Here’s how you write a memorable picture book opening:
“When Jim woke up on Tuesday, his tail had fallen asleep. This seemed odd.
Jim had never had a tail before.”
This is from Laurel Snyder’s delicious, toothsome Hungry Jim, illustrated by Chuck Groenink (coming to shelves in September). On this, the opening spread, we see what should be a boy named Jim in the twin-size bed of his comfy bedroom. Instead, we see a lion, surprised to see his own tail. It is, for him, a metamorphosis of the most alarming sort. It is, for readers, a delight.
Jim the lion can hear his mother, calling him from downstairs. It’s pancakes for breakfast, but Jim thinks his mother sounds entirely more appealing. On his way to the kitchen, he catches his feline face in the hallway mirror. “He felt beastly,” Snyder writes. Ah, yes. I’ve experienced mornings precisely like this, even though I stay in my own skin.
Anyone expecting a safe, sweet picture book narrative here will be disappointed. Jim devours his mother, and it happens in a spread that leaves much to the imagination: We see a skillet and pancakes flying through the air, as well as just the backside of Jim. His head is outside of the spread’s parameters, so the mother-swallowing is (mostly) off-the page—and up to us as readers to envision.
Jim felt conflicted about eating his mother (though she “was delicious”), and he also feels “terrible” about the eating spree that follows after he flees his home. He’s hungry, after all. He tries to talk himself out of the consumption of those who live in his neighborhood. This is the worst, he tells himself, but his stomach keeps growling. “Shut up,” Jim tells it. “Nobody asked you.” Still, as he eats everyone in his path, he mourns his actions, even telling his own stomach how much he hates it. He is supposed to be a boy, but the beast has taken over. He finds his human snacks savory, but he wants to cry at his own behavior.
If you are thinking of Maurice Sendak as you read this picture book, this means you know your picture books well. The book closes with a note from both author and illustrator in which they “humbly dedicate” their book to Sendak and his memory, along with references to the iconic Where the Wild Things Are: “We ate him up,” they write. “We loved him so.” Hungry Jim is a tribute to the spirit of Where the Wild Things Are (and almost the inverse of Sendak’s Pierre—not just because lion eats boy in that one, instead of boy-lion eating humans, but because there’s nothing wild anyway about the peevish Pierre). In Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work, Patrick Rodgers writes about “the fury of Max, and his catharsis through fantasy.” He quotes the legendary Ursula Nordstrom as once naming Where the Wild Things Are as …
“the first American picture book for children to recognize that children have
powerful emotions—anger and fear, as well as the need Max had, after his anger
was spent, to be ‘where someone loved him best of all.’ … A lot of good picture books
have fine stories and lovely pictures … but it seems to me that Where the Wild Things Are
Fury. Wildness. Powerful emotions. These are what accompany Jim when he wakes, even if he’s conflicted about it (of course he’s conflicted; aren’t all the adults around children trying to tame and socialize them in one way or another?), and these are what young children live with on a daily basis. Snyder and Groenink know this, and they seem to know that we live in a culture that romanticizes childhood. Adults tend to think of children as pure and innocent, yet Sendak spoke in terms of nothing less than “surviving” childhood. In other words, it’s hard being a child. And it’s really hard to learn to control your wildness in a culture that tolerates little of it. Sometimes, like Jim on that fateful morning, we slip.
Not to mention that, as Neko Case likes to sing: “I’m an animal / You’re an animal, too.”
Groenink’s illustrations even have a Sendakian vibe to them, particularly when Jim-as-lion heads to the woods, where the landscapes and palette echo those of the dream-like, lush Outside Over There. Many of the pages also mirror Where the Wild Things Are in text placement; that is, the art is contained above the text, which is laid out in white space along the bottom of each spread, as is the case in Sendak’s book after Max comes to the place “where the wild things are.”
In the end, Jim-as-lion manages to tame his own self (without help from any grown-ups, thanks very much) and manage his impulses, though the book’s closing gives a lovely and rightful nod to the wildness in all of us, even when we have mostly managed to tame it. And don’t worry: We see his mother (and the pancakes) again, though name for me one child who won’t get a vicarious thrill out of seeing a child turn into a lion and consume his own parent.
In the aforementioned book dedication, Snyder and Groenink write that Sendak is “alive in all of us.” Indeed. I’ve seen a lot of picture books, some better than others, that attempt to pay tribute to Sendak’s work and his insistence on honoring the complex, roiling interior lives of children. But this one? It gets it just right. It’s more than delicious. It is, as my oldest daughter used to say when she was a toddler, deliciable.
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.
HUNGRY JIM. Text copyright © 2019 by Laurel Snyder. Illustrations copyright © 2019 by Chuck Groenink and reproduced by permission of the publisher, Chronicle Books, San Francisco.