2 new picture books find inhumanity of humanity

BOOKS FOR KIDS

November 05, 1993|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Staff Writer

Two of the most dramatic picture books published recently share a message of warning about what a mess we've made of the world.

But they are as different as two books can be.

The first, "We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy" (HarperCollins, $20, 56 pages, all ages), is by Maurice Sendak, one of the masters of modern children's literature.

The second, "Old Turtle" (Pfeifer-Hamilton Publishers, $17.95, 47 pages, all ages), is the first book by author Douglas Wood and the first by illustrator Cheng-Khee Chee. It's also the first book marketed nationally by the publisher, a small press in Duluth, Minn.

"Dumps," Mr. Sendak's first book in a decade, is as gritty as sand in your teeth. Its portrayal of orphaned children living on the streets in the 1990s will make grown-ups squirm.

"Old Turtle" unfolds as a folk tale that comforts even as it confronts the ignorance and cruelty of humans. Drawing from American Indian traditions, Mr. Wood gives voice to the wind and the sea, the mountains and the animals.

Kids will be entranced by both books. But most adults will prefer "Old Turtle," and adults buy books.

I'm not going to try to convert folks who think Mr. Sendak's work is subversive or even immoral -- there are still, no doubt, libraries that won't carry "In the Night Kitchen" because Mickey is shown naked.

But if you leaf through "Dumps" at the book store and put it back on the shelf because it leaves you feeling weird, give it a second chance. Think back to the first time you read "Where the Wild Things Are." If you were lucky enough to be a kid then, you probably remember a tingle of familiarity -- you were Max and Max was you. If you were a grown-up at the time, you probably didn't "get it" the first time through.

The same is true of "Dumps." Mr. Sendak has sewn together two nonsense rhymes from Mother Goose and made up a story to go with them. "We Are All in the Dumps" and "Jack and Guy" have nothing to do with each other. But here they are seamless, woven in his imagination.

His story is about a group of children living together in cardboard boxes, shadowed by New York skyscrapers. In interviews on his recent promotional tour, Mr. Sendak has said several of the children are bald because he has been working with, and has been astonished by, kids hospitalized with cancer and AIDs and other terminal illnesses.

The juxtapositions are classic Sendak. The homeless kids are wrapped in real estate sections of the New York Times, with ads screaming: "Distinctive Homes" and "Very Smart Living, From $79,000." When Jack and Guy, the scruffy leaders of the shantytown kids, lose to the villainous rats in a bridge game, one of the kids shouts "Trumped" with the Trump Tower looming in the background.

The rats then cart a litter of kittens and the youngest homeless child -- "the poor little kid" -- off to St. Paul's Bakery and Orphanage. With the help of a benevolent, maternal moon, Jack and Guy come to the rescue. They bring the poor little kid back to live with them in shantytown. On the last page, he is curled up asleep, safe in Jack's lap.

Is it scary? Yes, but not any scarier than "Oliver Twist." Mr. Sendak has said this book is a tribute to Charles Dickens, with Jack, in his stovepipe hat, portraying one of Fagin's lost boys.

Mr. Sendak acknowledges that the book deals in ugly realities that parents would prefer to shield their children from. But kids know all about injustice. Kids see panhandlers, and in their unadulterated curiosity, they wonder if they could ever become homeless. No, their parents say, don't even think about it. Truth is, it could happen to them.

Adults rely on the cosmic approach. Maybe that's one reason people return to organized religion when they become parents: It offers a set of answers for many of the impossible questions kids ask.

Which brings us back to "Old Turtle."

It is a spiritual book that wraps the reader in beauty. Mr. Chee, a signature member of the American Watercolor Society, is a native of China. He fuses Eastern and Western styles into a soft wash that makes you feel it's what the view from heaven must be like.

That is appropriate, because the story is about God. It opens with an argument among all things in nature. The rocks say God is a rock. The fish say God is a fish.

"She is a great tree," murmured the willow, "a part of the world, always growing and always giving."

"No, He is a river, who flows through the very heart of things," thundered the waterfall.

As the bickering reaches a crescendo, Old Turtle shouts, hTC "STOP!" After eloquently convincing all of nature that God is in all things, Old Turtle says that a new family of beings -- people -- will soon arrive.

"They will be strong, yet tender," she says, "a message of love from God to the earth, and a prayer from the earth back to God."

But it isn't long before the people begin arguing about God, and hurting and killing one another, and destroying the earth. Old Turtle must intervene again. The incredible smile on her face in the final illustration is infectious: Even pessimists close the book with a sense of hope.

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