Sunday, July 17, 2011

Mercer Mayer Versus Maurice Sendak: My Thoughts on the Subject

While growing up in the 1970's, I had my favorite books.  There were eight total; four in one little box, and four in another little box.  One set of books had words, and the other didn’t.  These box sets were The Nutshell Library by Maurice Sendak (1962, containing: Alligators all Around, One was Johnny, Chicken Soup with Rice, and Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and a Prologue) and Four Frogs in a Box by Mercer Mayer (1976, containing: A Boy, a Dog and a Frog; Frog Where are You; A Boy, a Dog, a Frog and a Friend; and Frog on His Own).  Like many of my “precious” childhood favorites, my mother has my Nutshell Library set of books at her house.

Now, I’ve heard that others have had some confusion over these two illustrators.  Many claiming that Mercer Mayer is overly influenced by Maurice Sendak.  I even heard people give credit to Mercer Mayer for writing some of Maurice Sendak's works (and vice versa)!

I had similar thoughts when I was very young because The Nutshell Library and Four Frogs in a Box were both small boxes of four books... but that was about it.

Now to examine these similarities:

Firstly, Maurice Sendak (born in 1928) started having his illustrations published in 1947.  Mercer Mayer (born in 1943) first had his illustrations published in 1967. That is a 20 year difference (and they are close to that in their age difference).  So, it is very possible that Mercer Mayer was very aware of Maurice Sendak's work.  Sendak's work was popular, and it is even possible that a publisher told Mercer Mayer to do something “similar” in order to be published.

Secondly, they do both have a couple of “boy”-style characters that appear in a lot of their works.   They both have dark-haired boys that they’ve used for their characters. For Maurice Sendak, this is probably his “Pierre” archetype (which may have started in some of his early illustrations for Ruth Krauss books like A Hole is to Dig).   Mercer Mayer’s “boy”-character probably started with the unnamed boy in A Boy, a Dog and a Frog book and developed into many other similar looking/feeling boys in Terrible Troll, There's a Nightmare in My Closet, I am a Hunter, A Special Trick, Bubble Bubble, You’re the Scaredy Cat, etc (and also with slightly different color hair or glasses in If I Had…, Mine, A Silly Story, and others)… plus some of his illustrations for other authors like in The Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald, Outside My Window (Liesel Moak Skorpen), Margaret’s Birthday (Jan Wahl), Grandmother Told Me (Jan Wahl),  Boy Was I Mad (Kathryn Hitte), The Boy Who Made a Million (Sidney Offit), etc…   BUT Maurice Sendak and Mercer Mayer are both men, and they were dark-haired boys once.  It only makes sense for them to take influences from their own lives. 

One specific comparison that I’ve heard has been Mercer Mayer’s There’s a Nightmare in My Closet versus Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.   One is about a boy dealing with his fears and getting over it (Nightmare).  The other is about a boy who goes to a fantasy land because he’s mad at his mother but comes home eventually (Wild Things).  The Wild Things characters aren’t an object of fear in Maurice Sendak’s book; they are what the boy wants to be.  The Nightmare character in Mercer Mayer’s book is an object of fear that the boy deals with and overcomes.   Yes, they both have (very different looking) monsters, but that is about it.  To be honest, I really don't get this comparison.

If you actually want to compare two books, you’d have to look at Maurice Sendak’s Very Far Away (1957) and Boy, Was I Mad! (1969, written by Kathryn Hitte and illustrated by Mercer Mayer).  

Both feature boys in very different looking cowboy hats and boots running away; one is a dark-haired boy who is “mad” because he got in trouble and had to sit quietly in the corner (Boy, Was I Mad!), and the other is a light-haired boy who is “upset” because of a new sibling and not being listened to (Very Far Away).  The comparisons end there.  The two boy’s “adventures” while running away are very different.  Sendak’s boy meets a bunch of talking animals that are also running away.  Hitte/Mayer’s boy meets real-life characters.  It is only the running away cowboy-dressed boys that are similar (and the Mercer Mayer design was probably Kathryn Hitte’s idea).  But, boys dressed as cowboys and boys running away are common themes and who knows if anyone was influenced by anyone else.  Also, Maurice Sendak tends to use a minimalist approach for his drawings in Very Far Away, and Mercer Mayer's are very detailed and rich in Boy, Was I Mad!.  So, maybe there really isn't anything here to compare.

Thirdly, maybe people just get confused because their first names start with "M."  Could it be that simple? Maybe.  Maurice Mayer and Mercer Sendak... oops... I mean Mayer Sendak and Mercer Maurice... oops... Yeah, maybe....

So, my conclusion is this. Mercer Mayer may have been slightly "influenced" by Maurice Sendak. I know he respects Maurice Sendak from comments of his that I've read. I am also sure that people come up to Mercer Mayer all the time and tell how much they love (insert Maurice Sendak title here... probably Where the Wild Things Are). Who knows, maybe people come up to Maurice Sendak and tell him how much they love Little Critter?

There are plenty of "similar" books out there by other authors and illustrators, and I may break some out and share them on here in the future.  In the meantime, "Goodnight, sleep tight, don't let the Zipperump-a-zoos bite!"