Imagining Mother Goose: Exploring Maurice Sendak’s Visual Interpretation of Nursery Rhymes
February 2021 – January 2022
This online exhibition features the 1967 children’s book, Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or There Must Be More to Life, the 1965 Hector Protector and As I Went Over the Water, and the 1993 We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy by author and artist Maurice Sendak. In each of these books, Mother Goose nursery rhymes are the backbone of the stories but due to Sendak’s visual interpretation of the rhymes, the anticipated narratives are promptly turned upside down. By imbuing the imagery with liveliness and musicality, these books captivate the viewer in equal parts humor and poignant gravity.
In Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or There Must Be More to Life, the story follows Jennie, a Sealyham terrier, and outside the confines of the fictional tale, a beloved pet of Maurice Sendak. At the start, Jennie has everything: a comb and brush, two different bottles of pills, eyedrops, eardrops, a thermometer, a wool sweater, two windows to look out of, two bowls to eat from, and a master who loves her. However, she is discontented with her life and thinking, “there must be more to life,” leaves home for more. Jennie’s adventures eventually lead her to meeting characters like a milkman, a parlormaid, Baby, and a lion on a journey to get experience to become a leading lady in The World Mother Goose Theatre. The end reveals these characters are actors in the theatre and Baby is none other than Mother Goose. The final chapter of the book invites the reader to the production Higglety Pigglety Pop! starring Jennie performing with her co-stars to the nursery rhyme. Maurice Sendak’s use of the nursery rhyme comes at the end of the narrative. Illustrating the rhyme as the script to a gala performance, Sendak interprets the rhyme with active intention. His characters eat, they’re in a hurry – a flurry! Rather than static, the characters perform with all the grandeur of being part of the acting troupe for The World Mother Goose Theatre.
Sendak uses Mother Goose as his inspiration in two other children’s books, the 1965 Hector Protector and As I Went Over the Water and the 1993 We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy. In each, his approach in imagining and illustrating the rhymes is different. In Hector Protector and As I Went Over the Water, Sendak treats the two rhymes as two separate visual narratives. The first rhyme in the 1965 book is Hector Protector and features a young boy who struggles against being dressed in green to be sent to the Queen with a cake. He meets a lion and snake on his journey and surprises the Queen sitting on the throne. The story ends with Hector Protector sent home and sent to bed. The second rhyme is As I Went Over the Water.
Like the first rhyme, Sendak treats the rhyme as an independent visual narrative. A young boy travels by boat when a sea monster gobbles up his vessel. The boy punches the monster in the stomach and while on land, he knocks out the teeth from a pair of blackbirds mocking him. The monster has brought back up the boat in the meantime, and the boy and monster continue their journey as friends. The treatment of the nursery rhymes in Hector Protector and As I Went Over the Water is filled with humor and parallel the spunk and energy of the two protagonists populating the stories. This energy in imagining the nursery rhymes is present in the 1993 children’s book We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy albeit with far more serious overtones.
We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy combines both rhymes into one pictorial narrative. In this first rhyme, the setting is a cardboard city occupied by children beneath Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. Rats steal away a small boy and kittens. After pursuing the rats, to reclaim the kidnapped child and kittens, Jack and Guy agree to play a game of bridge, unaware that the game is rigged. Jack and Guy lose, and helplessly watch as the boy and kittens are sent to St. Paul’s Bakery and Orphanage. The second rhyme begins at this point where the moon, who has been observing the events unfolding with dismay, sorrow, and anger, sweeps Jack and Guy up to deliver them into the next rhyme in their own name. In the second half of the book, Jack and Guy find the kidnapped child along with the kittens. The moon morphs into a white cat and overcomes the rats to everyone’s delight. The moon then returns the children and kittens to the cardboard city with a winged Mozart in company. We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy is a fearless interpretation of these two nursery rhymes.
In 1965, Maurice Sendak penned an essay on the eponymous Mother Goose. He writes, “If full measure of the rhymes isn’t taken in the pictures, then the artist has failed Mother Goose. And her revenge is swift, for no other writing I know of so swiftly exposes the illustrator’s strengths and inadequacies. So it is with trepidation that the artist must confront this formidable muse.”
Maurice Sendak ends his essay with a parting Mother Goose rhyme:
No, no, my Melodies will never die,
While nurses sing, or babies cry.
In Sendak’s words: “Modesty never did become her.” The same sentiment might be applied to Maurice Sendak’s vigorous and bold interpretation of Mother Goose rhymes.