The Big Green Book by Robert Graves and Maurice Sendak

The Big Green Book by Robert Graves and Maurice Sendak

One year before Maurice Sendak wrote Where the Wild Things Are, he contributed the illustrations to a remarkable book. Robert Graves was 67 years old, and had already written the popular novel I, Claudius (as well as a memoir of his experiences in World War I). But as both a poet and a scholar, Graves decided to write a children’s book about the magic of reading. The Big Green Book describes a little boy named Jack, who discovers the very magical book in his uncle’s attic.

This story is surprisingly edgy – even before Sendak contributes his dark, angular drawings. “Jack’s father and mother were dead, and the uncle and aunt were not very nice to him,” Graves writes – setting up Jack’s desire to find a sanctuary. The boy scowls at the couple’s enormous sheepdog, and objects to long walks in the field. But Sendak finally draws the boy finding a moment to himself – alone in a room at the top of flight of stairs…

It was better than a story book. “The big green book was full of magic spells. It told him how to make himself as old or young as he liked…and how to make birds or animals do just as he liked, and how to disappear.” There were “spells” for winning card games, and lessons on speed-reading. And Sendak draws a row of six pictures capturing the boy’s delighted reactions – standing in open-mouthed surprise, jumping with delight, reading intently, and confidently following the instructions…

67-year-old Graves writes how Jack turned himself into an old man with a long beard. (His aunt and uncle don’t recognize him – and when they start to approach him, Jack makes himself disappear – and then reappear.) I wondered if Graves was using the character to deliver his own wry observation about life itself. “Yes: a little boy was here only a minute ago… Now he’s disappeared.”

The boy plays cards against his aunt and uncle – and he wins every time. Soon they owe Jack “about a hundred thousand dollars.” Sendak’s drawing captures the despair on the couple’s face perfectly. By the end they’re on their knees begging for a chance to win it back. And instead they lose their house to the boy – along with their enormous sheepdog.

Before the book is over, the boy plays more pranks on his guardians that are sometimes even nastier. His uncle’s fingernails grow through his hand. (“‘Ow!’ said the uncle.”) Their sheepdog is chased away by a belligerent rabbit. But best of all, Jack surveys the house he now owns, from top to bottom – and then turns himself back into a little boy.

And then he revisits his aunt and uncle to tease them about their losses.

Maurice Sendak Gets a Birthday Tribute “Doodle” at

June 10th is the birthday of Maurice Sendak — and to celebrate it, Google created an amazing “Doodle” on their home page. Just go to today, and you’ll see an animated version of one of Sendak’s most famous characters. It’s Max, the little boy from “Where the Wild Things” are — dressed in his wolf suit, and doing a wild dance.

Maurice Sendak birthday doodle on Google (2)

There’s a “dialogue balloon” over his head, though it only contains a flashing blue arrow. But if you click it, Google delivers a gorgeous animation. It shows the boy magically walking over the top of a rotating circle. As it turns, the scene changes from his room to the jungle Where the Wild Things Are — and he’s followed by all the friendly monsters from Sendak’s most famous book!

Maurice Sendak birthday doodle on Google - Where the Wild Things Are

But as the circle continues to turn, the boy travels on into scenes from other Sendak books. Next are scenes and characters from In the Night Kitchen, followed by characters and scenes from his final book, Bumble-Ardy.

Maurice Sendak birthday doodle on Google - finale (2)

Maurice Sendak died last year just a few days before his 84th birthday — but it’s nice to see that there’s still fond memories about his children’s picture books, and they’ve found their way into the next century.

And I’m glad Google decided not to let today go by without wishing a happy birthday to Maurice Sendak!

Outside Over There, by Maurice Sendak

The cover of Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak

It had been nearly 20 years since “Where the Wild Things Are,” but at the age of 53 Maurice Sendak completed the third book in the trilogy. I didn’t read this book for years, because it looked disturbing – and it is. On the title page, there’s a little girl teaching her baby sister to walk, and they pass a white picket fence, and an enormous bush of daisies. But sitting at the end of the fence is a hooded mystical figure. It could be the grandson of Death, and Sendak’s answer isn’t much more comforting. They’re goblins – and they’ve come to kidnap the little girl’s baby sister. There’s even a second title page – spanning two pages – in which three more of the hooded goblins arrive.

Sendak has come up with another grand and mysterious fairy tale. “When Papa was away at sea,” he begins, in a fancy font on a grand two-page spread. Sendak draws a yellow sky over a ship in the harbor, with a mountain on one side and on the other a beautifully-detailed drawing of a tree. The little girl, named Ida, stands in the middle, holding her baby sister next to her mother on the rocks – and two more of the hooded goblins on the left. ” On the next page, there’s a different view showing a whole forest of his detailed trees, plus a gorgeous leaf-colored trellis, a husky dog – and two hooded goblins, now carrying a ladder.

They’ll use the ladder to kidnap Ida’s baby sister when she isn’t looking.

Sendak hides surprises in every picture. While Ida plays her horn, the leaves of a daisy vine poke into her room through another window. But in the next illustration, they’re already starting to bloom, and soon there’s enormous daisies intruding into her bedroom. Meanwhile the other window, where the goblins escape, inexplicably becomes a view to a ship on the ocean. And in the next illustration, it’s a stormy sea where lightning strikes over the sinking ship.

Sendak’s story uses enigmatic sentence fragments, while the illustrations seem to run away with the story. In response to the baby-napping, Ida puts on a yellow rain coat, takes her horn, “and made a serious mistake.” It’s not explained, but the next illustration shows her floating backwards over the daisies and the green-leafed trellis – while the background shows three goblins carrying her baby sister over a bridge. Sendak writes simply that: “She climbed backwards out her window into outside over there.”

And the story gets more and more magical. Ida floats on her yellow rain coats, “whirling by the robber caves,” and it’s one of the most beautiful drawings in the book. There’s a white moon turning the clouds silver, that frame the girl’s yellow raincoat – just her face peeking out of the center. Below her is a horizon filled with detailed trees – and presumably under the ground, a cave with stalactites and a burning flame where two goblins wait by a moonlit ocean. Eventually Ida confronts the goblins, who’d hoped to turn her sister into a goblin bride.

Just like “Where the Wild Things Are,” Ida triumphs in a magical world – and then returns home to her loving family.