Sunday, December 4, 2011

Book Review: Pierre by Maurice Sendak (1962)

Though I was always disturbed as a kid by the idea that a lion could come along and eat a disagreeable child, I still have fond memories of this book from first grade. The book - and Carole King's sung version, of course - made such an impression on me, that I actually ordered my own copy from the school book order way back when, and somewhere, I still have it.

The premise of the story is that a boy named Pierre doesn't care about anything. When his parents get ready to go out, he refuses to get ready and go with them, so they leave him behind and go to town on their own. while they're gone, a lion comes along, and when Pierre expresses his indifference to being eaten, the lion gobbles him up. It is only after a harrowing rescue by his parents and a doctor that Pierre finally learns to say, "I care."

As a kid, what spoke to me the most, I think, was the fact that Pierre finally learned his lesson. I always prided myself on being a "good kid" and bad behavior of any kind intrigued and troubled me. I liked it when other kids - even fictional ones - discovered the error of their ways and started to behave. I think it gave me a sense of moral superiority, but also made me feel safe. I liked knowing that other kids weren't going to get in trouble, and that nothing bad would befall them.

As an adult, though, I find myself looking at Pierre on a somewhat deeper level. I'm no longer focused on trying to reform Pierre's behavior. Instead, the storyline makes me think about apathy, and what that can do to someone's life. Pierre's indifference to everything isn't just obnoxious rudeness - it's also the reason he misses out on opportunities. His lack of interest in anything happening around him - from what he eats for breakfast, to whether or not a lion swallows him whole - causes him to become the victim of others' choices. When he learns to care in the end, it's not necessarily a lesson in being good, like I thought when I was six, but a lesson in being the master of one's own destiny.

The fact that two readings of this book by the same person taking place 23 years apart can be so different is exactly the reason I think Maurice Sendak is so brilliant. There is always something more to uncover beneath the surface of his writing, and always something adults can appreciate along with their children.

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