What do you do after you’ve created the greatest picture book of all time? It’s a question only Maurice Sendak could answer. In between his two great triumphs – Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen he turned to his two great inspirations, the fairy tale and his dog Jennie.
The resulting book, Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life is a wry take on Mother Goose.
Higglety pigglety pop,
The dog has eaten the mop,
The pigs in a hurry,
The cat’s in a flurry,
Higglety pigglety pop
Jennie was a Sealyham Terrier who had featured in practically all of Sendak’s picture books, including an appearance as Queen Victoria’s dog in Hector Protector and most famously as the victim of terrible Max in Wild Things.
Here we find her living a life of domestic bliss. But something is wrong. One day she confides to a houseplant that despite having two excellent windows to peer out of and all the eyedrops a dog could ask for, ‘there must be more to life than having everything’.
So she packs up her gold buckled bag, eats the plant and runs away to join the Mother Goose Theatre. But becoming the leading lady takes a special type of dog. The casting pig comes over all Jimi Hendrix and asks if she’s experienced, this is 1967 after all; time to drop out of your bourgeois domesticity and open your mind. Trouble is they’re not too specific about what sort of experience, so Jennie takes herself off to become a nursemaid to a very choosy baby.
It is perhaps the world’s toughest babysitting gig. Failure to get the baby to eat will end in Jennie being fed to a lion that lives in the basement. Before the baby gets a chance to ring the bell marked LION Jennie bundles him up in her gold buckled bag and makes for the exit, inadvertently leading them direct to the jaws of the hungry lion.
Will Jennie survive? And more importantly will this be enough experience for the Mother Goose Theatre?
Higglety Pigglety Pop! is a fairy tale packed with Sendak’s trademark transgressive humour. His love for the source material shines out, particularly in the beautiful cross hatched illustrations, which combine the fairy tale setting with the fixtures and fittings from Sendak’s early life – like a milk float rattling through an enchanted forest.
Like Sendak’s best work Higglety Pigglety Pop! presents adult themes usually aired on psychoanalyst’s couch. Behind the smart, witty prose there lies a whole world of troubles. 1967 was an awful year for Sendak. At the age of just 39 he suffered his first heart attack whilst filming with the BBC in England. Meanwhile his mother was suffering from cancer and would die the following year, and when he returned home he discovered that the real Jennie also had cancer.
Of the book Sendak said ‘I wrote it when Jennie was getting old and I was afraid she was going to die. Somehow it was easier to work up anxiety about the dog’s dying than about my mother because that was just too much to go for. Then when I went to England I had my coronary.’
Behind the surface jollity this is a meditation on death. Contrasting with the cartoon energy of his most famous work there’s an almost religious quality to the intricate scenes he creates here. As Selma G Lanes says in her biography, ‘they look more like steel engravings than the pen and ink drawings they are. They have a frozen, stopped in time quality – like certain epic photographs of eras past.’
Jennie isn’t the only member of Sendak’s family to feature – rather disturbingly the bad baby has a face based on a childhood photo of himself. And later when Baby emerges as a full grown adult ‘Mother Goose’ the model is his own mother Sadie.
The story winds up with a full blown performance of Higglety Pigglety Pop! unfolding in a series of tableaux packed with silent movie humour. The venue for the performance is a room in the Castle Yonder, described in the programme as ‘a vey terrific place’.
In a tragicomic prologue Jennie writes to her old master that she will not return home from this doggie heaven where she ‘can eat a mop, twice on Saturday. It is made of salami and that is my favourite.’ Neither can her poor owner visit, for ‘I can’t tell you how to get to Castle Yonder because I don’t know where it is. But if you ever come this way, look for me.’
I guess Jennie and Maurice are finally together again in Castle Yonder.