Archive for Sergio Ruzzier

Ruth Krauss, Sergio Ruzzier, and… the Beatles?

For the first time in 32 years, there is a new book by Ruth Krauss!  Roar Like a Dandelion, with art from Sergio Ruzzier, was published on the first of the month.  Krauss began writing the book in around 1960, just after she began to focus more on writing poetry or poem-plays and less on writing children’s books. The poetic ear she had once turned to children’s speech, she now turned towards the broader world. One result was avant-garde poetry and poem-plays, and another was… this book!


For more on how the book came to be, check out the latest episode of Jennifer Laughran’s Literaticast podcast! (I, Sergio Ruzzier, and Harper editor Nancy Inteli are all guests on this episode. Here’s the iTunes link — show will appear on Apple Podcasts site later today.)


But wait. How do the Beatles enter into this?

Moments after we finished recording the podcast, I realized something.  The book’s working title — Running Jumping ABC — is likely an allusion to Richard Lester’s 11-minute absurdist film, Running Jumping & Standing Still (1959, starring Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan).

I suspect Krauss is alluding to Running Jumping & Standing Still for many reasons, one of which is that another working title — The Running Jumping Shouting ABC — includes a third term, and thus more closely parallels the three items in Lester’s film title. More importantly, Krauss’s poem-plays and poems explore comparably absurdist juxtapositions. At least some of the avant-garde writers and artists she was hanging out with from 1959 (when she became a poetry student of Kenneth Koch‘s) on would have known Lester’s film. I’m thinking here of New York school poets Koch and Frank O’Hara, Fluxus pioneers Dick Higgins and George Brecht, filmmakers Willard Maas and Marie Menken,* and choreographer-artist Remy Charlip. She might also have encountered the film on her own: Running Jumping & Standing Still gained sufficient acclaim to receive an Academy Award nomination that year (it did not win).

And this is where the Beatles come in.  They so admired Running Jumping & Standing Still that they asked its director to direct their A Hard Day’s Night (1964) — which he did, and which, in turn, popularized Lester’s visual grammar. (Ever seen an episode of The Monkees?)

Whether or not Roar Like a Dandelion and Hard Day’s Night share a common ancestor, both works have a slightly surrealist sense of humor — curious juxtapositions and nonsensical improvisations that produce the smiles (or laughs).  When Krauss writes, “Jump like a raindrop,” I think of Ringo jumping in A Hard Day’s Night.  Or “Butt like a billy-goat,” to which Ruzzier has added a tiny billy goat head-butting a much larger rhino — head-butting the rhino in the butt, of course. The visual pun puts me in mind of the many linguistic (and a few visual) puns in A Hard Day’s Night.

So, that’s the heretofore unexplored connection between Ruth Krauss, Sergio Ruzzier, and the Beatles.** In the spirit of the mashups in Krauss’s The Cantilever Rainbow and in the (mostly) Lennon compositions “I Am the Walrus” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Revolution No. 9” (which takes this idea to its extreme), here’s a little Krauss-Lennon-Ruzzier-McCartney mashup I’ve made for you:

Crow like a rooster, make the sun come up.

And of course Henry the Horse dances the waltz!

Eat all the locks off the doors.

Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain where rocking-horse people eat marshmallow pies.

Go like a road.

Help yourself to a bit of what is all around you.***

And check out Roar Like a Dandelion. It’s classic Krauss with a Ruzzier twist!


* Willard Maas (1906-1971) and Marie Mencken (1909-1970) inspired the characters of George and Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962).

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)** Or it’s one connection. If we wanted to pursue this further, we might note that Krauss was also one degree of separation from John Lennon. She and her husband Crockett Johnson were friends with cartoonist Mischa Richter and his son Daniel Richter. Dan lived and worked with Lennon and Yoko Ono from 1969 to 1973. For that matter, Krauss and Ono both hung out with the Fluxus group — though Ono was an active group member (inasmuch as Fluxus had “members”) and slightly earlier than Krauss. So, I cannot verify that they ever met. Nor can I verify that Krauss and Andy Warhol (who was also a friend of Lennon’s) ever met, though they have more potential points of intersection. Both Krauss and Warhol attended the parties given by Willard Maas and Marie Menken — parties that were, as I note in my biography of Krauss and Johnson, a who’s who of the culturally influential. Warhol also published four of Krauss’s poems in Instransit: The Andy Warhol Gerard Malanga Monster issue (1968), which featured work by Lou Reed, John Cale, Nico, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara (who had died two years earlier), Allen Ginsberg, Phil Ochs, John Hollander, James Merrill, May Swenson, Charles Bukowski, and Warhol himself. An intriguing connection, I think! Make of it what you will.

*** Sources for C, E, G: Roar Like a Dandelion. Source for D: “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” Source for F: “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Source for H: “Martha, My Dear.”

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27 Words + 18 Watercolor Pictures + 2 Mice = 1 Great Book

Sergio Ruzzier, Two Mice (2015): coverSergio Ruzzier’s Two Mice (Clarion, 2015) exemplifies the elegant efficiency of the picture book. Illustrate just the right moments in the narrative, add a few well-placed words, and you can create an engaging, imaginatively rich story.

Well, I say you. But, most likely, you can’t. Most of us can’t. I certainly can’t. Remarkably, Sergio Ruzzier can. He makes it all look effortless, too.

As Maurice Sendak once observed, a picture book most resembles a poem (Caldecott & Co. 186). Like the poem, the picture book is a compact form, requiring precision, and careful management of all its many parts — artistic style, color palette, layout, design, typeface, diction, pacing,… all of it. As if this weren’t challenging enough, Ruzzier has limited himself to twenty-seven words, created a concept book that also tells a story, and repeated the same numeric pattern —1-2-3, 3-2-1 — precisely four times.

In its precise balance of words and pictures, Two Mice’s narrative unfolds with perfect economy. Before the title page, Ruzzier shows us “One house” — a cozy cottage. On the title-page spread are “TWO MICE” in their beds; the white one is asleep, and the spotted one is just getting out of bed. Their light green bedroom is far more spacious than the house’s outside view (from the previous page) suggested it might be. On the right-hand page, a small mouse hole in the baseboard offers a wink at the common but unacknowledged paradox of those anthropomorphic animals who populate so many children’s stories. (If these mice are stand-ins for people, then what are their mice?) The next page depicts “Three cookies”: in a warm yellow kitchen, both mice are seated at a light blue table. The mouse who rose first is eating two of the cookies; the mouse who rose second has only one cookie, and looks on grumpily at his (or her) housemate.

Sergio Ruzzier, Two Mice (2015): Three cookies.

Initiating the descending numeric pattern, the next two-page spread also launches the mice’s adventure, as they arrive at a dock where there are “Three boats” and “Two oars.” Like Remy Charlip’s Fortunately (1964), Two Mice follows a “reversal of fortune” narrative, in which nearly every two-page spread revises the expectations of the previous two-page spread. The promise of adventure, suggested by the un-spotted mouse, as he (or she) gestures towards the three boats, instead yields — on the next two-page spread — an unfair distribution of labor. There is “One rower”: the spotted mouse rows, while his (her) un-spotted housemate rests. As the story progresses, the narrative intrigue increases. I don’t want to spoil the surprises, but I will divulge that two more of the book’s twenty-four nouns are “shipwreck” and “escape.”

Two Mice is a brief master class in the picture book form, an engaging narrative, an elementary counting book, and a pleasure to read and re-read. So. Read it to the young people in your lives. Or, to borrow Ruzzier’s idiom…

One reader.

Two children.

Three cheers!

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