BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Brundibar retold by Tony Kushner, illustrated by Maurice Sendak [in Moment Magazine]

BrundibarWhere the Bad Things Are

Brundibar may be the world’s most unlikely idea for a children’s book. It’s based on a Czech opera performed 55 times in the children’s concentration camp Terezin. The story is dark, and its main character, Brundibar, an evil town bully who sports a Hitler-style moustache.

And yet, Brundibar, retold by Tony Kushner and lovingly illustrated by Maurice Sendak, was one of last year’s most popular picture books, according to The New York Times. In this classic tale of good triumphing over evil, children Aninku and Pepicek don’t have the money to buy milk to save their sick mother. With the help of a talking bird, dog and cat, and 300 children, they defeat Brundibar and, in the end, bring home the milk that cures their beloved parent.

Why would Kushner (author of such adult plays as Angels in America) and Sendak (author and illustrator of such charming children’s stories as Where the Wild Things Are) tackle such a different subject? Here’s how Kushner described the book and his friend Sendak in one interview: “He’s always wrestling with questions of how to present the world to children as it is without violating prescriptions that need to be left inviolate … The book preserves the safety of childhood at the same time as it begins to introduce the fact of evil.”

At the end of the story the children and their mother are revealed to be Christians: one detail, a crucifix prominently displayed on their cottage wall is obscured until the last page. Yet both the Jewish doctor and the children of Terezin help the family. The message is clear: Children see no religious or racial boundaries. “People are happy helping / It’s never hard to find help / It is only hard to know that it’s time to ask,” explain the children.

Kushner and Sendak weave a warning into the book. Evil can only be temporarily defeated. Scrawled at the end, across an invitation to the opera, Brundibar leaves an ominous note: “Nothing ever works out neatly, / Bullies don’t give up completely.”

Book profile: “Where the Bad Things Are,” Moment magazine, April 2004

Readers: Children

Published: 2004


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