Sunday, November 27, 2011

Book Review: One Was Johnny by Maurice Sendak (1962)

A few weeks ago, Elizabeth Bird posed a question on her blog: Which Maurice Sendak book are you?  Though I never had the chance to reply to her post, I knew my answer almost immediately. One Was Johnny, about a little boy who lives by himself and likes it like that, perfectly describes my introverted personality, and much of my behavior during childhood.

Johnny becomes overwhelmed as more and more creatures invade his house, coming in uninvited and making themselves at home. A rat and a cat are bad enough, but things reach fever pitch when a blackbird pecks Johnny's nose, a tiger comes in selling clothes, and a robber steals his shoe. "What should Johnny do?" the text questions. His solution? He threatens to eat every last one of his guests if they don't leave before he finishes counting backwards from ten.

This book represents everything I love about Maurice Sendak's work. He understands that somewhat darker side of childhood, filled with frustrations, annoyances, and worst of all, other, more obnoxious kids. So many children's books promote sharing, togetherness, and community. I can think of very few that sing the praises of solitude, and which demonstrate an understanding that sometimes other people are pushy and annoying, and we just want them to go away. This book rings so true because it doesn't force Johnny to share with his pushy houseguests, or to make room for them, or to apologize for wanting to be left alone. Rather, Johnny is  the master of his domain and he throws all of those obnoxious creatures right out on the street! In my experience, well-meaning adults panic when kids show signs of wanting to be alone. They assume it means the child is dysfunctional in some way, or not a team player, but for the introverted child, and even introverted adults like me, the notion of all of those people in your space can be extremely overwhelming, and I think it's important to teach kids how to protect that personal space, and that it's okay to like being alone.

As a counting book, this book doesn't work so well, since there aren't necessarily the correct number of countable objects on each page. It does work as a lesson in counting to ten, but I don't know that it really strongly illustrates the meaning of each number. Still, though, the illustrations, which are all drawn against the same background of Johnny's kitchen table, are greatly entertaining as the chaos of the scene increases, and the changes in Johnny's expressions could almost tell the entire story on their own.

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