Top 100 Picture Books #79: Pierre by Maurice Sendak
Growing up, my first exposure to Pierre came when I joined the Kalamazoo Civic Youth Theater, a program for the kids of Kalamazoo, and did tech work on their production of Really Rosie. There I saw firsthand a sung version of the ultimate in children-being-eaten literature (here’s a close approximation of what I saw). Finding the book after the fact, I discovered my favorite Sendak. Keep your Wild Things, your Mickeys, your Pops, your Bumble-Ardys, your everything. Pierre is Sendak at his best, in my book. Simple. Sublime. Ridiculously twisted and with a moral I live by to this day.
The mighty spirited description of the book from Amazon says, “Even when a hungry lion comes to pay a call, Pierre won’t snap out of his ennui. Every child has one of these days sometimes. Mix in a stubborn nature, a touch of apathy, and a haughty pout, and it can turn noxious. Parents may cajole, scold, bribe, threaten–all to no avail. When this mood strikes, the Pierres of the world will not budge, even for the carnivorous king of beasts. Created by one of the best-loved author-illustrators of children’s books, Maurice Sendak, this 1962 cautionary tale is hardly a pedantic diatribe against children who misbehave. Still, by the end of the lilting, witty story, most children will take the moral (Care!) to heart. Pierre’s downward-turned eyebrows, his parents’ pleading faces, and the lion’s almost sympathetic demeanor as he explains that he will soon eat Pierre, make the package perfect.”
In Selma G. Lanes’s Through the Looking Glass: Further Adventures & Misadventures in the Realm of Children’s Literature there is a particularly amusing portion where Ms. Lanes takes issue with Sendak’s lions. Put simply, she doesn’t think he draws them particularly well. Not in Circus Girl, not in Higglety Pigglety Pop! and not even in Pierre, though she acknowledges, “The lion in his Nutshell Library volume, Pierre (1962), suffers the same lion-suit syndrome, but being a broader rendition is less obtrusive.” Good to know.
As she mentions, this book was part of the original Nutshell Library. This was a set of four little books (Alligators All Around, Chicken Soup with Rick, One Was Johnny, and Pierre) sold in a tiny set. In Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (edited by Leonard Marcus) there’s an amusing letter dated January 31, 1963 where Nordstrom responds to Sendak’s worry that future Nutshell Libraries would be created by author/illustrators other than himself. After reassuring him to some degree she takes a rather forthright stab at Maria Cimino the Chief Librarian in the Central Children’s Room of my library. Ah, Ursula. Always with the jabbings.
- Browse inside the book here.
- Confusingly, Sendak worked on a very different kind of Pierre later in life. Very different.
Until I went searching for the original animated Pierre from Carole King’s Really Rosie special I had no idea that one of my favorite bands, The Dresden Dolls, covered it. Makes sense I suppose. Better still, someone out there decided to put Amanda Palmer’s words onto the original animated version. Bliss.
Or, if you prefer, without the animation.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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