In 1959, HarperCollins released Janice May Udry’s The Moon Jumpers, illustrated by Maurice Sendak. It’s the story of four children (and a black cat) who head outside on a warm summer night, away from the parents, and bask in the magic of a full moon.
I’m a fan of Maurice Sendak’s works, and I’ve always liked this odd tale of lunar revelry and worship. The children dance, barefooted, in the grass and reach up to the sky, even jumping to try to reach the moon. A bit of unsullied child bacchanalia. It’s weird. It’s wild. It’s wonderful. And it’s always been one of my favorites of Sendak’s illustrated books.
It was with surprise then that I read years ago in Selma G. Lanes’ The Art of Maurice Sendak that his illustrations for this book were not among his favorites. “The book is an uneasy mix of black-and-white line drawings,” Lanes wrote, “alternating with rich, full-color paintings in deep blues, greens, and purples. Sendak today finds his performance ‘hollow and empty.’ ” This book was published in 1980 when Sendak was 52 years old. I wonder if he continued to scorn the book’s illustrations throughout the rest of his life, even though it was the recipient of a 1960 Caldecott Honor.
HarperCollins will be re-releasing the book this month, and I, for one, am happy about this. Though battered (or perhaps neglected) copies of the book surely line library bookshelves all over America, this newer edition will shine a spotlight on one of Sendak’s lesser-known illustrated tales. And it will do so for an altogether new generation of children, whose very screen-filled, hyper-spastic, multi-tasking lives don’t lend themselves too well—let’s face it—to stopping to gaze at the moon, all dreamy-eyed.
So, will it resonate with 21st-century children? I bet it will. Most children would thrill to climb a tree at night and turn somersaults in the grass. Ghost stories and running around the house, hand-in-hand, while “the balloon of a moon grows and grows”? Bonus.
Talk about wild things. There you have it. In fact, Lanes goes on to note in her book that “in some subliminal way, The Moon Jumpers deeply influenced the mood, the palette, and even the content of the three major illustrations in Where the Wild Things Are.” Here she was referring to the exhilarating double-page “rumpus” spreads, comparing them to the three wordless spreads of The Moon Jumpers, the ones which depict the height of the children’s merrymaking. Even the way the figures in both books are posed in these spreads are similar, Lanes noted.
While you’re waiting for this book’s release date—HarperCollins plans to release it mid-month—you can read and enjoy I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild’s Pocket Book, edited by the great Iona and Peter Opie and also illustrated by Sendak. Candlewick Press reissued this at the tail end of 2012 in honor of its 20th anniversary.
This was the first book that the Opies produced together, as noted in Iona’s introduction. This collection of children’s rhymes, riddles, tongue twisters, jump-rope chants and much more is aimed squarely at schoolchildren: “They were clearly not rhymes that a grandmother might sing to the grandchild on her knee,” Iona noted. “They have more oomph and zoom; they pack a punch.” (Witness “Mary Pary Pinder / Peeped through the winder; / Mother come / And smacked her bum / And cut her little finger.”)
Sendak’s illustrations are, at turn, playful and mischievous, grim (as they should be) and haunting. Once Sendak contributed his artwork, the book became, in Iona’s words, “more than ever a declaration of a child’s brave defiance in the face of daunting odds.” Indeed, this was a recurring theme for Sendak.
So, Sendak fans, unite. I suspect that, since his death last May, we’ll be seeing tributes and re-releases. If we’re lucky, we’ll see unpublished works facing the light of day. But, for now, we have these two beautiful reissues.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
I SAW ESAU: THE SCHOOLCHILD'S POCKET BOOK. Text copyright © 1992 by Iona Opie. Illustrations copyright © 1992 by Maurice Sendak. First U.S. edition in this format 2012. Spread reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.