as his picture is opened up. The Bride stands up and her head looks down. This is madness. Pure remarkable gorgeous madness. Also, has anyone else noticed that Sendak’s art here looks as if he’s grown thirty or forty-some years younger? When he reillustrated Ruth Krauss’s, “Bears” it was clearly Sendakian but broad and loose. “Mommy?”, in contrast, looks as if it could have been made at the same time as “In the Night Kitchen”, for all its details and delicate linework (to say nothing of subtext).
I was admittedly a little confused by the role Arthur Yorinks chose to play in this book. The credit he receives is the uniquely unhelpful designation of “Scenario By”. The book is not particularly forthcoming on the subject, so it helped that I discovered the following: "In 1994, Yorinks wrote and directed a play entitled It's Alive! for the Night Kitchen theater company (founded by him and Sendak), the plot of which became the storyline of Mommy? 'About six years ago,' Yorinks recalls, 'I got to thinking about how Maurice had painted a beautiful backdrop for It's Alive! and had not only done drawings of the costumes, but he had actually drawn the characters in the costumes. Looking at them, I realized that we actually had at least half a book already. So I went to Michael di Capua, and suggested we do something with all of this." Voila. Instant pop-up book.
This isn’t the only classic movie monster title for the young ‘uns to be coming out in time for the Halloween season, of course. Adam Rex’s, “Frankenstein Made a Sandwich” is also well-worth reviewing, should you be in need of some monster-related poetry. But “Mommy?”, is wonderful. I wonder which uptight parent will try to ban it from a library first. Children will absolutely adore this book, by the way. It’s just the teensiest bit frightening, so the ones who want to feel brave will be able to do so. At the same time, they’ll feel safe in identifying with the plucky kid who foils a monster at every turn. In the New Yorker article mentioned above, a prevalent theme in Sendak’s work is declared to be, “always about a child in danger whose best defense is imagination." Editor Michael di Capua says in reference to this title, “Maurice reinvented what a children’s book is: it’s a book." It is. And this is the book to beat out all the rest. Take a gander at it if you’ve a chance. Just make sure you place a pillow at our feet when you do so. I don’t want any injuries to occur when your jaw takes a header for the floor. Beautiful, psychologically twisted, kid-friendly stuff.