Parents' Choice Foundation: Reviewing Children's Media Since 1978

Parents' Choice Awards : Books : Picture Books


Fall 2003 Picture Books
Ages: 6 & Up
Author: Tony Kushner
Illustrator: Maurice Sendak
ISBN: 0-7868-0904-3
Hardcover Price: $19.95

Since the 1963 publication of Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are pointed out a child's wildest nightmares may come from inside himself, children's books have been free to deal with the real world as well as its history. No subject is forbidden. No subject is considered too frightening or horrible as long as somewhere in it are seeds of hope.

This book is about Nazism in mid-century Europe yet one can see at a glance, somewhat amazingly, there is cheeriness in it. Cartoon figures cavort in an optimism of color. Still evil is omnipresent. There is sickness. There is tyranny.

There is the Warsaw ghetto. Jews, gypsies and a few non-conformists, and rebels must wear a six pointed yellow star indicating the rest of the population is to despise them. These people are instruments of the devil the world has been told. Nonetheless our own eyes can see in the bearded Jewish doctor's mien he has come to help Mommy get well. Mommy needs milk. But her children, small Pepicek and even smaller, Aninku, have no money. There is ice cream on a cart, here is a cake and bread "oven- fresh upon my soul." But no money for children. Good and evil lurk. They play gotcha with one another.

In the book's paintings Sendak counters the emotional seesaw we feel with the consoling sight of the baker from In the Night Kitchen who is still making "crackers crunchy, cream puffs puffy, every cookie, every pie…Cross my heart and hope to die, oven fresh upon my soul!"

There are people around buying, buying, buying. There is milk. Bottles and bottles of milk crammed in a peddler's carton with butter and cheese. "No money no milk" says the milkman who is wearing a gorgeously colored hat, has ruby lips and avaricious eyes. No money, no milk. Is he too a Jew?

Underfed children. Overfed children, shabby urchins, fences, houses in disrepair. Tall people with straight backs, fur on their coats and money, money, in their hands. Churches behind them. Synagogues. Even a dog with a collar of banknotes "No milk for Mommy oh no what to do?"

Not fair. The children jump up and down. They face Brundibar a man with a moustache, an iron cross on his jacket, Aryan eyes and a Napoloen hat. A monkey stands beside this Hitler, he poses in Nazi salute and looks amazingly like a Meggendorfer monkey (all art is derivative. And the masters, including Meggendorfer and Maurice learn one from another.) Sendak's monkey wears a military uniform.

Once again, money. Money is key. The children learn this quickly. They can work for it, sing for it, struggle for it. They do. Now there are bears in the Square. They resemble the hulking Russian animals who will empower children and adults to give the Hitler tyrant, named Brundibar, his comeuppance. This time Mommy will be saved.

We next see her healed and well. Now there is a crucifix on the wall. The Jewish doctor, his patient in good shape, is stepping jauntily along toward her front door. In these pages full of fine art, allusion and symbolism what does the newly ensconced Christian icon mean? Science (the doctor) and religion working together? Christianity and Judaism on a roll to heal. It's a merry ride from one end of the book to the other with a magnificent heartbreaking two-page spread. Children flying away from their mothers on the backs of doom birds. Other masterpieces of art and mirth. Everybody is after Brundibar and his bucket of money. He is "bumped and thumped and squished and vanquished. Well, just ask anyone. They'll tell you."

Kushner and Sendak present a book of great good and great evil. We know both will go and come again. And we know too this story will be read to coming generations for coming generations.

Diana Huss Green   ©2003 Parents' Choice

Share This