April 12, 2018
(++++) THE NOT-SO-WILD THINGS
Night Out. By Daniel Miyares. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
It is almost impossible to overestimate the influence that Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are has had in the more than half century since it was published in 1963. Again and again, other authors of children’s books – and some authors of adult books, too – have used Sendak’s dream-fantasy of an overly rambunctious young boy who becomes king of huge, toothy but distinctly unthreatening monsters as a jumping-off point for imaginary journeys of their own. When an author does this with care and sensitivity, as Daniel Miyares does in Night Out, the result can be as delightful and striking in its own way as Sendak’s original book was in its time – if perhaps not quite as groundbreaking.
The framing story for Night Out actually occurs outside the pages of the story proper – a very neat touch. What happens is shown on the inside front cover pages and the inside back ones: the front ones show empty chairs at a communal meal table, and the back ones show the chairs occupied by young boys, only one of whom has a visible face; he sits in the middle of the group, looking out from the picture. The two-page illustration just after the title page fills in a bit more of the story – still without a single word. The empty chairs from the inside front cover pages are now occupied, but the boy who is face-forward at the book’s very end is seen here sitting very far from everyone else, eating all by himself, his expression downcast.
How do we get from the glum front-of-book scenes to the upbeat back-of-book one? That is where the Sendak influence comes in. Using spare text and delightfully surreal drawings, Miyares shows the boy, tired but still awake in his bed at the end of a row of beds in which the other boys are all sleeping. He looks slightly disconsolate, and the two words on the page, “All alone,” immediately capture his feeling. But he is not quite alone, since there is a fishbowl on a chair next to his bed, and a small turtle is just finding a way to climb out of it. And suddenly, looking at the bowl, the boy sees an envelope resting next to it. “An invitation?” asks Miyares’ text. Oh, yes – “the honor of your presence is requested.” That is all the card in the envelope says, but it is enough to get the boy out of bed as the full moon shines brightly outside his window. Soon he himself goes out the window, and “a journey begins” as the boy rides his bike – from what is apparently a boarding school, through the woods, to a very deep ravine above which a small footbridge stretches. Then it is over the bridge and to the edge of a body of water in which “a friend,” his turtle, swims toward him. But this is his turtle made gigantic, coming to shore only long enough for the boy to climb on his back for a journey to a cave where a chair looking exactly like the one by the boy’s bed and the ones by the dinner table stands ready for the boy – offered to him by a motley collection of animals: full-size bear, oversize owl, really big bunny, and a goose and a fox, all welcoming the boy to a tea party that is less Sendak than it is Lewis Carroll.
After tea, sandwiches, cookies and cake, it is time for “a song,” with the boy dancing as the animals play instruments – fox on banjo, owl on flute, bear on washboard, rabbit on harmonica, and goose on tambourine, as the giant turtle claps along. And then it is time for a ride back to shore, back to the bike, back to the boarding school, with the boy sleepily climbing in through the window as the now-small-again turtle climbs back into his fishbowl. And then? Well, then it is time for “a story to share,” which the boy does as five other boys listen attentively, apparently enthralled. And that explains why, at the book’s very end, the formerly lonely boy is eating right in the middle of the group, now sporting a satisfied smile. Sweetly offering its message of inclusion, Night Out is a delightful bedtime story for ages 4-8 as well as a lovely tribute to the thoughts and sensibilities of Sendak’s justly famous, somewhat wilder and more boisterous story of more than five decades ago.