Friday, February 10, 2012

From the Child's Shelf: Sendak's No Bumbler

Sendak, Maurice. Bumble-Ardy. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.

Maurice Sendak's new book Bumble-ardy is the story of a pig celebrating his first birthday party, which is his ninth birthday. The backstory, which is told in preface, is that Bumble-ardy's family "frowned on fun", which explains his lack of birthdays hitherto, and his parents were recently killed. Although his parents were butchered, the fact that humans would have been the ones to murder them isn't emphasized. And so, all readers of the book are immediately set up as the antagonists to this world. 

The story begins with Bumble-ardy moving in with his aunt and his decision, against her wishes and knowledge, to throw himself a birthday party. A masquerade party. The party lasts most of the book as the animals, dressed as humans, drink "brine", dance, and celebrate the life of Bumble-ardy--and, as such, life itself. But it's a strange dance to celebrate an equally strange life. Without surprise, as it is with any celebration of life comes life's comrade-in-the-wings: death. 

When any talk of controversy or irritability about Bumble-ardy rears, it's typically in regards to the presence of death (although, a cursory glance at the GoodReads page for the book suggests that adult readers are equally irritable due to Bumble-ardy not being Where The Wild Things Are). 

However, death is not a focus of the story, is never central to any page, stands in the background, and only becomes apparent on subsequent reads. Perhaps it is death's representation as natural and part of the scene that causes some readers to focus and dwell on it, and in dwelling, become concerned that their children are dwelling in the same ways. Perhaps if readers view death as unnatural and something to be feared, heckled, ignored, repressed, and otherwise stricken from reality, then Bumble-ardy works as a counter to those notions. 

Bumble-ardy is a fine addition to the growing canon of children's literature. The style of the illustrations ranges between realism (in how Bumble-ardy and his aunt and friends are depicted) and the grotesque (in how the costumed animals are depicted when they attend the masquerade). Thus, because Bumble-ardy's birthday masquerade is the dominant focus of the story, the majority of the illustrations are styled in purposely crude renderings. 

Foldout of one of the masquerade scenes from Bumble-ardy. In this one it is less clear whether
the skeleton is a costume worn by a pig or a guest that slipped in as guests do when everyone's in
This is an especially poignant decision on the part of Sendak because it is when the pigs mimic humans that the drawings become grotesque--the pigs' imaginings of human life and their play-acting it. After all, the pigs' world is the reality of this book, and the humans' world is not the reality--adult humans are the murderers and antagonists.  And the swine children, in subverting power take on the masks of how they perceive that power to look and behave (little differently than human children behave behind the backs of authority figures who have abused their power). That the masquerade has a dark element running throughout it is true, but perhaps it is not the background presence of death that causes it but in how the pigs act when they pretend to be more powerful (what chaos they reflect).   

In terms of calling the figures at the masquerade grotesques, it seems useful to note that the drawings at these points are much closer to the hand of the child artist--and so, likely, children will recognize their own renderings of the world in Sendak's and, thus, find a comrade in the world of adults. In a way, Sendak is replying to the child reader's own drawings, no doubt tucked away under his or her mattress or in a desk at school.  

(It is little wonder that some adult readers do not like these drawings, but again, the book isn't for them. Here I'm reminded of an anecdote from my sister-in-law in which she had to have a child's drawing printed on T-shirts for her son's class of third-graders and when she went to pick up the T-shirt she found that the business owner had "fixed" the child's drawing and printed the "improved"--adult--rendering on the T-shirts. Needless to say, the shirts had to be reprinted with the correct, child's drawing. And, then, there's the children's literature equivalent of the narrator of The Little Prince joking with his readers about how silly people can be about drawings.)

When Bumble-ardy's aunt comes home to find her house overflowing with swine and brine, she threatens to slice everybody into ham if they don't scram. Here she is not threatening cannibalism as some casual readers have suggested but murder. In fact, since the pigs' predator is the human, Bumble-ardy's aunt is at her worst when she treats Bumble-ardy and his friends as a human would treat them: unreasonable animals undifferentiated by any action, thought, or word--as a mass for mass slaughter.  And she holds the human's tool: the cleaver.

But the book can resist this read as well, for it's unclear whether or not humans actually exist in the world Bumble-ardy lives in.  Just as humans have masquerades in which they don costumes of mythical creatures, so too might Bumble-ardy and friends be costumed as the mythical human.  After all, no human presents him or herself in the book outside of being a costume and there does seem to be a hierarchy of class in Bumble-ardy's world in that not all the swine walk upright and not all the swine are in costume but are used more like a servant class (being used, for example, like a footrest for another pig to stand on).  In this way, Bumble's parents could have been killed by other hogs, and the closest resemblance to those sorts of hogs that we get is in the actions of the outraged then suddenly calm aunt.

Her extreme and sudden outrage upsets Bumble-ardy enough that he wishes aloud to stop time, a sort of Peter-Pannish refusal to age.  But whereas Peter Pan's refusal to age results in an impish, somewhat endearing child-man, Bumble-ardy's refusal has an immediate deep tenor to it, one that contains the wish and impossibility, just as any birthday is both a celebration of life and an acknowledgement of moving one year closer to death.

As soon as Bumble-ardy matches her emotional level by expressing his sorrow in terms of halting life ("I won't ever turn ten"), his aunt undergoes an equally extreme and sudden mood change and decides he's her valentine. They hug and kiss and the book ends with Sendak asking the reader "Ain't that fine?"; however, this time when Sendak asks "Ain't that fine?" readers are left to decide if it was, and what "that"  refers to. 

It's an ingenious move because the book ends in the way many simplistic children's books do: tying everything up in a neat bow, but Sendak is simultaneously asking the reader about that bow--what to think about it. After all, is everything really fine when an aunt can nearly simultaneously move into a murderous rage and then into a swarm of affection and triviality? 

In all, Bumble-ardy is a welcome addition to the few but important shelves of excellent children's literature. Like the best toys that don't require batteries to operate, the book requires no adult to operate. The illustrations are complex and will hold a child's interest on his or her own. 

The book is written for a child audience and not an adult one, which is one of the reasons it resists adult control of the narrative (this is not a Richard Scarry book where adults are plainly lead to read a word and point at the object and have their children mimic these motions). In addition to the main lyrical narrative, pictures are embedded with text (like the writing on the birthday cards), but the story isn't lost by not being able to read embedded text or by skipping it and returning on subsequent reads.

The book's pages are slightly thick but likely not thick enough to endure an early toddler's curiosity, though there's nothing wrong with torn and taped pages. 

The age range can go into adulthood, of course, but likely will top out at a ten-year old or eleven-year old--or any age of child who is still not totally sold on adults and their version of the way the world works.  

A good book, this one.