December 22, 2011


Bumble-Ardy. By Maurice Sendak. Michael di Capua/HarperCollins. $17.95.

Every Thing On It. By Shel Silverstein. Harper. $19.99.

     The sheer joy of watching a master at work, of seeing and reading something created with apparent effortlessness by someone so thoroughly versed in his craft that words and pictures seem almost to flow in and of themselves, is one of the great pleasures of books like these. They may not be masterworks, but they are clearly works by two masters – and masterfully done. Bumble-Ardy is a sort of Where the Wild Things Are with pigs, and is the first book written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak since 1981. Sendak, who is now 83, has lost none of his way with words – or, more importantly here, with pictures. The story is about the pig of the book’s title, who went through eight birthdays with no parties because “his immediate family frowned on fun.” Then things changed: “But when Bumble was eight/ (Oh, pig knuckled fate!)/ His immediate family gorged and gained weight./ And got ate.” So Bumble is adopted by Aunt Adeline, who has no problem at all with a birthday party for Bumble, age nine. But Aunt Adeline’s sweetness is not enough for Bumble, who decides to ask “some grubby swine/ To come for birthday cake and brine” while his aunt is out of the house. And the swine – looking as bizarre in their way as the Wild Things – come in costumes, with masks and bonnets and multilingual good wishes and banners and strange gifts and a huge thirst for Aunt Adeline’s “home-brewed brine.” The party quickly gets odder and odder, with few or no words on the pages showing all the strange goings-on – the whole thing looks like an Alice in Wonderland scene, or rather several scenes. But then Aunt Adeline comes home and finds “a mob of swilling swine,” and she begins “to shriek and shake and whine,” and throws all the miscreants out. “Okay Smarty you’ve had your party! But never again!” says the furious aunt. And the tearful Bumble replies, “I promise! I swear! I won’t ever turn ten!” But who could stay mad at birthday-deprived Bumble? Not Aunt Adeline, at least not for long; and everything ends happily in a book whose words will be absorbed quickly by young readers, but whose wonderful illustrations will have them returning again and again to pick out more and more of Sendak’s amazing detail and offbeat humor.

     Offbeat humor was also the stock in trade of Shel Silverstein (1930-1999), but Silverstein’s words and illustrations were generally equal attractions in his work. Every Thing On It is a collection of never-before-published Silverstein gems, including an illustrated title poem explaining and showing what could happen if you were to order a hot dog “with everything on it.” The sly Silverstein humor is everywhere here, as in “The Lovetobutcants,” which starts: “I have a disease called/ The ‘lovetobutcants’ –/ I think it’s time I told it./ I’d love to help with that garbage can/ But my fingers just can’t hold it./ Hand me a bag of groceries and/ My wrists just turn to jelly./ Cuttin’ grass and hedges/ Gives me flutters of the belly.” There are also several appearances of pelicans. In “The Ball Game,” we meet one who “yawned/ And swallowed the ball by mistake.” In “The Romance,” one marries an elephant. In “Love Is Grand But…” Miz’ Pelican carries the narrator everywhere, but drops him when she spies a fish, because “‘Love is grand,/ But lunch, my dear, is lunch.’” There are plenty of other animals here, too. One of the most amusing illustrations is for “The Scientist and the Hippopotamus,” in which the former is attempting to swallow the latter – whole. Animals tend to get the better of people in these poems. For example, in “A Mouse in the House,” Uncle Ben manages to destroy his entire house while searching for the small rodent; and in “How Hungry Is Polly?” the little girl says she could eat a horse, leading “Ol’ Dobbin, grazin’ nearby” to explain all the things he has done for people and to remark that he is so hungry, he could eat a child. An occasional poem hits genuinely serious and thoughtful themes, such as “The Clock Man,” which is worth quoting in full: “‘How much will you pay for an extra day?’/ The clock man asked the child./ ‘Not one penny,’ the answer came,/ ‘For my days are as many as smiles.’/ ‘How much will you pay for an extra day?’/ He asked when the child was grown./ ‘Maybe a dollar or maybe less,/ For I’ve plenty of days of my own.’/ ‘How much will you pay for an extra day?’/ He asked when the time came to die./ ‘All of the pearls in all of the seas,/ And all of the stars in the sky.’” This is one of the remarkable things about Silverstein: he inserts nuggets of genuine wisdom into poetry whose simplicity belies its substance. Of course, he does not do this too often – he is equally adept at making fun of scientific research, in a poem called “Investigating” in which Professor Shore is described (and seen in the accompanying illustration) looking up toward an elephant’s rear while trying to figure out how its tail is attached. The result is predictable, but left to the reader’s imagination. And that – imagination – is what Silverstein had to such a wonderful degree, and what Sendak still has; and that is why these books deserve more than praise – they deserve to become much-loved, much-read parts of family libraries, now and for years to come.

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