Jose Aruego (1932-2012)

Maurice Sendak, Ellen Levine, Jean Craighead George, Leo Dillon, and now Jose Aruego.  It’s been an all-too-mortal year for children’s books.  Mr. Aruego died on August 9, his 80th birthday.

I never met Mr. Aruego, but he did kindly grant Julia Mickenberg and me permission to use his illustrations for Charlotte Pomerantz’s The Day They Parachuted Cats on Borneo (1971) in Tales for Little Rebels (2008).  For all such permission requests, I included a self-addressed stamped envelope to facilitate the reply.  He returned the envelope, embellished with his own beautiful script rendition of my name.

Jose Aruego, envelope addressed to Philip Nel, 2005

It seemed as if, even though this was a mundane request, he was going to respond with his full attention.  Next to his signature, he added — in beautiful tiny script, on a post-it note — a request for a copy of the book, once published.

Jose Aruego, postscript to Philip Nel, 2005

His biography is a fascinating one.  As we note in Tales for Little Rebels, he grew up in Manilla where, at school, he sat next to and befriended Benigno Aquino — the Philippine leader assassinated (decades later) for opposing Ferdinand Marcos.  Though as a young man Aruego trained to practice law, he lost the sole case he tried, leaving the profession after a mere three months.

Aruego’s heart wasn’t in the law.  It was in art.  Inspired by his childhood love of comic books, he decided to study art in New York City, because he thought of it as the comic-book capital of the world.  In the late 1950s, he enrolled at the Parsons School of Design, studying with Leo Lionni — the artist about to gain fame in the children’s book world for Little Blue and Little Yellow (1959), Swimmy (1963), Frederick (1967), and many others.

Robert Kraus and Jose Aruego, Leo the Late Bloomer (1971)After graduating, Aruego worked for ad agencies, sold cartoons (New YorkerSaturday Evening PostLook), and eventually decided on pursuing free-lance illustration full-time.  He married and later divorced artist Ariane Dewey: they co-illustrated over forty-five books together, both before and after the dissolution of their marriage.  He also illustrated over a dozen by Robert Kraus, including Whose Mouse Are You? (1970) and Leo the Late Bloomer (1971).

A bit of a late bloomer himself, Aruego created many great children’s books during his over fifty years as an artist.  He’s a great example of a person who followed his own path, and, in so doing, found his true talent.  Rest in peace, Mr. Aruego.  Thanks for leaving us all the gift of your sensitive, detailed, warm, amusing art.

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Stayin’ Alive

Yield to bicycle (sign)While riding my bike last Tuesday morning, a car hit me.  It was 7:45 am, I was cycling uphill and due west.  A car coming due east — blinded by the sun, the driver later told me — took a left turn and hit my bicycle on its (and my) left side.  Fortunately, neither of us were moving quickly.  She had slowed for her turn, and I can’t go as fast up a hill.  It’s also fortunate that I was standing up on the pedals.  I don’t know precisely what happened at the moment of impact.  I remember thinking: “Oh, #@$!! I can’t believe this car is going to hit me!” Next, I was getting up off the pavement, left knee bloody and right knee bruised.  My bicycle lay to my left, wheels and crankshaft bent, and left pedal broken.  I say it’s fortunate that I was standing up because I deduce that the car must have knocked me off my bike — when standing up, pedaling, less body is intertwined with bike than would be in the sitting-down-pedaling position. Thus, I found myself getting up off the pavement, and not from under bike or car.  More importantly, my bicycle absorbed the impact of the car.  My body’s (minimal) injuries derived from the pavement more than the car.

After realizing that I was only a little scraped and bruised, and (alas) cursing at the driver (whose remorse quickly shamed me into apologizing for my rudeness), my next thought was: “Hey, I should be able to exercise again in a couple of days!  Excellent!”  (And I was able to.)  It took an hour or so for “Hey, I’m really lucky to be alive!” to sink in.

I mention this because, in reading Jesse Goldberg’s “Injuries and my fears of aging,” I realize my primary response to aging has been to exercise more and with greater regularity.  In my 40s, I exercise more than I did in my 30s; in my 30s, I exercised more than I did in my 20s. Why? The older you get, the harder it is to start exercising again.  I know that, if I were to stop, I would quickly lose a lot of ground.  As a cross-country runner in high school, I could take the summer off and, within a week, get back into shape.  I can’t do that now.

To be clear, I was not and have never been a great athlete: I got a varsity letter in cross-country my senior year only because I kept showing up (I never once placed in a varsity race). But, as an adult, if I exercise regularly, I feel healthier, I can do my job better, and I sleep better — well, inasmuch as a neurotic person like myself ever sleeps better (I have a hard time “turning off” at the end of the day.  Too much on my mind). The “life of the mind” — writing, teaching, research, service — isn’t designed for one’s health. We spend far too much time sitting at a computer, in meetings, in archives, at conferences, and on planes.  We spend far too much time sitting. One can even sit while teaching, although I generally do not.

Though keeping in shape allows me to function in the ways that I did when I was younger, it also doesn’t.  As I age, my body becomes more prone to injury.  My “exercise more!” response to aging also requires me to pay greater attention to my body.  For the last year, I’ve been seeing a chiropractor regularly, and — since my mid-30s — have had to go to physical therapy for the occasional injury.  I’ve had to adjust the way I run (calf-muscle troubles), and adjust the way I sit at the computer (neck troubles).  Before bed each night, I am now obliged to go through a sequence of stretches so that my body can continue to function as I would like it to.

Unlike Mr. Goldberg, I do not fear aging. I fear Alzheimer’s. I fear living in a permanent vegetative state. And, yes, I’m not looking forward to death. I’ve always liked Woody Allen’s line: “It’s not that I’m afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”  But aging itself?  As long as I have my health (or most of it), aging is fine. To paraphrase the cliché, aging is far better than the alternative.

In addition to leaving me very happily not-dead, the car inflicted no lasting damage. The driver kindly took me to the emergency room, where medical professionals examined me, treated the open wound, made sure I was OK.  Since then, my left knee has scabbed over nicely, and skin is growing back. The bruised muscle above my right knee (lower thigh muscle, really) is nearly 100%, and the post-accident muscle stiffness has receded.  The driver’s insurance paid for the damage to my bicycle, and Pathfinder (great local bike shop) has already repaired the bike. This was, without question, the best possible outcome of a car striking a bicycle.  I’m very fortunate.  (In sum: do not worry.  I am fine.)

In any case, this post is less about the accident and more about my (ultimately futile) attempts to slow the inevitable decline and fall of my body.  It’s about fighting aging via exercise.  I know will eventually lose this fight, but it’s a battle worth waging.

(And, yes, this blog will return to its more typical — i.e., not autobiographical — posts very soon.)


But first,… a few thematically related songs.

Abdominal‘s “Pedal Pusher” (2007) may be the greatest bicycling song ever.  Love this.

For another great exercising song, let’s turn to Darrow Fletcher‘s funky gem from 1977, “Improve.”

Since I took the post’s title from their song, let’s give a listen to the Brothers Gibb (two of whom are no longer staying alive, I’m sorry to say).  Here’s “Stayin’ Alive,” which was also released in 1977.

What’s that you say?  You’ve never heard the heavy-metal cover of “Stayin’ Alive”?  We’ll have to fix that now.  Here’s… Tragedy!

Wyclef Jean also did a great tribute / cover in “We Trying to Stay Alive” (1997) — which in the video, also has a nice homage to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.”

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That’s Life

Eric Maddern & Paul Hess, Death in a NutMaurice Sendak, Leo Dillon, Ellen Levine, Jean Craighead George, Peter D. Sieruta.  During this past month, children’s literature has become a relentless parade of death.  Or so it seems.

This feeling could just be a function of age. The older we get, the more deaths we witness. The older we get, the more these deaths remind us of our own mortality. Indeed, the longer we live, our sole certainty is the deaths of many more people we know.

Perhaps deaths of writers-for-children hit us with more force because we do not associate childhood with death, even though children die every day — from malnutrition, disease, violence, toxins, abuse, neglect. Or perhaps their deaths strike us so powerfully because children’s writers are a link to our own half-remembered childhoods, and the naïve certainty that we need not worry about death because it will surely spare those we love. In this sense, the death of a favorite childhood author can be like the death of a parent. It is not the same experience, of course, but does instill a sense of loss and bring a reminder that our own journeys through time will end abruptly.

Mostly, though, I think Philip Pullman is right. We live most of our lives denying our own deaths, keeping a safe distance from the fact that life is temporary.  When, in The Amber Spyglass, Will and Lyra enter the first town of the dead, a man named Peter explains, “everyone has a death. It goes everywhere with ’em, all their life long, right close by”: “the moment you’re born, your death comes into the world with you, and it’s your death that takes you out” (260).  This is news to Lyra and Will, who soon learn that they need their deaths to guide them to the land of the dead. As a grandmother’s death tells them, “I have heard of people like you, who keep their deaths at bay. You don’t like them, and out of courtesy they stay out of sight. But they’re not far off. Whenever you turn your head, your deaths dodge behind you. They can hide in a teacup. Or in a dewdrop. Or in a breath of wind” (264).  He (as is true of dæmons in the novel, death tends to be a different sex from its person) says that he and “old Magda… live together in kindness and friendship,” and advises Lyra and Will that his approach is better: “That’s the answer, that’s it, that’s what you’ve got to do, say welcome, make friends, be kind, invite your deaths to come close to you” (264).

As we move into June (and if other friends, relatives, and people we admire manage to retain their health), maybe we’ll resume ignoring death. For a little while, anyway. Or perhaps we’ll consider the possibility of making friends with our mortality. Come what may, we’ll certainly keep turning to children’s books — for comfort, hard truths, escape, wisdom, pleasure, mourning, faith, love. Literature sustains us. Art sustains us.

In Wolf Erlbruch’s Duck, Death and the Tulip (2011), Duck befriends death.  At the very end of the book, she dies. Death carries her to the river, and, placing a tulip on her chest, “laid her gently on the water and nudged her on her way.”

penultimate 2-page spread from Wolf Erlbruch's Duck, Death and the Tulip

The book concludes:

For a long time he watched her.

When she was lost to sight, he was almost a little moved.

“But that’s life,” thought Death.

 


A few good picture books about death:

  • John Burningham, Granpa (1984)
  • Tomie de Paola, Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs (1973)
  • Wolf Erlbruch, Duck, Death and the Tulip (2011), Catherine Chidgey’s translation of Ente, Tod und Tulpe (2007)
  • Eric Maddern, Death in a Nut, illustrated by Paul Hess (2005)
  • Mo Willems, City Dog, Country Frog, illustrated by Jon J. Muth (2010)

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Tributes to Maurice Sendak: Visual Artists Respond

Fitting that the passing of an artist should inspire so much art.  Here are a few tributes to Maurice Sendak that I’ve enjoyed. (I’ve assembled links to prose tributes at the bottom of my reminiscence of Maurice; The Comics Journal has its own page of mostly prose tributes, too.)


Pat Bagley

Pat Bagley, tribute to Maurice Sendak

This is easily my favorite, and the one that I think Sendak himself would most have enjoyed. Pat Bagley dos a great job in representing Sendak’s un-sentimental approach to death. Sendak often spoke of his own mortality, and accepted the inevitable with a dark sense of humor.


Hanna Freiderichs (a.k.a. AgarthanGuide)

Avengers on Parade (RIP Maurice Sendak) by AgarthanGuide
Under her Deviant Art pseudonym ArgathanGuide, Hanna Friederichs has created Avengers in a Sendakian parade.  You can find it on her Deviant Art page and Tumblr.  The image calls to mind Sendak’s many parades — in Ruth Krauss’s A Hole Is to Dig (1952), and his own Where the Wild Things Are (1963). The above image derives from a less well-known source: his 1961 mural for Larry and Nina Chertoff that now resides in the Rosenbach Museum.

Maurice Sendak, Chertoff Mural (1961)
The photo of Sendak’s mural, above, comes from The History Blog‘s great story about it, which I recommend.

Update, 13 May, 9:30 am: Thanks to Roger Sutton’s post, added Hanna Friederichs’ full name.


Harry Bliss

Harry Bliss, Sendak

Harry Bliss‘s graveside portrait of Babar, Madeline, Curious George, and the Man with the Yellow Hat evokes how everyone in the children’s literature community has felt — artists, scholars, writers, librarians, teachers, editors, agents, all of us.  Losing Maurice Sendak has felt like a death in the family.  As Kenneth Kidd put it, “Could be the select company I keep, but my Facebook newsfeed is a virtual wake.”


Debbie Milbrath

Deb Milbrath, RIP Mr. Sendak

Most artists invoke Where the Wild Things Are (presumably because it’s Sendak’s most recognizable work), but Debbie Milbrath references a more thematically appropriate work: Outside Over There (1981), in which Sendak filters the kidnapping (and accidental murder of) the Lindbergh baby through Mozart’s Magic Flute,  and ends up with a work that offers glimmers of hope through its darkness.


Andy Marlette

Andy Marlette, Where the Wild Things Are

Andy Marlette imagines wild things paying tribute to Maurice Sendak.  There were many such cartoons — I’ve only included a few here.


Jeff Koterba

Jeff Koterba color cartoon for 5/9/2012 "Sendak"

Jeff Koterba makes Sendak into Max, apt since — as Sendak has admitted — Max is a version of Maurice himself.  I suspect Sendak intended an allusion to Wilhelm Busch’s Max und Moritz (1865).


Nate Beeler

Nate Beeler, [RIP Maurice Sendak]

Nate Beeler imagines roaring terrible roars and gnashing terrible teeth — a first response to Maurice Sendak’s passing.  The first stage of grief.


Bob Englehart

Bob Englehart, [Max and wild thing]

 In Bob Englehart‘s image, a wild thing comforts Max.

Sarah McIntyre

Sarah McIntyre, [Max and wild thing]

I like that Sarah McIntyre has drawn the wild thing seeking comfort from Max. The kid is handling it better than the monstrous, giant, wild thing. Sendak always said that children understood much more than adults give them credit for.


Chris Eliopoulos

Chris Eliopoulos, [Max alone]

Understated, lovely.  The creator of Misery Loves Sherman, Chris Eliopoulos has many different websites to visit.


Mark Streeter

Mark Streeter, And the Wild Things Cried

Mark Streeter‘s comic says what Chris Eliopoulos’s implies — but Eliopoulos assumes a knowing reader, and Streeter does not. Strange though it may seem to those of us in children’s literature, there are people who do not know Maurice Sendak’s work.


Stuart Carlson

Stuart Carlson, RIP

Stuart Carlson‘s tribute seems an apt one to end on. First, mourn. Next, hang your teddy bear, threaten the dog, shout at your mother, and board a boat (… to where the wild things are).

More on Sendak from Nine Kinds of Pie (this blog):

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The Most Wild Thing of All: Maurice Sendak, 1928-2012

Maurice Sendak, 2011

But the wild things cried, “Oh, please don’t go—

We’ll eat you up—we love you so!”

And Max said, “No!”

—Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963)

In June 2001, I went to hear Maurice Sendak speak at Yale University. A couple of years earlier, I’d started working on a biography of Crockett Johnson, and I knew they were close. I had written him to see if he would be willing to chat, but, the previous April, he had declined via a letter from his assistant: “Mr. Sendak does not have any useful recollection relating to Ruth and Dave…. He hopes your research yields more valuable results and best wishes!” So, I thought: I need to try again. I’ll go, I’ll ask him during the Q+A period. When that time came, I was very nervous. He’d already turned me down once. What if he gets angry at me for pestering him? But… I plucked up my courage, and asked.

He looked me in the eyes, and after the briefest pause said Yes. I should talk to him after the Q+A. I did. He wrote his home number down in my notebook, and told me to call.  I did.

I remain astonished at his extraordinary generosity toward me, who (at that time) had published a handful of articles and no books… and yet was going to write a biography. Why even give someone like me the time of day?

This is why. Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson — along with their mutual editor, Harper & Brothers’ Ursula Nordstrom — were the most important people in shaping his early career. In the early 1950s, he began visiting their Rowayton Connecticut home on the weekends, while working on Krauss’s books. They were his “weekend parents” who helped shape him into the great artist he would become. He stayed with them many times during the ’50s, illustrating eight of Krauss’s books, starting with the groundbreaking A Hole Is to Dig (1952).

So, he was willing to help me. I phoned, we chatted, and then set up a time for a longer conversation later that evening.  At 9pm on June 22nd, I phoned him.  We talked for the next two hours.  The phone call began like this:

Philip Nel: Let’s hope the tape works.

Maurice Sendak: Oh, you’re taping it?

PN: Yes, if that’s alright with you.

MS: Yes, that’s fine.  You’re going to hear an odd sound now and then which is my putting a colored pencil into my sharpener ’cause I’m going to try and draw as we speak.

PN: OK.

MS: I have to finish a page a day, a layout a day, for the book I’m doing.

PN: What are you doing?

MS: Well, it’s a book based on an opera, an opera that I’m going to produce.  I have a little children’s theatre which I’m getting rid of, but this is our last thing to do.  It’s an opera that was performed in a concentration camp in Prague, there’s a very famous concentration camp called Theresienstadt.  It was actually Emperor Tieresias’ army encampment right outside the city.  During the war, it became a camp, and it was known as Hitler’s favorite camp.  There was a movie made to impress Red Cross and diplomats coming that all that they were hearing about dead Jews, dead gypsies, dead gays was all a lie.  And a film was made showing volleyball and chess and children, part of a children’s opera, some brief moments.  And the true fact is that there was an opera composed in the camp.  A young composer named Hans Krasa and his librettist wrote an opera for the children in the camp.  And the opera is called Brundibar, and it’s one of the only things we have of Mr. Krasa except for a trio and some songs because he was incinerated when he was about 35 along with the librettist and all the children who performed the opera.

PN: Wow.

MS: We now have the rights to the opera — took us a long time to get it — and Tony Kushner, the playwright

PN: Yeah, Angels in America.

MS: Yeah.  Is one of my very most wonderful friends.  I begged him to take the job of translation because the original English translation is horrible.  The Czech is beautiful, but it’s got to be sung in English, so we translated it, and we got people interested in doing it, staging it.  It has been done, but in schools, in community centers.  It’s never had a real production.  And so in order to raise the money for it, we agreed we would do a picture book.  So, Tony extrapolated from the libretto into a very gorgeous complex story — the first time he’s ever done anything like this.  He’s amazing.  He just adapted it, without any fuss or feathers.  Gorgeous, gorgeous funny language.  And I’m doing the picture book because we need the money for the stage production, and Hyperion will pay for a good part of the stage production and the trade is they get the picture book.  And I was very sick for a year and a quarter, and of course I’m terribly late.  So, I’m trying very hard to catch up.

PN: Wow.

MS: And, it’s beautiful, beautiful work — a perfect way for me to wind up, actually.  So that is it.

PN: Wow.  I’ll be fascinated to see that — the book — when it comes out.

MS: Yeah, the book is evolving because Tony keeps rewriting and I keep rethinking, and we swore we would not make it too dark.  It would be the sweet, little Czech peasant opera.

PN: Well, good luck.

MS: It’s hopeless already.  I have Hitler in it, I have Eva Braun in it, I mean I’m just uncontrollable.

PN: It would be difficult to avoid the darkness.

MS: Impossible.  But, really, seriously must to an extent in order to not obscure what these people really set out to do, which was to write a charming piece to amuse the children.  It’s just that history beclouds it so much.  It is difficult to do.  It is difficult.  But it’s also great fun.  I’m having a wonderful time.

PN: I’m fascinated.  I’ll be interested when it comes out to show it to my class.

He asked about my class.  I had just begun teaching Literature for Children at Kansas State University.  “I always wonder how you teach children’s literature,” he said.  I offered to send him a syllabus.

MS: To me, it’s really a great mystery.

PN: Well, I’m new to teaching it.  I’ve taught it only for a year.  So, I’m pretty close to that sense of mystery.

MS: Well, once the mystery settles deep on you, then you’ll know how complex this thing is.  It’s always been considered low man on the totem pole, one page in the New York Times, and it’s all treated like Peter-Pan-ville.

PN: Right.

MS: It’s very tiresome, and it used to irritate me profoundly when I was young and now I just can’t afford the energy that goes to being irritated.

After a little more conversation, he started to tell me about Ursula.  And Ruth.  And Dave. (David was Crockett Johnson’s real first name, and his friends called him “Dave.”)  Maurice was very open, direct, and shared an enormous amount of deeply personal memories with me — tears in his eyes, as he described his visit to Ruth just before she died. I felt like his therapist, mostly listening, asking the occasional question. By the end of the conversation, I felt as if during the course of those two hours we had become old friends. He invited me to visit him in Ridgefield. I accepted.

(I never did manage to get out there, which is something I now very much regret, of course.)

Maurice Sendak became the biography’s third central character.  Dave and Ruth are the two co-stars, but Maurice gets third billing — or would, if the book were a film.  Beyond the decade of the 1950s, when he was collaborating with Ruth and staying with them some weekends, he visited in 1963 when he got stuck working on Where the Wild Things Are.  What should he call the three wordless two-page spreads in which Max and the wild things cavort in the forest?  Dave suggested “rumpus.”  So, just before the wordless pages start, Sendak has Max say, “Let the wild rumpus start!”  Dave and Ruth were so important to Where the Wild Things Are that Sendak has said, “I feel as though Max was born in Rowayton, and that he was the love child of me, Ruth, and Dave.”

Maurice and I collaborated on getting Crockett Johnson’s Magic Beach published in 2005, with an afterword by me and a foreword by him. We kept in touch. Generally, I’d write him a letter, and then a few days later, he’d phone me back. It was always astonishing to pick up the phone and hear Maurice’s voice on the other end. Or to find his voice on your answering machine. I don’t think I ever quite got over the fact that Holy cow, I’m talking with Maurice Sendak.  That, truly, was “the most wild thing of all!”

In the summer of 2008, I sent both him and Nina Stagakis (who knew Johnson and Krauss very well) an early draft of the manuscript up until the mid-1950s. How was I doing? Anything I might improve? Anything missing? As he recuperated from triple bypass surgery, he read what had become a double biography of both Johnson and Krauss.  On September 10th 2008, he left a message on my office phone.  He said he liked it, it was good work, but he had a few questions. Call him back. I did. He was hesitant to criticize, but I wanted to know. So, he offered his critique: “For me, it was me and Ruth.  And, for you, it was you and Dave.”  Ah, I said, so I need to have more Ruth in there.  He said, well, it’s your manuscript and you can do what you like.  I said, no, I want there to be a balance between the two.  He said, it’s “like a missing color from a palette.”

So, after our phone call, I started going back through the manuscript, and creating a map for each chapter that included a one-line summary of each paragraph which I then labeled either “CJ,” “RK” or “CJ-RK.”  I made the same map for all subsequent chapters, too.  This allowed me to see where the book was unbalanced, and to create a balance, trimming “CJ” sections, expanding “RK” sections.

Maurice was a little out of sorts that September night. In addition to being in recovery, he was also in mourning — his partner of 50 years, Dr. Eugene Glynn, had died the year before. And, at the start of our conversation, he alluded to an article about him in that day’s New York Times, which he described as “a very odd interview that’s very frank.” So, he said, “I’m telling you because I may sound odd.” Wondering what he was talking about, I looked it up (on-line) as we spoke. That’s the article where he at last talks openly about his sexuality. The interviewer asks whether there were anything he had never been asked, and Maurice answers, “Well, that I’m gay.” So, I think he may have feeling a little more vulnerable than usual that evening. (I expect that, if I had just told the New York Times a secret I’d been keeping for 80 years, I’d feel vulnerable, too.)

That was the last time we spoke.

He continued to be supportive of the biography, granting permission to use artwork, and sending me a scan of a photo of him in his 20s — I wanted an image of how he looked at the time he met Ruth and Dave. I believe my biography of Johnson and Krauss will mark the photo’s first publication, though I’m not sure.  But this was all done through his assistant, Jennifer.

My sense of his final years was that he was devoting the life he had left to his work and to mentoring other artists. So, though he no longer returned my occasional letters by phoning me, I figured: well, if I were in my 80s, I would also claim as much of my time for myself as I could! And: He’s been so very generous to me. I can’t complain. I could worry about him, though. I did worry about him.  Whenever he talked to the press, he sounded sad. And he’d sounded sad to me, when last we spoke.

I did write him, and thank him for all he’d done. I was planning to write him again, in a few months’ time, sending him a signed copy of the bio. and another thank-you. (Sigh….) Well, at least he got to see page proofs. The publisher sent him those a few months back.

When I heard the news this morning, “No!” was my first reaction. Yes, I knew he was 83, and he’s never been in the best of health. (He was sickly as a child, and had his first heart attack just before he turned 39.) Still, I assumed he’d always be there. I assumed I’d get the chance to write to him again.

But it was time for him to board Max’s boat and sail away.

Farewell, Maurice.  And thank you.

More on Maurice Sendak (last updated 14 July 2012, 10:15 pm Central Time):

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David Bowman, Surrealist & Satirist

David Bowman, Bunny ModernDavid Bowman — the writer, not the character in 2001: A Space Odyssey — died on February 27.  He was 54.  His obituary ran in this past Sunday’s Times.  He and I have had an on-and-off correspondence since the fall of 2000.  Upon reading his obituary, I realized (guiltily) that I’d failed to answer his last email (from November 2011).  It was a brief query, sent without much context.  I’m tempted to say that its pithy, unexpected appearance is representative of his work, but I may be oversimplifying.  He wrote:

Dear Phil,

Do you have kids?

I write to you to inquire about an experience that many children crave:

Being re-read the same story.

Have you ever come across a writer, esp. a child psychologist, who has explained just ‘why’ a child would want to hear the same story over & over?

Much thanks!

yrs. David Bowman, Manhattan

I’m not sure if he was just curious or whether this was for an article he was writing. I know that my delay in responding stemmed from needing to think about the question: had I come across such a piece?  Where would I look to find that information?

My David Bowman email folder has other queries, most of them similarly brief & thought-provoking.  He once said he would send me chapters of a novel-in-progress he was writing.  That never came to pass, but he did send me a description of the planned book — a detective novel told by an ex-KGB Russian defector named Simon Odarchenko who now works for Yoko Ono, cataloguing John Lennon’s thousands of hours of studio tapes.  And he sent me the table of contents for Why Don’t We Do It in The Road?: Encounters with the Notorious & Renown, a book that (as far as I know) was never published.  He also sent occasional verse, and brief observations, such as this one, from a 28 May 2007 email:

A. I am finally reading Proust.

B. Last week a New Yorker named Harvey Weinstein died at age 82. In 1993 Weinstein was kidnapped & kept for 12 days in a “barrel-shaped” pit near the Hudson river. He appears to had a little water & some crackers, but that was it. He had no light.

C. His obituary quotes his son as saying, “Dad said he maintained his composure during those 12 days in the pit by writing what he called the ‘greatest autobiography NEVER written.’ Every day he took a year in his life & recounted it out loud.”

Was Weinstein not the reincarnation of Proust minus the cork-lined walls?

That, I think, is more representative of David Bowman: Insight drawn from absurdity.  Succinct, strange, and true.

We “met” via email, and apart from one or two phone conversations, always communicated via email.  I taught his Bunny Modern (1998), a dystopian satire featuring gun-toting nannies and dwindling fertility rates, in my Fall 2000 “Readings in Contemporary American Novels” class.  He came across my syllabus on the web, and sent me an email:

Dear Prof. Nel,

I am honored to discover that you are including my novel BUNNY MODERN as reading material in one of your English classes. Will students be tested on BUNNY MODERN? Will they have to write papers? If I can do anything to help you present my novel to your students, please let me know.

All the best,

David Bowman

I asked him if we might send him some questions.  He very graciously supplied detailed answers — he was quite expansive, and the email must have taken him a long while to compose.  Also, it was really cool.  Here I was, my first semester on the tenure-track, corresponding with a contemporary novelist.  Wow!

Since I was then a DeLillo scholar, one topic of conversation was DeLillo’s work.  Indeed, prior to The Body Artist‘s publication, he sent me bound galleys c/o “the Mystik Brotherhood of Don DeLillo” at my office address.  I sent him photocopies of the Uncollected Short Fiction of Don DeLillo (some of which were collected last year in The Angel Esmerelda: Nine Stories, but many of which haven’t been collected).

A couple of years later, when I was writing Dr. Seuss: American Icon, I asked him about Bunny Modern‘s dedication to “Dr. Spock, Dr. Seuss, and Jonathan Lethem, M.D.” because I was (and am) interested in how Seuss circulates in popular culture: When people talk about Seuss, what do they mean?  He responded:

As for Dr. Seuss–– I knew that I was going to dedicate the book to Lethem. And I do not know anything about children, so I was referring to baby books––including Dr. Spock. Lethem and I took drugs one night and decided that everything we saw was going to be from Dr. Seuss. Later on, I just thought about the “Dr.” bit––Dr. Spock and Dr. Seuss. Then I decided to dedicate the book to Dr. Spock, Dr. Seuss and Jonathan Lethem MD.

In the book, I connected his response to the tendency to associate Seuss with mind-altering drugs, and then to Seuss’s own many jokes about same (mostly booze, for Seuss).

David Bowman was an original, a unique voice in American letters.  In the Times‘ obituary, Jonathan Lethem wisely cites Nathanael West as Bowman’s closest literary kin.  That’s an apt comparison: both have a fondness for odd juxtapositions and surreal imagery.  I’m sure West influenced Bowman, but what’s striking is how he absorbed and transformed so many very different influences: West, Richard Brautigan, Emily Dickinson, Dashiell Hammett.  That such different people could have such a deep influence on one creative mind is key to what made Bowman’s work so compelling and unusual.

Is that unusualness, then, why the third Bowman novel has yet to arrive?  After Let the Dog Drive (1992) and Bunny Modern (1998), he published a non-fiction title: This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of Talking Heads in the Twentieth Century (2001).  The British title, his preferred title, is even better: Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa: The Adventures of Talking Heads in the Twentieth Century. (His U.S. publisher scotched that idea, fearing it was too absurdist, and thus un-marketable.)  He did a lot of journalism, publishing pieces in Salon, the New York Times, the Village Voice, and elsewhere.  But no other books appeared. Were his book-length works too absurdist for mainstream publishing?  Will they published posthumously?  Also, will there be an archive of his papers?  I’d be glad to donate our email correspondence.  (To whom should one pose these questions?)

To conclude, a brief response to Mr. Bowman’s last email to me.

Dear David,

Apologies for the delay in my reply.  Busy-ness has made me a delinquent correspondent. I’m sorry about that. I’m especially sorry that this reply is so late that I’m sending it when you yourself are “late” — though I expect you’d appreciate the irony.

To answer your question: no, I do not have children. I think child psychology is a place to seek the answer to your query. I also think that childhood studies might be a route to pursue. Is this question for an article or book you’re writing? I’d be glad, on your behalf, to make some queries to friends who work in childhood studies.  Just say the word!

Finally, thanks for our epistolary acquaintance. Your emails arrived in my inbox as welcome bursts of surreality and insight. I’m tempted to ask you whether (as David Byrne sings) the band in Heaven is playing your favorite song, playing it once again, playing it all night long.  But, then, if Byrne is right: “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.”  I’ve never been sure quite what that line means — Heaven as solitude, Heaven as imaginary, or Heaven as boring.  Any hints?

Thanks & godspeed,

Phil

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Eat, drink, and be merry

Maurice Sendak, Bumble-Ardy (2011)

Bumble-Ardy gets adopted by his Aunt Adeline after his “immediate family gorged and gained weight. / And got ate.”  When he throws himself a birthday party without her permission, Aunt Adeline threatens his guests: “Scat, get lost, vamoose, just scram! / Or else I’ll slice you into ham!”  On the next two-page spread, Bumble tells his aunt, “I promise! I swear! I won’t ever turn ten!”  There are other jokes about — and references to — death in Bumble-Ardy.  One reason for this theme may be that Maurice Sendak’s new picture book is a celebration of mortality.  It sings us the “Happy Birthday” song, but changes the lyrics to We’re all gonna die!

Bumble-Ardy is a genuinely jubilant book.  Its thematically death-saturated commemoration of its title character’s ninth birthday is not gloomy.  If it inadvertently evokes the early Christian practice of celebrating deathdays,1 that’s likely because its 83-year-old author understands what its nine-year-old protagonist does not: each birthday brings us one year closer to our death.  As is the case with other Sendak heroes (such as Where the Wild Things Are’s Max, and In the Night Kitchen’s Mickey), Bumble is a version of his creator.  They share a birthday of June 10th — Sendak was born in 1928, and Bumble (according to the book) in 2000.  Reinforcing this connection, Sendak repeats the date four times on the opening three pages, each with a different year.

On the title page, the birthday’s fourth and final appearance is June 10, 2008. That was a significant date and year for Sendak: he turned 80, had a triple-bypass that temporarily left him too weak to work or walk his dog, and mourned the passing of his partner of more than 50 years, Dr. Eugene Glynn.  Though Dr. Glynn died in May of the previous year, in 2008 Sendak spoke publicly about his sexuality for the first time. Asked by the New York Times whether there were anything he had never been asked, Sendak answered, “Well, that I’m gay.”  It’s tempting to see Bumble — as he bursts through the June 2008 calendar on the title page and shouts “Well!” — as an echo of Sendak’s declaration of his own sexual identity.

But biographical interpretations are tricky, and ultimately limiting.  While all artists’ lives influence their works, no work is purely a reflection of its creator’s autobiography.  All art offers indications elsewhere, ideas and themes that cannot be reduced to a life history.  In this book, two pigs carry a banner reading “SOME SWILL PIG,” evoking Charlotte’s “SOME PIG” in E.B. White’s classic novel.  On the page before the title page, Bumble reads the Hogwash Gazette, which announces “WE READ BANNED BOOKS!” — an allusion, perhaps, to In the Night Kitchen’s status as a banned book.  The masquerade party itself seems a more chaotic, more artistically eclectic version of Rosie’s backyard show in The Sign on Rosie’s Door.  (Incidentally, like Lenny in that book, Bumble also wears a cowboy hat.)

At the party, one of Bumble’s guests comes dressed as death — skull mask, skeletal costume beneath a black cloak — but carries a banner wishing Bumble long life.  “MAY BUMBLE LIVE 900 YEARS!” it proclaims.  And that’s the heart of this book.  It knows that death will come later or sooner, but it’s willing to celebrate while it can.


1. Early Christians thought it would be sinful to observe the birth of Christ or of saints, as doing so would continue the pagan practices of the Egyptians and Greeks.  One should instead (they thought) celebrate the day on which a saint ascended to heaven.  Around the 4th century AD, they began to change their mind, paving the way for the celebration of Christmas.  See Charles Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things (1987), p. 33.

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Hey, Kids! Try Some Candy Tobacco!

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco began selling Camel Orbs, Camel Sticks and Camel Strips earlier this year.

“The Orbs look like Tic Tacs, the Sticks look like toothpicks and the Strips look like breath strips,” said Susan Westof, tobacco prevention specialist, with the Jefferson County Public Health Department. …

“The products are packaged in a way that makes them indistinguishable from candy,” said Donna Viverette, the department’s tobacco prevention coordinator. “That’s an issue if they end up in the hands of children.”

— Lance Hernandez, “Health Experts Alarmed By ‘Candy Like’ Tobacco Products: R.J. Reynolds Test Marketing Orbs, Strips, Sticks In Denver,” ABC 7 News, Denver, 24 May 2011.

Kansas is one of three states in which tobacco sticks — products that resemble chocolate-covered toothpicks and are sold in matchbook-sized packages — are being tested

— “KDHE issues ‘tobacco stick’ advisory,” Topeka Capital-Journal, 26 May 2011

I suppose it was inevitable.  To entice children to try their product, cigarette companies have used cartoon characters (Joe Camel) and hip accessories (Marlboro Gear).  Why not take the next logical step and disguise nicotine as candy?  One wonders why they’ve waited so long to do this.

Camel Orbs, Sticks, and StripsR.J.Reynolds company spokesperson alleges that no, of course they wouldn’t market their product to children.  However, these “dissolvables” look and taste like candy — specifically, like chocolate mint.  They come in attractive packages that can be easily hidden in a shirt pocket.  Which, of course, is precisely the idea.  Children can get hooked on these candy-flavored tobacco sticks, and easily conceal the package.  Clever.

And, of course, vital for the industry.  If it hooks a smoker at a young age, then a tobacco company can sell so much more of its product — until, of course, the smoker dies.  But death takes years!  And young people tend to be more susceptible to marketing.  So… tobacco companies have long tried to lure the young user.  It’s good for business.

But disguising nicotine as candy?  Even for an industry not known for any sense of shame, this approach seems particularly brazen.  As Harvard School of Public Health Professor Gregory N. Connolly (the lead researcher on a study of these products) said, “Nicotine is a highly addictive drug, and to make it look like a piece of candy is recklessly playing with the health of children.”

In the same New York Times article from which the above quotation comes, R.J. Reynolds spokesman David Howard says that it’s unfair to single out these candy-like tobacco products for criticism: after all, many households contain products dangerous to children.  Mr. Howard explains, “Virtually every household has products that could be hazardous to children, like cleaning supplies, medicines, health and beauty products, and you compare that to 20 to 25 percent of households that use tobacco products.”  But Dr. Jonathan P. Winickoff, Harvard medical professor, offers a sharp, pithy response to Mr. Howard’s sophistry: “The difference here is that kids potentially will be watching grown-ups ingesting these products. The last time I checked, we don’t have adults drinking toilet bowl cleanser in front of their kids.”

Well, not until R.J. Reynolds finds a way to market a delicious, sweet toilet-bowl-cleanser drink.  And, given the company’s new candy-flavored nicotine, I wouldn’t put anything past them.

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The End: Children’s Authors’ Last Words

Following the deaths this month of Brian Jacques, Janet Schulman, and Margaret K. McElderry, we turn to the last words of those who wrote for the young — Seuss, Dahl, Thurber, Montgomery, Nesbit, Charles M. Schulz, Crockett Johnson, and others.

“Yes. I’m not going to die tomorrow.”

— Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel, 1904-1991)

Donald Sturrock, Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl“Ow, fuck!”

— Roald Dahl (1916-1990)

“Oh, balls!”

— Crockett Johnson (David Johnson Leisk, 1906-1975)

“God bless… God damn.”

— James Thurber (1894-1961)

“It’s gone, Mother! Gone! Gone! Gone!”

— Winsor McCay (1867-1934)

“I love you.”

— Hergé (Georges Remi, 1907-1983)

“This copy is unfinished and never will be. It is in a terrible state because I made it when I had begun to suffer my terrible breakdown of 1940. It must end here. If any publishers wish to publish extracts from it under the terms of my will they must stop here. The tenth volume can never be copied and must not be made public during my lifetime. Parts of it are too terrible and would hurt people. I have lost my mind by spells and I do not dare think what I may do in those spells. May God forgive me and I hope everyone else will forgive me even if they cannot understand. My position is too awful to endure and nobody realizes it. What an end to a life in which I tried always to do my best.”

— L. M. Montgomery (1874-1942)

David Michaelis, Schulz & Peanuts“I have a poem coming with its form nebulous, but its content all arranged and a few really good lines done — it is for when I have (if I ever have) done it. (I have caught the Skipper. The D[octor] has come. I hope I can hold the pencil till the D. has gone. Still got him!)”

— E. Nesbit (1858-1924)

“Keep going, finish your book.”

— Charles M. Schulz (1922-2000)

sources: Judith and Neil Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel: A Biography (Random House, 1995), p. 287; Donald Sturrock, Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl (Simon & Schuster, 2010), p. 561; Philip Nel, The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (University Press of Mississippi, 2012); Neil A. Grauer, Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber (University of Nebraska Press, 1995), p. 143; John Canemaker, Winsor McCay: His Life and Art, revised and expanded edition (Harry N. Abrams, 2005), p. 249; Pierre Assouline, Hergé: The Man Who Created Tintin, trans. Charles Ruas (Oxford University Press, 2009) p. 234; “The End of L. M. Montgomery’s Life,” The Anne of Green Gables and L.M. Montgomery Lexicon <http://www.lmm-anne.net/archives/2008/author/the-end-of-l-m-montgomerys-life.html>, 15 Feb. 2011; Julia Briggs, A Woman of Passion: The Life of E. Nesbit 1858-1924 (New Amsterdam Books, 1987), p. 393; David Michaelis, Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography (HarperCollins, 2007), p. 564.

notes: Not all biographies of children’s writers include last words. There are no last words in Leonard Marcus’s biography of Margaret Wise Brown, Barbara Stoney’s of Enid Blyton, nor Barbara Elleman’s of Virginia Lee Burton. Likewise, I don’t know Ruth Krauss’s last words, and so they’re not in my biography of her.

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