What would Sendak do?

h1 August 28th, 2006 by jules

matt.jpgI admit to reading this book for one reason and one reason only: I was suckered into it by a wise marketing ploy on behalf of the publisher — a quote on the front of the book attesting to the fact that Maurice Sendak likes it. Maurice Sendak could tell me that licking my kitchen floor clean is a good idea, and I’d consider it (and that’s sayin’ a lot, ’cause, well, I’ve been reading too much lately and neglecting the mop).

A bit about Korczak here. Trust me; it’s fascinating. Janusz Korczak’s real name was Henryk Goldszmit — a pseudonym lifted from a book, actually. Korczak was a Polish-Jewish super man of sorts. As well as a children’s book author, he was a pediatrician, military doctor, orphanage founder and director, defender of children’s rights, and educator. As an orphanage director, he set up a children’s parliament, newspaper, and court (two of which factor prominently in King Matt). As a pedagogist, he trained teachers in what is now known as moral education. When World War II began in 1939, Korczak’s orphanage at the time was forced to move to the Warsaw Ghetto, and Korczak joined them. In 1942, Nazi soldiers came for the orphans and staff members for transfer to the Treblinka extermination camp. The Nazis offered to spare Korczak, but he did not accept, joining the children and reportedly saying, “You do no leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave children at a time like this.” He and the children boarded a train headed for the death camp and were never seen again. (There is a memorial grave for Korczak in a cemetery in Warsaw, and in the Janusz Korczak Square at the Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem, there is a sculpture — carved by Boris Saktsier in 1978 — entitled “Korczak and the Ghetto’s Children” . . . click here to see it, and prepare to get lots of goosebumps and maybe get all emotional for a minute. It’s beautiful).

King Matt was first published in 1923 and, apparently, was well-known in Poland, acquiring the kind of children’s-lit-status that Peter Pan had in the States and elsewhere. After the war, the novel was forgotten and fell out-of-print. Last published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1988, we now have Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill to thank for their 2004 re-print of Korczak’s work with handsome, new jacket art by the oh-so talented Brian Selznick and translated by Richard Lourie.

So, let’s get right to what Sendak had to say about the book, ’cause, well, Sendak’s a genius, people. And he needs to be President. And he needs to sit down with me over a cup of coffee and let me praise him and pick his brain. But I digress. He said, among other things, “. . . King Matt is a fable that offers a fierce, truthful picture of children struggling to make sense of grown-up nonsense . . . This small masterpiece is a rare tribute to the psychological depth and marvelous workings of a child’s heart and mind.” The expression of these inner workings is one thing Sendak himself does so well — and does so with great respect for children. I was hooked. Had to read it.

And I’m glad I did. It opens with a two-paragraph intro from Korczak, stating that grown-ups should not read the novel, that “{t}hey’ll misunderstand {the chapters} and make fun of them. But if they really want to read my book, they should give it a try. After all, you can’t tell grownups not to do something — they won’t listen to you, and you can’t make them obey.” Ooh, touche.

Prince Matt, whose mother is already dead, has to say goodbye to his father, the King, on his deathbed in the book’s opening. Matt suddenly finds himself ruler of a small country, and the Ministers surrounding Matt are a bit jolted, needless to say, as Matt can’t yet read and count. Some neighboring countries declare war on Matt’s, taking full advantage of this wee, new king, and Matt sneaks out of the palace with his friend, Felek, to disguise himself and join the war, battle-for-battle (a decently-sized chunk of the beginning of this novel is devoted to his front line war experience). Matt returns as a hero and demands a long list of reforms for the children of his country — such as, putting carousels and see-saws in all the schools and building a zoo in the capital. An African cannibal king whom Matt meets, King Bum Drum, offers for Matt to visit his country, since all the exotic animals he needs for his zoo are there. There Matt meets King Bum Drum’s daughter, Klu Klu. When Matt returns, he proposes even more radical reforms in the name of and for children — a children’s parliament and a children’s newpaper. Unfortunately, a spy planted stealthily amongst Matt’s circle of ministers, colleagues, and friends works hard to destroy Matt’s reign.

In terms of plot, most of the book is about Matt’s reforms. He repeatedly makes noble but naive suggestions only to have them fail, and so he changes tactics, often with the advice of a few other kings he has befriended. At one point towards the novel’s end, he declares that the children and adults must switch places at work and school. Needless to say, this is a spectacular failure. But it provides such dialogue that would, likely, get huge laughs out of intermediate-aged readers — and there are a lot of these moments. (When Matt signs the proclamation that sends the children back to school and the adults back to work, everyone is happy — “The teachers did not admit this to the children, but the grownups had given them a lot of problems, too. There were quite a few troublemakers among those under thirty”).

The book’s great strength and appeal is that it never condescends to children. And even though — here on our humble, little blog — we highlight and rave about the ones that don’t, there are many children’s book authors out there who think of children as little nitwits. Matt is loyal, moral, clever, and just, as he maneuvers his way around the often treacherous, sometimes foolish adults to implement his reforms; tries to give children self-respect; and fights poverty and injustice. And, though the children’s requests via their parliament are mostly tremendous missteps, the message here is that children count but simply don’t take precedence in our culture.

Two final notes about Klu Klu and the ending of the book . . . This book gets lots of screams and shouts from the PC Police. The Africans in the book are sometimes condescended to — referred to as “savages,” for instance. But Klu Klu, the African princess who ends up being a true friend to Matt, is one of the — if not the — smartest, strongest, and most competent characters in the book. And she balances out, I dare say, some of the harsher comments about the Africans with her comments about “stupid European etiquette” (and the wimpy girls in dresses — Klu Klu can kick some ass, I tell ya). And the ending of the novel . . . well, it’s abrupt, to say the least. But the novel’s much-needed sequel, King Matt on the Desert Island, is still out-of-print. Maybe some publisher will change that soon. But, I still liked this book; it isn’t so much how it ends but how we get there, a journey I most certainly enjoyed. Thanks, Maurice. (If Maurice could really come over for coffee, I’d mop for him. I’m just sayin’ . . . um, in case he’s reading. I know, I know — as if. A girl can dream) . . .

3 comments to “What would Sendak do?”

  1. hey, jules, this is really interesting. i’ve never heard of korczak before. is it a new translation, or just a reprint? and what did you think of the translation – did it read fairly naturally, or could you tell it wasn’t originally written in english?

  2. good questions, you. the translation copyright was 1986. good translation, i thought. not clunky. Korczak writes in a very forthright manner — tells it like it is, the meaning’s all right there on the surface. no detailed imagery, no heavy metaphors, or other writerly stuff like that. but, you know, what’s difficult is knowing whether that’s *him* or the translation.

    there’s also an introduction by Esme Raji Codell (written in ’04 when this re-print came out), and it’s worth reading, too, but i figured my post was already dreadfully long, so i didn’t mention it.

    the other thing i left out was the issue of audience — this gets labelled “YA” a lot. my library copy has one of those “Young Adult” stickers on the spine. but i think older intermediate-aged readers will enjoy it. a lot of YAs will think it’s childish probably (in terms of style and such)….oh, i just hate the category game, though.

  3. also, i meant to say: i think this book would meet Scieszka’s criteria for the whole “Guys Read” initiative. that whole “guys’ books” and “girls’ books” stuff makes me nervous — well, it’s tricky, that is — (though i do see the need for “Guys Read,” and kudos to Scieszka)….but, having said that, it should be added to their list for sure. maybe it’s already there; who knows. — jules

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