The Moral of Pierre

Most people think of Where the Wild Things Are, appropriately enough.  But this week, hearing on the radio that Maurice Sendak had died at the age of 83, I thought first of Pierre, the petulant child of the eponymous “cautionary tale in five chapters and a prologue.”  Pierre, at 48 pages, was my favorite book as a pre-schooler.  I’m told I carried it everywhere, evidence of which shows itself in the tiny book’s ripped jacket, signatures loose at their sewn bindings, a few spots of discoloration (spilled apple juice?).

Pierre made up one of four slim books, each the height and length of a playing card, which comprise the Nutshell Library.  I still have my set, in its little box, fetchingly illustrated with the books’ characters, decorative acorns, and smiling gargoyles.  Chicken Soup With Rice.  Alligators All Around.  One Was Johnny.  Pierre.  All I need to do is pick up the box, open one of the books, and I’m back in 1964.  More vivid than Mad Men, and with rhymes and illustrations.  Mix it once / mix it twice / mix that chicken soup / with rice. The yellow lion held upside down by the doctor and shaken, Pierre tumbling out onto the floor.  Alligators looking snooty, snouts held high. And my favorite, Pierre pouring syrup on his hair.

All four Nutshell books teach.  One Was Johnny is a counting book; Alligators All Around presents the alphabet; Chicken Soup With Rice teaches the months.  Pierre teaches a moral.  And the moral of Pierre is:  Care.

I think I loved Pierre so, took it everywhere, because its teaching didn’t happen with numbers and months and letters (which I already knew), but through story.  Instead of a list (of numbers, letters, or months), we get narrative development.   Yes, the story has a lesson, but first, there’s all that good stuff.  Pierre being a glorious, bratty kid.  I knew what it felt like to pout.  I knew how irrelevant my parents could sound with their adult statements of cause and effect.  And sometimes, like Pierre, I just didn’t care!

In absorbing Pierre, I lived vicariously.  What child doesn’t fear abandonment and death?  I’d never had my parents leave me home alone or a hungry lion stop by and ask if I’d like to die.  But Pierre does, in a turn as dark as that of any Grimm tale.  And Pierre’s reply?  You got it.  “I don’t care.”

Mom and Dad come home, find the lion in bed with indigestion, surmise what has occurred and rush to the doctor, where Pierre is shaken loose and intact, like Jonah from the whale.  And, like Jonah, Pierre has learned his lesson.  Mom and Dad do love him.  Even the lion—death itself—is tamed, brought home to stay.

At two or three, I found some solace in this happy ending.  At two or three, I must’ve read the book over and over to see, once again, how it happened.  Not only Pierre’s lesson but Sendak’s story.  Conflict, crisis, resolution; reversal straight out of Aristotle.  And all in 48 pages, five chapters and a prologue.  No wonder I took it everywhere.

Yes, I like the Wild Things.  But I love Pierre.  Godspeed, Mr. Sendak, and thank you.

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