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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Maurice Sendak and The Best Childhood Books Ever

R.I.P. Maurice Sendak, the author of the wonderfully inspirational "Where The Wild Things Are", one of my favourite childhood books.  Why was it so great?  Perhaps it was the illustrations, widely challenged as being "too scary".  Pish tosh.  I thought they were amazing.  I loved the way he embraced the forbidden and frightening and made it into something quite beautiful.  Perhaps it was the way we as children could all relate to Max, the alienated kid with a longing for adventure, friendship and greatness. 

I also loved "In The Night Kitchen", which was met with horror for the terrifying illustrations of....  a little boy happily flying around naked.  Big deal.  Again, I thought this book was wonderfully imaginative and not offensive in the least, especially not to children. I was more interested in the food aspect of the book, the baking, the kneading, and how Mickey becomes part of the food, at least for a time.  We need more authors like Maurice Sendak and he will be sorely missed by those who grew up with his books and for those just discovering his works.

Maurice Sendak lamented the declining standard of children's books in recent times.  However the wonderful thing about books is that you can track them down and children of today can discover these books all over again.  Here is a brief list of my favourite books from childhood:

"Petronella" - Jay Williams
My favourite fairy tale of all time.  It's a pity I couldn't find the one with the illustrations by Friso Henstra that I remember.  This is the original cover in all its glory:

Petronella was the youngest of three who sets out to seek her fortune.  She rescues a prince and has wonderful adventures.  There is a clever twist and Petronella must use her mind to help her in her quest.  I can't speak highly enough of this book.  It's just brilliant.  Jay Williams apparently wrote this book as a response to his daughter who wanted to read a book about a princess who actually does something (other than stand in a tower and look pretty)!  The result is an empowering, thought provoking read that kids will love.

"Tintin" - Herge

Tintin, Snowy and Captain Haddock. Professor Calculus, the Thomson Twins. I can't think of better companions for a bookish kid with a big imagination. I especially loved Captain Haddock. He is a classic character and still makes me laugh out loud! Red Rackham's Treasure, Prisoners of the Sun, Explorers on the Moon - there isn't a place where Tintin fears to venture. The mild-mannered reporter, the crazy sea dog and a resourceful, intelligent dog called Snowy face danger and adventure on the high seas, on light planes, in rocket ships and strange and wonderful lands.  On a rainy day, I'd like to think of kids reading Tintin's adventures and laying off the Wii/XBox/Playstation for a bit.

Captain Haddock is shown in typical fashion here.  The object of his wrath being a wayward llama who refuses to stay put on a treacherous climb.  Captain Haddock's creative swearing was one of the great inspirations of my life:


Speaking of funny characters, I can't go past Asterix, Obelix, Getafix, Vitalstatistix, Fulliautomatix, Cacophonix and Dogmatix!

"Asterix" - Goscinny and Uderzo

For some reason I related to Asterix quite strongly. 
I think there is a superhuman-strengthed-mustache-wearing-crafty-small-dude in all of us.

There was something quite innocent and sweet about these stories, while also being wildly hilarious while making some rather large political and social observations.

And there was something very anti-authority / anti-establishment about a small village holding out against the Roman invaders with the help of a magic potion of invincibility.

Make sure you get the earlier "Goscinny and Uderzo" books only.  From all reports the new books written by the illustrator Uderzo lack the wit, sophistication and originality of those written by Goscinny.   But the earlier ones?  Not always completely politically correct, but brilliant!

"Lord of the Rings" - J.R.R. Tolkien

Before it was a movie, it was a book.   A large, incredible, wonderfully involved book.   When I was little, I asked for this book to be read to me by my Mum and Grandma.  I was quite, quite little.  I'm not sure if I could read yet.  Hmm...  Perhaps that's why I'm such a serious person.   But I love Bilbo Baggins, Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin and Gandalf and think of them as old friends.  It is the classic good vs evil tale told from a different angle.  There is something quite Zen about finding your strength through humbleness, gentleness and a pureness of heart.

Possible further reading:

"Girls Can Do Anything" - Jan Harper

"The Hobbit", "Return of The King" - J.R.R. Tolkien

"Hairy Maclary from Donaldson's Dairy" - Lynley Dodd

"Marina" - Jan Harper

"Grimm's Fairy Tales" - The Brothers Grimm - this is perhaps a controversial one.  These are NOT nice kiddy stories and can scare the crap out of some kids.  But if you want your kid to grow up like Nick Cave or some other brilliant dark poet type, give them these books!

"Fairy Tales" - Hans Christian Andersen - this is what I thought of as the "lite" versions.  The same imagination and wonder, just less blood and guts.

"Fun Food Feasts" (cookbook) - Nanette Newman

"The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe" - C.S. Lewis - better yet, get the whole series!!

"Serendipity" - Stephen Cosgrove

"The Very Hungry Caterpillar" - Eric Carle

"The Lorax" - Dr Seuss (and various other Dr Seuss books!) - The Lorax will always be my favourite.  A children's book that weaves in hyper-consumerism and environmental degradation.  I Love It!!

"Sherlock Holmes" - Any of these books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - perhaps for older kids!

"Alice In Wonderland" - Lewis Carroll

Also try Enid Blyton, Judy Blume, and Shirley Hughes ("Alfie").  


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