Surrealism in Children's Literature

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Surrealism in Children's Literature


Literary method that utilizes the dreamlike and the absurd to comment upon social realities and to create alternate worlds for juvenile protagonists.


The surrealist movement and its encompassing criticism is generally confined to the realm of adult art and literature, but the elemental appeal of its absurdist philosophy and redefinition of reality has resulted in a broad range of children's works dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. Surrealism was intended by its originators to be a method of encouraging creativity and reexamining the world by utilizing the irrational to explore reality. Some literary theorists postulated that such a shift in perspective would allow for a fundamental redefinition of society's most basic images and perceptions. The founders of this experimental philosophy believed that juxtaposing the fantastic with the ordinary through art unleashes the subconscious to reveal mankind's innermost desires and dreams. Although primary founder André Breton's First Surrealist Manifesto was not published until 1924, the movement credited many literary predecessors with guiding the ideals and precepts that would later form the core tenets of surrealism. From the eccentric works of such early European painters as Hieronymus Bosh and Pieter Brueghel to the dreamlike imagery of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Gustav Klimt, surrealists counted some of the continent's most prominent artists among their forebears. Among writers, surrealists credited abstract French poet Arthur Rimbaud, American horror writer Edgar Allan Poe, and Romanian founder of the Dadaist movement, Tristan Tzara, among their sources of inspiration. The breakthrough psychological writings of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung provided the final impetus for the surrealists to view all forms of art as expressions of the subconscious. Both Freud and his protégé, Jung, proposed the existence of three layers of the mind—the ego, or conscious mind; the id, the center of biological instincts; and the super-ego, the internalization of moral dictates.

Within the context of children's literature, the surrealist method has manifested itself in fantastic, but puzzling narratives that contrast altered realities with our own. In a typical surrealist children's text, a young protagonist is thrust into a magical plane of existence, cast among an odd array of creatures and individuals that are almost anomalistic equivalents of those one would find in reality. Unique from the typical fantasy worlds utilized in children's literature, the surrealist novel or picture book is often characterized by its use of poetic nonsense language and a distinct set of rules that the child must learn in order to function "normally" in the new environment. Perhaps the most famous example and the wellspring for the use of surrealism in books for children is Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). In this notorious tale of the girl who fell down the rabbit hole, Alice struggles to make sense of all the oddball rules imposed upon her by such characters as the Queen of Hearts, the Cheshire Cat, and the Mad Hatter. Time, space, and size all are transitional in Wonderland, apt to change upon a whim or after an accidental encounter with the wrong mushroom. Alice stubbornly resists the codes of Wonderland, insisting that they are irrational and silly, but is able to assimilate herself well enough within her new environ to ultimately twist the Wonderland norms to her advantage. Enormously popular with children, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland—as well as its successor Through the Looking Glass (1871)—introduced an entirely new concept in children's literature, combining the fantastic with the absurd. Lacking the typically overt didacticism found in standard fare for children of the Victorian era, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland presented a perspective that children, lost in an adult world full of arbitrary rules, could easily embrace as their own. The abstractions of Wonderland, though confusing to adults, made sense to children, who could relate to Alice's bewilderment while still enjoying the playfulness of the plot. Thus, although he predated the defining era of surrealism by more than fifty years, Carroll's forays into the mystical world of Wonderland formed a defining framework for many of his well-known twentieth-century successors.

The realm of surrealist fiction encompasses some of the most famous books written for young readers over the past hundred years, including L. Frank Baum's fifteen Oz novels (1900-1920), Norton Juster's classic The Phantom Tollbooth (1961), as well as the imaginative picture books of Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel, Maurice Sendak, Roald Dahl, and Chris Van Allsburg. All of these authors embrace Carroll's surrealist example, employing imagery that combines the everyday with the fantastic, such as the flying monkeys and the sentient Scarecrow and Tinman of Oz; Tock, the dog with a clock in his chest from The Phantom Tollbooth; a peach the size of a house in Dahl's James and the Giant Peach (1961); and Dr. Seuss's six-foot-tall talking feline in The Cat in the Hat (1957). These narratives work in harmony with the goals of the early surrealists by juxtaposing the usual with the unexpected. For example, many of the child protagonists of these stories are whisked away upon their great adventures at times of either great boredom or stress. Juster's Milo is sitting alone in his room, unhappily "humdrum," when the Phantom Tollbooth spontaneously appears, taking him on a trip to Dictionopolis. In The Cat in the Hat, Sally and her brother are stuck inside on a rainy day when the cat in a stovepipe hat makes his entrance and turns their day into an adventure. For these fictional children, the journey is also a means of escape—for Baum's Dorothy, it is a way out of the torment of a difficult farm life full of chores; for Charlie of Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), it is his opportunity to break free from poverty. Fantasies come true for all of these children, but their difficult navigations along the way amount to more than absurdist fun, offering lessons in coping and adapting to new environments.

In many respects, the picture book more easily lends itself to the surrealist method than the novel, given that a young audience is better able to comprehend images than words. The picture book also bears a closer direct link to the surrealist movement in that the artwork created by such painters as René Magritte, Joan Miró, Marcel Duchamp, and Salvador Dalí inspired many of the illustrations featured in children's books, particularly those depicted in the works of Maurice Sendak and Chris Van Allsburg. Van Allsburg's The Alphabet Theatre Proudly Presents "The Z Was Zapped": A Play in Twenty-Six Acts (1987), for instance, features detailed artwork that upholds surrealist goals. The book, directed at toddlers learning the alphabet, highlights the letters A through Z undergoing various events. Through black-and-white illustrations, each letter is placed upon a stage and subjected to an action related to its sound. The "A" is drawn under an avalanche, the "B" gets bitten, and so on, through to "Z," which is being zapped by electricity. Not only is each event surreal in its context, but also the pictures themselves have surrealist foundations. The "Q" is depicted as having been quartered by a hand suspended in mid-air, and the "G" has tentacle-like growths bursting from its sides as "[t]he G was starting to grow." These drawings hearken back to the works of the surrealist masters, particularly the aforementioned Magritte, who was famous for his series featuring a stationary, well-dressed man with various suspended objects, such as a floating green apple or a dove, obscuring his face. Sendak also honors the surrealist tradition with his careful alterations of time, space, and size. In particular, In the Night Kitchen (1970) is said to emulate the surrealist philosophy with its depictions of mammoth milk bottles and planes made from loaves of bread.

But whether the book is primarily image-driven or verbally-oriented, the use of language provides the final unifying aspect of the surrealist genre. Surrealist authors rely heavily upon language to highlight the disjointed nature of logic in these alternate universes. In Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice finds herself frustrated by the citizens of Wonderland's manipulation of words and misunderstanding of the normal mores of society. The Wonderland characters demonstrate their irrationality through puns, nonsense language, and poetry. Also common to surrealist children's works is a playful, extreme literalness and humorous wordplay, as evidenced in The Phantom Tollbooth by Milo's encounter with the "Whether Man," the watchdog with a timepiece in his side, or an individual eating his own words by having their physical manifestations laid out before him for dinner.

Like many books for young people, surrealist children's literature often contains a message behind its absurdist surface. At its heart, The Phantom Toll-booth promotes the importance of learning, while Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are (1963) encourages an appreciation for the comforts of home and family. For Dr. Seuss, many of his later books are centered around moral lessons, such as the environmentalism of The Lorax (1971) or the antiwar parable of The Butter Battle Book (1984). But fundamentally, the message in these surrealist texts is often meant to signal that the world—for all its difficulties, curiosities, and occasionally frightening moments—is not such a daunting place and can be navigated by even the youngest reader.


J. M. Barrie

The Little White Bird, or, Adventures in Kensington Gardens (juvenile fiction) 1902

Peter Pan, or, The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up (play) 1904

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (juvenile fiction) 1906

Peter and Wendy (juvenile fiction) 1911

L. Frank Baum

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz [illustrations by W. W. Denslow] (juvenile fiction) 1900

The Marvelous Land of Oz [illustrations by John R. Neill] (juvenile fiction) 1904

Ozma of Oz [illustrations by John R. Neill] (juvenile fiction) 1907

Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz [illustrations by John R. Neill] (juvenile fiction) 1908

The Road to Oz [illustrations by John R. Neill] (juvenile fiction) 1909

The Emerald City of Oz [illustrations by John R. Neill] (juvenile fiction) 1910

The Patchwork Girl of Oz [illustrations by John R. Neill] (juvenile fiction) 1913

*Little Wizard Stories of Oz [illustrations by John R. Neill] (juvenile fiction) 1914

Tik-Tok of Oz [illustrations by John R. Neill] (juvenile fiction) 1914

The Scarecrow of Oz [illustrations by John R. Neill] (juvenile fiction) 1915

Rinkitink in Oz [illustrations by John R. Neill] (juvenile fiction) 1916

The Lost Princess of Oz [illustrations by John R. Neill] (juvenile fiction) 1917

The Tin Woodman of Oz [illustrations by John R. Neill] (juvenile fiction) 1918

The Magic of Oz [illustrations by John R. Neill] (juvenile fiction) 1919

Glinda of Oz [illustrations by John R. Neill] (juvenile fiction) 1920

Lewis Carroll

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (juvenile fiction) 1865

Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There (juvenile fiction) 1871

Roald Dahl

James and the Giant Peach [illustrations by Nancy Ekholm Burkert] (juvenile fiction) 1961

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory [illustrations by Joseph Schindelman] (juvenile fiction) 1964

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator: The Further Adventures of Charlie Bucket and Willy Wonka, Chocolate-Maker Extraordinary [illustrations by Joseph Schindelman] (juvenile fiction) 1972

Crockett Johnson

Harold and the Purple Crayon (picture book) 1955

Harold's Fairy Tale (picture book) 1956

Harold's Trip to the Sky (picture book) 1957

Harold at the North Pole (picture book) 1958

Harold's Circus (picture book) 1959

A Picture for Harold's Room (picture book) 1960

Harold's ABC (picture book) 1963

Norton Juster

The Phantom Tollbooth [illustrations by Jules Feiffer] (juvenile fiction) 1961

E. Nesbit

The Enchanted Castle (juvenile fiction) 1908

Maurice Sendak

Charlotte and the White Horse [illustrator] (picture book) 1955

Kenny's Window (picture book) 1956

Where the Wild Things Are (picture book) 1963

In the Night Kitchen (picture book) 1970

Outside over There (picture book) 1981

Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel)

The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (picture book) 1938

Bartholomew and the Oobleck (picture book) 1949

The Cat in the Hat (picture book) 1957

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (picture book) 1957

The Cat in the Hat Comes Back! (picture book) 1958

Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories (picture book) 1958

The Lorax (picture book) 1971

The Butter Battle Book (picture book) 1984

Chris Van Allsburg

The Garden of Abdul Gasazi (picture book) 1979

Jumanji (picture book) 1981

Ben's Dream (picture book) 1982

The Wreck of the Zephyr (picture book) 1983

The Polar Express (picture book) 1985

The Stranger (picture book) 1986

The Alphabet Theatre Proudly Presents "The Z Was Zapped": A Play in Twenty-Six Acts (picture book) 1987

Just a Dream (picture book) 1990

The Wretched Stone (picture book) 1991

The Sweetest Fig (picture book) 1993

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (picture book) 1994

Bad Day at Riverbend (picture book) 1995

Zathura (picture book) 2002

*Comprised of a six-volume set, originally published in 1913, which included the titles Jack Pumpkinhead and the Sawhorse, Little Dorothy and Toto, Ozma and the Little Wizard, The Cowardly Lion and the Hungry Tiger, The Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, and Tik-Tok and the Nome King.


Donnarae MacCann (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: MacCann, Donnarae. "Wells of Fancy, 1865-1965." In Only Connect: Readings on Children's Literature, edited by Sheila Egoff, G. T. Stubbs, and L. F. Ashley, pp. 133-49. Toronto, Canada: Oxford University Press, 1969.

[In the following essay, MacCann examines the nature of fantasy and surrealism in children's literature, commenting that "[f]antasies … comment upon the most universal aspects of human nature, drawing attention to things with which everyone is familiar."]

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Sarah Gilead (essay date March 1991)

SOURCE: Gilead, Sarah. "Magic Abjured: Closure in Children's Fantasy Fiction." Publications of the Modern Language Association 106, no. 2 (March 1991): 277-93.

[In the following essay, Gilead examines the interaction between realism and fantasy in children's fiction, particularly in fantasy stories framed by a realistic setting, noting that "the fantasy may satirize the reality claims of ordinary modes of perception and experience, and the frame reality may be more consoling and escapist than the preceding fantasy narrative."]

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Raymond E. Jones (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Jones, Raymond E. "Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are: Picture Book Poetry." In Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature, Volume 3: Picture Books, edited by Perry Nodelman, pp. 122-31. West Lafayette, Ind.: Children's Literature Association, 1989.

[In the following essay, Jones argues that Sendak's illustrations amplify the fantastic, dream-like tone of the narrative in Where the Wild Things Are, while Sendak's sparse language grounds the story in reality by emphasizing authentic human emotions.]

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Mark Conroy (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Conroy, Mark. "A Tale of Two Alices in Wonderland." Literature and Psychology 37, no. 3 (1991): 29-44.

[In the following essay, Conroy scrutinizes the nature of the "the two Alices" in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland—the dreaming Alice and the waking Alice.]

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Amy Sonheim (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Sonheim, Amy. "The Picture Books' Fantasy Worlds: Architectural Solutions." In Maurice Sendak, pp. 80-99. New York, N.Y.: Twayne Publishers, 1991.

[In the following essay, Sonheim appraises Maurice Sendak's picture books, giving special focus to Sendak's attempts to clarify the orientation and setting of his fantastic worlds. Sonheim notes that Sendak's works "always include directions for the reader on how to visualize his fantasy worlds."]

Once lovingly dubbed the "Marie Curie of hopscotch and skip rope,"1 Iona Opie, with her husband, Peter, pioneered in a new anthropological territory by watching children at playgrounds. In her observations Iona witnessed children successfully using "architectural solutions" to manage the problem of bullies. She noticed that the pestered children spared themselves from the troublemakers by seeking "a place apart, a kind of refuge" ("Playground," 30). "I'm sure I sound a bit simple," says Iona, "but it's my experience that big questions about good and evil sometimes come down to the question Have you anywhere else to go?" ("Playground," 30).

When faced with their own destructive impulses, the principal characters in Sendak's picture books must ask themselves the same question: Do I have anywhere else to go? They answer yes, escaping to havens that they themselves dream up. Each title of Sendak's three picture books bears the name of the imagined sanctuary: Where the Wild Things Are (1964), In the Night Kitchen (1970), and Outside over There (1981). And most significant for the onlookers reading about these retreats is that Sendak makes the imaginary lands accessible to them too, through stylistic elements in his narrative. By using these stylistic elements, called "deictics" and "determinants," Sendak draws his readers into the safe fantasy worlds of Max, Mickey, and Ida.

The word "diectic" comes from the Greek root "deiktos," meaning "able to show directly"; thus, the Sendakian narrator uses deictics for joining the reader's point of reference to his or her own.2 Sendak uses deictics to orient the reader to location and time in the fictive worlds of the picture books. He uses deictic words like "here" and "there," denoting space, and those like "then" and "now," denoting time; consequently, these spatial and temporal references encourage the reader to assume the same location and time frame as the narrator's if he or she is fully to understand the story (Traugott and Pratt, 275). For instance, should a narrator say "Now is the moment of truth" and the reader identify the "now" of his or her own circumstance as the moment of truth, he or she would not empathize with the speaker's situation. The "now" has to be the moment the princess who slept on the pea all night arrives, either well rested or with dark circles under her royal blue eyes, to greet the queen and hopeful prince.

Sendak sometimes moves the reader to share the narrator's perspective of the story by using definite articles and demonstratives. In addition, the definitive "the," "this," or "that," as opposed to the indefinite "a" or "any," prompts the reader to elaborate with his or her own details.3 Sendak emphasizes this shared perspective by avoiding much description or detail. When the narrator introduces the setting of Where the Wild Things Are with the phrase "The night Max wore his wolf suit," the reader must at once assume she or he knows exactly the night spoken of. Emphasizing the shared perspective, the narrator uses another demonstrative in the second sentence with "That same night." Because the narrator does not elaborate in the beginning with such details as "The Saturday before Max's seventh birthday" or "On 22 November," the reader is free to imagine she or he knows exactly which night "the" night and later "that" night refer to.

Where the Wild Things Are

For Wild Things, Sendak designs a clear-cut plot with a definite beginning, middle, and end. In the beginning, Max acts like a "wild thing" and threatens to eat his mother, and so she confines him to his room without any supper. Max's room proceeds to change into a jungle and ocean. Max sails away in his own sailboat to the shore of some truly wild things. When they act unruly, Max reprimands them. For his revered control, the wild things crown Max king. He at once orders commencement of a glorious "rumpus," which Sendak pictures in the middle of the book for three double spreads without words. Afterward in the quiet, Max feels homesick. In the end, he decides to leave the wild things and return home, retracing his way in the boat. Back in his bedroom, he finds a toasty dinner waiting for him.

From the beginning of Wild Things, the narrator encourages the reader to share the fictive world of the book through Max's perspective. In the opening sentence the narrator first orients the reader to Max's circumstance. Like a good journalist, he sets the scene for the reader, first reporting the "person, place, and time" (Traugott and Pratt, 288): Max is the main character; he is at home; and he misbehaves at nighttime (Bagnall, 1980). As Elizabeth Closs Traugott and Mary Louise Pratt write in Linguistics for Students of Literature, "These [journalistic] orientations obviously serve to establish a shared universe with the reader" (288). Then too, by using very little detail—such as describing the mischief of Max as "one kind and another"—Sendak may be suggesting that the details are unimportant, but he also allows the reader to piece together those details from the clues in the pictures: a strangled teddy bear, a hammer held high, and a nervous terrier being chased by Max.

The narrator imposes the fictive time frame of the book on the reader by using the determinant "the" when he says, "The night." As in other tales of fancy, the story might have begun, "Once upon a time Max wore his wolf suit." But Traugott and Pratt point out that a once-upon-a-time beginning "presupposes the least shared knowledge and therefore requires the least work on the part of the reader" (288). Whereas the indefinite article "a" does not induce the reader to imagine anything, by beginning with "The night" the narrator assumes the reader imagines exactly the night spoken of. Consequently, the narrator invites the reader from the opening sentence to use his or her own imagination in entering the fictive world.

As the fantasy begins in the second sentence, the narrator establishes the reader's perspective in Max's perspective through references to location and time, references that expand the world of Max spatially and temporarily. The first place given is "Max's room," the square place confining Max. As the fantasy begins, Max's room expands into a forest; Max's ceiling expands into vines; and Max's walls expand into "the world all around," without corners or boundaries. Likewise, the time frame extends from "that very night" to "night and day" and then to "weeks" and further to "almost over a year."

Why would the narrator guide the reader into the fantasy world by expanding her or his sense of space and time? Because the narrator's directions to the reader parallel Max's experience as he fantasizes. That is, Max, in fantasizing, imagines himself out of his boxed-in bedroom and projects himself into another place and time. This psychological projection of self into a different place and time is the essence of fantasy. In telling the fantasy this way, the narrator presents Max as Max must be picturing himself, moving far away from his closed room to an exotic jungle. The narrator presents Max's journey to where the wild things are as if Max is rapidly moving through time. Using spatial prepositions—"through," "in," "out," and "over"—in reference to measurements of time, the narrator says Max sails

through night and day
and in and out of weeks
and almost over a year.

With these prepositions the narrator enables the reader to watch Max as Max must imagine and, in a sense, watch himself sailing away.

When Max arrives at the place where the wild things are he is undaunted by their ferocity and calmly conquers them: "'And now,' [cries] Max, 'let the wild rumpus start!'" With the deictic "now" the narrator most fully merges the fantasy world of the reader with that of Max. After Max commands the rumpus, Sendak inserts three double-spread illustrations (six pages) of the wild things dancing, hanging from trees, and parading around. Like the effective pause of a live storyteller, the narrator's silence holds the reader's attention to the immediate moment. The story's "now" and the reader's "now" become one because the illustrations sans detailed description prompt the reader to imagine the narrative for the rumpus.

In direct contrast to the circumstance of the earlier command, when Max says "Now stop" he signals a return to restraint and control. Because Max uses the deictic "now" both to begin and to end the rumpus, the reader sees the warring attitudes inside Max: he wants to be both wild and in control "now" at the same time. In this way Sendak builds Max's fantasy to a logical climax. The rumpus marks the merging in time for Max's conflict both inside the fantasy and outside it.

The rumpus scene leaves Max unhappy with the wild things. He finds within himself the opposing strains of wildness and discipline. From this point, the narrator begins to guide the reader, with Max, back out of the fantastic land and toward a resolution in the ordinary world. As a foretaste of this resolution, the narrator presents Max daydreaming within the fantasy itself.

The narrator again expresses Max's daydream in terms of another time frame and another place. With the sentence "And Max the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all," the narrator presents Max projecting himself into the future with the phrase "wanted to be" and imagining himself in another place with the phrase "where someone loved him best of all." As when Max initiated the fantasy, the narrator again expands the scope of the scene to distance Max from his immediate location. With the following sentence, "Then all around from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat," the narrator signals the expansion of space with the phrases "all around," "far away," and "across the world," and the reader, like Max, shifts her or his focus away from where the wild things are and back to Max's home even before Sendak has made the transition to home in the illustrations.

When Max decides to give up being king of the wild things and return home, the narrator guides the reader to retrace the journey. Just as the narrator earlier expanded Max's sense of time and place to construct the fantasy world, so too does he now contract the sense of time and place to reconstruct Max's ordinary world. Accordingly, the narrator presents the journey home in reverse order, saying,

Max stepped into his private boat and
waved good-bye
and sailed back over a year
and in and out of weeks
and into the night of his very own room.

The narrator reorients the reader to the ordinary world by reminding the reader that Max is still the central character, that home is still the setting, and that the time of the action is still night.

Having guided the reader back into the ordinary world, the narrator must now guide him or her toward a resolution of the story. Here the narrator closes the story by saying that Max landed in his room, that he found his dinner prepared and waiting there, and that "it was still hot." Norma Bagnall points out that the detail of the hot supper waiting for Max at the end gives an emotional resolution to the story because it suggests feelings of love and security rather than those of anger and anxiety that Max felt in the beginning (Bagnall, 1980). But as a deictic reference to time, the hot supper firmly orients the location and time frame of Max in the ordinary world. The narrator's decision to end the story with the detail of Max's still-hot supper exposes the drastic difference between Max's time scheme in the fantasy world and that in the ordinary world. Through this detail the narrator suggests to the reader that although the fantasy took "almost a year" to get there and another year to get back, it has lasted but a moment.

In guiding the reader to find his or her way, along with Max, to and from the place where the wild things are, the narrator has been consistent; in short, he has presented the fantasy world of Where the Wild Things Are with clear-cut directions. Cornelia Meigs finds this orderliness vital for good fantasy. In the imaginary worlds, writes Meigs, "protagonists are often creatures of another world, the settings are over the border of reality, and time, as measured in our everyday lives, does not exist; yet the stories must be logical, event must follow in proper sequence, the plots must build up to a climax, and the outcome must be reasonable."4 The narrator guides the reader into the fantasy through night, day, weeks, and a year, and then back out over a year, weeks, day, and into night. In strict monitoring, the deictics "now … start" and "Now stop!" limit the rumpus. Ironically, the fantasy world of where the wild beasts live has more predictable order and control than Max's ordinary world. In that latter world Max has no control over certain conditions. In the beginning, he cannot control his rowdiness, his anger, or his punishment; at the end, and in a different sense, Max could never have predicted being blessed by a hot supper. Thus, as a result of clear-cut directions into and out of the fantasy, Sendak creates a controllable place for Max to work out his confusion and, consequently, a nonthreatening place where readers can explore their own encounters with wild things.

In the Night Kitchen

In Sendak's next picture book, In the Night Kitchen, the narrator again invites the reader to share in the fictive world of the book. That world is characterized by a Keystone Kop confusion and the sensuous, kinetic pleasures of rushing, soaring, swimming, sliding, and resting. At the book's beginning, noises awaken Mickey from bed. When he stands up to shout at the noisemakers, he falls far below into the "night kitchen." There he lands in a gigantic bowl of cake batter. Three fat cooks confuse Mickey for milk and proceed to mix him up. They are about to pop him into the oven when Mickey jumps out of the cake batter and into bread dough. He molds the dough into an airplane, which he then flies to the top of a towering milk bottle. Abandoning the plane, Mickey plunges headfirst into the milk and retrieves a pitcherful for the bakers below. With the cake-baking back under way, Mickey slides down the side of the milk bottle and this time lands in his own bed. More so than in Wild Things, the transitions from the ordinary world to the make-believe one and vice versa depend on the narrator's directions to the reader.

From the beginning of the story, the narrator directly appeals to the reader to share his perspective because it is from this vantage point that the perspective of the everyday world is established; in other words, the narrator relies on the reader's siding with him to form the status quo, creating the situation of the ordinary world existing outside the book and the make-believe world existing inside it. In the first sentence, the narrator directly addresses the reader as "you," placing the entire sentence in the form of a question: "Did you ever hear of Mickey …?" The narrator's choice of "you" and his question establish the relationship between himself and reader to create the shared everyday world. This detail is necessary for the fantasy to work because, as the book opens, the dream has already begun. Mickey has already heard the "racket," as the words in the pictures denote "THUMP," "DUMP," "CLUMP," and "LUMP." By establishing the reasonable world safely in tandem between narrator and reader, the narrator offers a nonthreatening invitation into a dream world of surprise flights and splash landings.

In his opening invitation to the reader the narrator also gives clear, if fanciful, spatial directions for where the reader is to locate the dream world. Mickey falls "through the dark," "out of his clothes," past his parents, and into the kitchen. This scenario is, of course, impossible—if Mickey falls out of his bed, he will hit the floor; he cannot fall through floors, ceilings, walls, and basements.

This fanciful way of introducing the reader to the imaginary world Mickey is entering bears a striking resemblance to the way children initiate games. In her book Nonsense Susan Stewart explains how nonsense gestures in various forms establish the boundaries for children's games: "In children's games, the formation of a boundary is intrinsic to getting in or out of the game. The way to form such a boundary is to make a play gesture, a movement that sends the message 'this is play' and marks off the particular space and time that will characterize the game. This movement may take the shape of a mock attack or stunt, by beginning a fiction or by making a ludicrous expression."5 Two points from Stewart's explanation are strikingly appropriate for the opening of In the Night Kitchen. First, in "beginning a fiction" by telling the reader something that absolutely could not happen, the narrator alerts the reader that "This is play" or "This is fantasy." The narrator's description of Mickey's impossible fall marks the boundary for a strange fantasy world with its own rules of what can and cannot happen. Second, the act of Mickey's falling through the dark characterizes the entire fantasy temporally and spatially. The fantasy takes place exclusively at night and includes repeated vertical movement. But this downward fall also metaphorically characterizes the location of the night kitchen. It is below Mickey. Metaphorically, the night kitchen's location below Mickey suggests the imaginative world below Mickey's consciousness, the subconscious realm where dreams take place.

In the second sentence the narrator reminds the reader that she or he is still a close companion with Mickey on this adventure by means of the reference to "we." The narrator slips the inclusive pronoun into his description of the action in the night kitchen:

Where the bakers who bake till the
dawn so we can have cake in the morn
mixed Mickey in batter.

Granted, in English "we" may or may not include the specific listener; rhetorically, however, the narrator offers his listener the opportunity to pretend he or she eats cake in the morning.

As in Where the Wild Things Are, in Night Kitchen Sendak faces the same problem of signaling a sense of time—here, a sense of immediate, time—within the fantasy that is different from that in the ordinary world without. In Wild Things he expresses the difference in Max's subjective sense of time during the fantasy and his objective sense of time in the ordinary world by creating the contrast of the length of the voyage (more than two years) and the piping-hot supper waiting by Max's bed. In Night Kitchen Sendak reverses the sensation of time, making the dream sense of time seem very short, while the actual length of the dream in the ordinary world is lasting all night long.

At the focal point of the fantasy, the bakers plead for Mickey to get milk for the morning cake, and the narrator says Mickey flies up to retrieve the milk from the top of a giant milk bottle. The narrator's terse phrases "and up," "and up," and "and over the top" create a fast-paced rhythm to accompany Mickey's quick flight. The illustrations, as Joseph Schwarcz points out in Ways of the Illustrator, also make the flight seem speedy through Sendak's illustrative technique of "continuous narration," whereby Sendak breaks the action of Mickey's flight into four separate pictures across a double spread, similar to the depiction of action in a comic strip. Schwarcz feels that the splicing of this one action into "four frames serves to increase the sense of urgency in the viewer's mind" (Schwarcz, 29). Then too, as pointed out earlier in the discussion of Sendak's illustrations for Ruth Krauss's A Very Special House, the repetition of the figure of Mickey creates a sense of "fleeting action" (Schwarcz, 29).

Schwarcz notes that within each frame Sendak also draws the moon sinking on the horizon, suggesting that the flight lasts the length of the nighttime. "A contrast exists," Schwarcz says, "between Mickey's subjective sense of time and objective time" (30). This second notion is confirmed for the reader when at the end of the book, after Mickey has completed his mission, he heralds the dawn with a loud "COCKA-DOODLE-DOO!" and then falls back into his bed, as the sun rises in the background.

Similar to his technique in Wild Things, the Sendakian narrator involves the reader as a participant within Mickey's fantasy not only by what he does say but also by what he does not say. For two whole pages, the narrator keeps mum. While Mickey hovers in an airplane over the wide mouth of the looming milk bottle, the bakers wait below like pregnant women with their hands resting on their bellies. As the stars twinkle and the flags wave over the nightscape, the narrator remains silent. As in Wild Things, this panorama offers the reader the chance to fill the gap in the narrative with her or his own explanations and conjectures; the reader may choose to deliberate or to rush ahead with a quick page turn to the next action.

Similar still to the technique in Wild Things for ushering the young adventurer home is that at the end of Mickey's fantasy in the night kitchen the way home is given in reverse. Yet for Mickey, the locations for his ordinary world and his fantasy one seem to have switched places: whereas at the beginning of the dream Mickey falls down into the night kitchen, but at the end of the dream he falls down into his bed, or, as the narrator explains, Mickey "slid down the side / straight into bed / cakefree and dried." This change of direction means, spatially, that Mickey's fantasy world has switched places with his real world. Before, the fantasy world was beneath Mickey, a placement metaphorically suggesting Mickey's subconscious activities, those activities which conceptually exist beneath the surface of things. Because Mickey's bedroom now stands below the night kitchen, its new location also suggests a place for activity beneath the surface of things. This switch in location of everyday and dream worlds suggests that Mickey's two worlds have merged. The narrator thus slyly hints (as Mickey knowingly smiles) that the whole escapade in that checkered-linoleum kitchen actually took place in his bedroom, or, more precisely, inside Mickey's head. Poetically, Sendak summarizes this synthesizing reversal through the cartoon balloons for Mickey's speech: as the naked, dreaming boy falls into bed, he shouts, "OH!"; as the blanketed boy smiles from bed, he laughs, "HO!" The same word read forward and backward suggests an Alice-through-the-looking-glass key to the fantasy: like Alice, Mickey dreams the whole charade, subconsciously using images from his daily life in a pastiche of dream motifs.

The final clue the narrator gives the reader that the world of the night kitchen is a make-believe place consists of closely comparing it with a common realm in the ordinary world that often poses as real but is actually fantastic—the world of advertising. In his illustrations Sendak has set up this comparison all along, concocting the cityscape out of oversize bottles and boxes of pantry goods from soaps to cereals and then labeling those containers with slogans promising mercantile miracles, such as "Sweet at All Times," "Absolutely Pure," "Does the Trick," and "Best." And so in the farewell to the reader, when the narrator says, "And that's why, thanks to Mickey / We have cake every morning," he assumes the rhetoric of an advertiser using absolute language ("every morning") for a cause-and-effect situation. Using the inclusive "we" again heightens the narrator's ploy because as most young readers will readily realize, they seldom if ever have cake for breakfast.

The layout for this adieu complements the narrator's commercial tone, for Mickey is pictured as a logo in the middle of a geometric sun design, with the text encircling him like a label. In this way the narrator respects the reader's intellect by letting him or her in on the secret that the night kitchen is truly a fantasy, rather than flatly calling the extravaganza a lie.

In summary, from the narrator's direct address to the reader in the beginning with the question, "Did you ever hear of Mickey?" through his reference to the reader and himself in the middle with "we" until his ending use of "we," he seeks to share the fantasy world of Mickey with the reader. This shared perspective genuinely creates the boundaries of the everyday world. That acknowledged genuineness allows the reader a safe seat beside Mickey in his flight of fancy.

Outside over There

In Outside over There the narrator guides the reader, as the narrators do in the other two picture books, with deictics mapping out the location and time frame of the fantasy. Yet unlike the narrators' directions in Wild Things and Night Kitchen, the narrator's directions in Outside over There, as well as the story's meaning, are sometimes elusive.

Because Ida's parents do not do so, Ida must watch her baby sister. But Ida instead grows inattentive and busies herself by playing her horn. Consequently, goblins kidnap the baby and leave a changeling in her place. When Ida discovers the impostor, she rushes to save her sister. But she makes a blunder: she commences the rescue mission backward. The narrator says, "She climbed backwards out her window into outside over there." Ida almost loses track of the goblins, until she hears a song from her father warning her to turn around. Once Ida reverses her direction, she finds the goblins immediately. Playing her horn, Ida hypnotizes them to dance uncontrollably. Similar to Sambo's tigers' melting into butter, Ida's goblins churn themselves into a stream. Ida then finds her sister and carries her home. There Ida encounters another warning from her father, this time via a letter in which he admonishes her to continue to look after the baby. It is a difficult ending for a difficult story.

Geraldine DeLuca argues that Outside presents a fantasy world inaccessible to children.6 She claims the text is obscure because of its "allegorical sensibility," a characteristic she describes as having "layer upon layer of meaning" (DeLuca 1984, 4). Although the story does seem obscure in places, it is not altogether an inaccessible journey into fantasy for children to take if they make the journey from Ida's perspective, not their own. Ultimately, the obscurity of the narrator's attempts to share with the reader the fictive world of Ida's "outside over there" is appropriate, for the narrator's directions to the reader are open-ended to the degree that Ida's own sense of time and location is open-ended.

Through his clues to the reader, the narrator re-creates a sense of the difficulty of Ida's everyday world. As in Night Kitchen, when the reader turns the first page the fantasy is already in progress in the illustrations—goblins are lurking in the pictures' corners. Yet for the first three pages the narrator does not mention the hooded figures; he simply describes the "facts" of Ida's everyday world. True to the Sendakian picture book, the narrator shares the story's point of view with the reader by presenting the person, place, and time in the first sentence:

When Papa was away at sea,
and Mama in the arbor,
Ida played her wonder horn
to rock the baby still—
but never watched.

Here the narrator presents Ida as the main character. By inference, the reader discerns Ida's situation. She is not with her father, for he is at sea. She is not with her mother, for she is in the arbor. Therefore, Ida seems to be alone at home. In this way the narrator suggests that the motivating problem for Ida is her baby sister. With both parents preoccupied, Ida faces the tedium of looking after an infant alone.

Most atypical about this beginning for a Sendakian picture book is the way the narrator establishes a shared sense of time associated with Ida's problem. Ida's everyday time frame does not have the exactness of time expressed in the openings of the other two picture books; the action here is instead presented in duration. In the other books' openings, Max "wore" his wolf suit and Mickey "heard" the racket. Using the past tense, the narrators of those books express the actions as completed. But though the narrator in Outside gives Ida's own action as completed, saying she "played her wonder horn," he presents Papa's action as in duration. By using the deictic phrase "When Papa was away," the narrator leaves ambiguous the exact time of Ida's father's departure and return. Consequently, Ida may only have begun to take care of her sister, or she may have been babysitting her for a suspended length of time. The open-endedness in the narrator's clues re-creates for the reader the sense of pending time Ida must be feeling in charge of a baby.

In orienting the reader to Ida's world, what the narrator does not tell the reader is as important as what he does. As noted, the narrator does not tell the reader about the hooded figures. Assuming that the narrator recognizes these goblins as part of Ida's world, he never identifies the mysterious creatures; he simply refers to them in the second stanza with the definite article "the"—"So the goblins came," he says. This use of "the" shows that the narrator assumes the reader knows exactly those goblins to which he refers (Ong, 13). With both of these assumptions, then, the narrator guides the reader to enter imaginatively into Ida's world, a world that contains both the ordinary and the fantastic.

Thus far, in both narrative and illustrations Ida seems aloof from both her everyday world and her fantasy world. In her ordinary world, Ida ignores her sister; in her imaginary world, she ignores the goblins as they carry her sister away. Ida's indifference works appropriately with the sense of pending time established at the beginning of the story, for it epitomizes her feeling of boredom. The reader may also feel aloof because the narrator's directions so far have been extremely limited.

Ida's response to both worlds changes when her sense of time changes. The narrator points the reader to Ida's sense of immediacy in the story through a change in circumstances and through the deictic "now." Circumstances change for Ida when she realizes her baby sister has been stolen by goblins. The narrator signals her present-tense sense of urgency with the phrase "Now Ida in a hurry." It is the first time within the plot that Ida has acknowledged the goblins. When the narrator says "Ida mad knew goblins had been there," the narrator's "there" means "there with Ida."

The circumstances surrounding the present time for Ida are similar to those surrounding the present time for Max in Where the Wild Things Are. When Max says, "And now … let the wild rumpus start!" he suddenly changes his actions from calm to uproarious behavior. When he subsequently orders, "Now stop!" he suddenly changes from a wild to a tame boy. Likewise for Ida—when the narrator says "Now," Ida undergoes a drastic change of behavior, switching from neglecting her sister to aggressively seeking after her.

The narrator further points the reader to Ida's new sense of purpose by at once giving a generous helping of directions. He notes that Ida goes "backwards out her window into outside over there." Here the narrator gives six different directions: "backwards," "out," "into," "outside," "over," and "there." Just as it is difficult for the reader to determine exactly which way Ida is going, so too does Ida herself become disoriented, being described as "foolish" and "whirling." The narrator thus describes the passage into the fantasy world of "outside over there" so that the reader knows just as much as Ida.

When, however, Ida's sense of direction becomes so confused, her father intervenes with just enough information to get her on the right course. The deictics in Papa's song literally and figuratively mark the turning point for Ida. Literally Papa sings for Ida to "turn around," and figuratively Ida does an aboutface in her behavior. Whereas earlier Ida's disobedience—her never watching the baby—led to the kidnapping, now her obedience leads to the rescue.

When Ida obeys her papa, the narrator captures her acquired sense of security by explaining to the reader that Ida is now in a specific location. No longer is she spinning aimlessly without her feet on the ground; she is, says the narrator, now "smack in the middle of a wedding."

Once Ida finds herself centered in the wedding, the narrator presents what she sees to the reader as Ida herself discovers it, that these previously mysterious-looking goblins actually resemble her own younger sibling. As the narrator puts it, the goblins appear to be "just babies like her sister!" Even though the narrator speaks in the third person, he establishes a shared perspective between Ida and reader (Traugott and Pratt, 289). Spiritually, Ida experiences a breakthrough. She has faced both her sister and the goblins and seen both for what they are—a veritable "hubbub," as she says. The narrator captures Ida's final confrontation with her negative feelings toward her sister by centering her in an event that metaphorically mandates the union of opposites: a marriage dance. Here Ida can face the truth, as the reader does alongside her, that troublesome sprites (the goblins) sometimes take the form of lovable babies (her sister).

With Ida's reconciling insight shared with the reader, the former sense of pending time is stopped. Here within the haven of Ida's imaginary world, the narrator presents her with a sense of progressive, fast-paced time. Now when Ida plays her wonder horn for these goblin babies the narrator directs the reader to a moving sense of time with the deictics "at first," "then," and "until":

The goblins, all against their will, danced slowly at first,
then faster until they couldn't breathe.

Each of the deictic words signals a marking off of time in progress.

In the next sentence, referring to the goblins with the demonstrative "those," the narrator directs the reader to acknowledge the same goblins that Ida does. In this way the narrator guides the reader to discover with Ida the one "goblin" who does not change into the stream:

Except for one who lay cozy in an eggshell,
crooning and clapping as a baby should.
And that was Ida's sister.

With the deictic phrase "Except for one" and the deictic word "that," the narrator guides the reader to view the scene from Ida's perspective.

After her purging confrontation in the safety of her own fantasy world, Ida redeems her sense of present time and immediate action in the everyday world. The narrator describes her journey home, beginning in the present. "Now," he said, Ida starts for home.

The narrator's use of deictics again points the reader to visualize the path as Ida sees it. The return journey home is as labyrinthine as that from home, but the directions are more specific. The narrator directs the reader to "the stream that curled like a path along the broad meadow and up the ringed-round hill to her Mama." With such specificity, even though the way home is not as straight as the crow flies, it is clearly cut, and Ida has the energy to complete the journey while holding her baby sister.

That Ida's trek home is uphill has symbolic nuances different from the emotional tones at the endings of Wild Things and Night Kitchen. Max sails back "into the night of his very own room where he [finds] his supper waiting for him"; his journey is horizontal—not as difficult as Ida's upward climb. And Mickey returns home by simply falling into bed "cakefree and dried," the narrator's pun on "cakefree" for "carefree" serving to end Mickey's story with a lighthearted tone. But with Ida, her rising path and twisting trail home symbolize the difficulty of her experience, for when she gets there she finds not Papa but his letter waiting for her.

With Papa's letter the narrator again establishes the sense of pending time for Ida. The future tense in the phrase "I'll be home one day," coupled with the standing command that "little Ida must watch," projects resolution of Ida's predicament into the future. In her fantasy world Ida could aggressively take time into her own hands. The narrator said she gathered her cloak and horn "now," and when she exited the fantasy land, the narrator again marked her departure with the time of "now." Ida proved that she could control the present time, but she cannot control the future and make her father return sooner or more definitely.

The story ends in a remarkable way. The narrator closes with one line, as Ida's response to Papa's letter—"Which is just what Ida did," the "Which" referring to Ida's obediently watching "the baby and her Mama for her Papa." Because Ida cannot change her circumstances of waiting and watching, she changes herself. Ignoring her responsibility to watch her sister in the beginning, she now claims that charge. It is a wondrous conclusion to a story about fantasy because Ida matures in a reasonable, unmagical way.

In Outside over There the delicate boundary between the ordinary and the fantastic worlds, the narrator's circuitous pathways to and from the fantasy, and the multiple levels of fantasy experienced by Ida make for a complicated narrative. The narrator's confusing description of the journey to the fantasy and his convoluted directions for the journey back home do at first seem inaccessible pathways to and from fantasy. Yet Wayne Booth, in The Rhetoric of Fiction, argues that before a reader criticizes or praises a piece of literature for its obscurity, he or she must consider the appropriateness of that obscurity for the particular work.7 Here the possible discomfort in the reading experience parallels the difficulty of Ida's experience. She is the sole person responsible for her baby sister, since both parents are busy. The tedium of watching her sister contains mixed emotions of love, dislike, jealousy, and boredom. These are troubling sentiments to confess when one wants to please one's parents. Because the narrator gives Ida's dream adventure to the reader through at-times-confusing deictics but specifically from Ida's perspective, the reader's experience of reading Outside over There may be as cathartic as Ida's own experience in the book.


Ironically, it was Sendak's picture-book trilogy—Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, and Outside over There—that confirmed his skill with words. The artist, regarded primarily as an illustrator, emerged as a competent writer as well. At the Fifth Annual Conference of the Children's Literature Association, held at Harvard University in 1978, Sendak asserted his talents for both graphic and literary art as interdependent in the picture book. In an interview he explained, "I have been so often praised for the pictures in my picture books, as though in spite of the words, the pictures were good. And yet I know that I would not be an illustrator without words."8 It was Wild Things, winner of the Caldecott Medal, that established Sendak as an outstanding narrative writer for children. From a New Critical perspective, the brief text of Wild Things is admirably tight, with a controlled conflict and resolution and with a symmetrical plot. Sendak shapes the fantasy with an Aristotelian beginning, middle, and end—first establishing the initial problem in the ordinary world, then launching its development into a fantasy world, and finally anchoring the resolution firmly back in Max's everyday setting.

Night Kitchen does not share Wild Things's "narrative linear causality," and for this reason critics have ranked it second to Wild Things's artfulness. Nevertheless, William Touponce argues—and I agree with him—that Night Kitchen equally offers the reader aesthetic pleasure by raising tactile and kinetic sensations through its "poetic word-images."9 Sendak's word images of batter and dough present archetypes of an imaginative, malleable pâte that Mickey shapes and forms by his own control. It is the reader's ability to identify with these primordial images of creativity in Night Kitchen, argues Touponce, that makes it a supreme piece of illustrated literature.

It follows that Outside has not been as highly received as either Wild Things or Night Kitchen. Again, judged by its definition of conflict and resolution, Outside certainly does not offer a sense of surety in the beginning or complete peacefulness at the end. But judged on whether or not it shares with the reader the troublesomeness of Ida's experience, I believe it succeeds.

As a creator of fantasies, Sendak has shown us his versatility to design Night Kitchen in the personality of Grand Central Station and Outside in the tone of a Frankish castle on the Rhine. Refreshingly, he never follows the same blueprint, yet his blueprints always include directions for the reader on how to visualize his fantasy worlds. His ability to so artfully stage the settings of these separate fantasies makes him a master storyteller, for children read, writes Carolyn Horovitz, "for the living experience, the book and the child becoming one in a kind of osmosis [sic] state. "10 Such enjoyable transport from their immediate circumstances also vicariously affords young readers their own quiet place for escape.

  1. "Playground Person," New Yorker, 7 November 1988, 30; hereafter cited in text as "Playground."
  2. Elizabeth Closs Traugott and Mary Louise Pratt, Linguistics for Students of Literature (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), 275; hereafter cited in text.
  3. Walter J. Ong, S.J., "The Writer's Audience Is Always a Fiction," PMLA 90:1 (Jan. 1975): 13; hereafter cited in text.
  4. Cornelia Meigs, Anne Thaxter Eaton, Elizabeth Nesbitt, Ruth Hill Viguers, eds., A Critical History of Children's Literature (1953; reprint, New York: Macmillan, 1969), 447.
  5. Susan Stewart, Nonsense: Aspects of Intertextuality in Folklore and Literature (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), 161-63.
  6. Geraldine DeLuca, "Exploring the Levels of Childhood," Children's Literature 12 (1984): 4; hereafter cited in text.
  7. Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), 300-9.
  8. "Picture Book Genesis: A Conversation with Maurice Sendak," in Proceedings of the Fifth Annual Conference of the Children's Literature Association, (Villanova, Pa.: Villanova University, 1978), 5:31.
  9. William F. Touponce, "The Journey as Cosmic Reverie: A Reading of Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen," in Proceedings of the Thirteenth Annual Conference of the Children's Literature Association, ed. Susan R. Gannon and Ruth Anne Thompson (Kansas City: University of Missouri-Kansas City, 1978), 92-95.
  10. Carolyn Horovitz, "Fiction and the Paradox of Play," Wilson Library Bulletin 44 (December 1969): 397.

Joseph Stanton (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Stanton, Joseph. "The Dreaming Picture Books of Chris Van Allsburg." Children's Literature 24 (1996): 161-79.

[In the following essay, Stanton provides an overview of the surrealist influences found in the picture books of Chris Van Allsburg. Stanton asserts that "surrealism and strangely-enough fantasy—can be found in all of [Van Allsburg's] books to varying degrees."]

The picture shows us a darkly lovely rendering of a Venetian canal with two tight rows of buildings facing each other across a narrow waterway. A small arched footbridge delicately links the two sides. But in the background towers a gigantic ocean liner crashing its way into the far end of the canal. On a facing page is the title of the image, "Missing in Venice," and a caption: "Even with her mighty engines in reverse, the ocean liner was pulled further and further into the canal." Here indeed is a mystery—and a mystery that remains unsolved, because the single picture with its title and caption are all we have. Chris Van Allsburg's collection The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is, in fact, a collection of fourteen unsolvable, but intriguingly captioned, mystery pictures. According to the tongue-in-cheek introduction, these images, along with their titles and captions, were left by a man supposedly named Harris Burdick with a children's book editor supposedly named Peter Wenders. Harris Burdick and the manuscripts for which each of the images is just a sample were, of course, never seen again, leaving us with fourteen inscrutable fragments.

In interviews Van Allsburg has resisted attempts to pin down the origins and purposes of his picture-story ideas. He has indicated that he, too, finds his books mysterious and cannot offer simple explanations as to where and how they originate.

A question I've been asked often is, "Where do your ideas come from?" I've given a variety of answers to this question, such as: "I steal them from the neighborhood kids," "I send away for them by mail order," and "They are beamed to me from outer space." It's not really my intention to be rude or smart-alecky. The fact is, I don't know where my ideas come from. Each story I've written starts out as a vague idea that seems to be going nowhere, then suddenly materializes as a completed concept. It almost seems like a discovery, as if the story was always there. The few elements I start out with are actually clues. If I figure out what they mean, I can discover the story that's waiting.

(Ruello 169-70)

In this essay I do not promise to offer definitive solutions to the Harris Burdick mysteries or to any of the other bizarre fancies invented by the mind and art of Chris Van Allsburg. I shall, however, propose a theory concerning the traditions that lie behind his remarkable originality. Van Allsburg's work involves, it seems to me, the yoking together of two kinds of traditions that are almost never discussed together—a popular-culture tradition and an avant-garde, high-modernist tradition.1 The popular culture tradition I have in mind will be referred to as the strangely-enough tale. The high-art, experimental tradition is, of course, surrealism. It too often happens that the popular arts are completely boxed off from the high arts—more often as a result of academic specialization than of overt snobbery—but some of the greatest innovations in the arts come from the surprising mixing of the contents of various boxes.

Furthermore, because surrealism is a high art with a proclivity for the low, it is of particular importance to understand the ways surrealism can and does connect with popular culture. Also, one should appreciate that, despite the "pastness" of surrealism as a movement of the early to mid-twentieth century, the transaction between surrealism and popular culture continues and flows in both directions: the surrealistically inclined have always appropriated images from popular culture, and popular culture in such forms as magazine advertisements, department-store display windows, and rock videos have often borrowed surrealist procedures and appropriated well-known images from classic surrealist works. As we turn our attention to the children's picture-book genre, we should also bear in mind that, although surrealism is not ordinarily thought of as being aimed at an audience of children, much was made in Breton's manifestos, and in other primary surrealist documents, of the value of a "childlike" outlook. It is not, therefore, surprising that Van Allsburg, a university-trained finearts practitioner working in the popular children's picture-book form should fuse surrealist and pop-culture motifs. What is remarkable, of course, is the wonderfulness of his results. If we can gain some sense of the cultural sources that underlie his work, we can better appreciate his success, even as we allow his mysteries to remain more or less unsolved.

I begin with a discussion of the several books in which the surrealistic element in Van Allsburg's work can be most clearly seen. I then discuss books that incorporate strangely-enough tales, with attention to how surrealistic and strangely-enough elements coexist in several of Van Allsburg's most distinctive books.

The three books that I discuss as primary examples of the surrealistic tendencies in Van Allsburg's work are The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, Ben's Dream, and The Z Was Zapped. Because the term surrealism has been applied in so many ways, I must make clear that the surrealism I have in mind is not primarily the surrealism of André Breton and his closest associates. I am not thinking of automatic writing, found objects, random assortments, and frottages. The surrealism that embodies the irrational or unrational by relying upon the accidental would seem to have little to do with the meticulously designed and arranged works of Van Allsburg. The surrealism I refer to here is the secondary surrealism that derived sustenance, though not methodology, from the liberations effected by Breton and company. I have in mind Giorgio De Chirico,2 Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and, most of all, René Magritte. It is, of course, terminologically problematic that these artists did not always fly the surrealist banner. What the works of these artists, as well as the works of Van Allsburg, have in common is that they contain "highly detailed likenesses of objects, straight or distorted, or three-dimensional abstractions, in a fantastic and unexpected juxtaposition, or in a setting of a hallucinatory kind" (Murray and Murray 402). This kind of surrealism constructs its dream images with a highly self-conscious sense of form and style. The content of the images may arise from the tapping of the subconscious, but the rendering of the work of art is realized with conscious finesse. Van Allsburg's surrealism is quite deliberate, as he himself has acknowledged: "If all artists were forced to wear a badge, I'd probably wear the badge of surrealism. I don't mean something as extreme as Salvador Dali's melting clocks, but a gentle surrealism with certain unsettling provocative elements" (Ruello 169).

Passionate attention to selected likenesses and the employment of unexpected juxtapositions are essential to my three examples of Van Allsburg's surrealism. Perhaps the readiest way to recognize his affiliation with a certain kind of surrealism would be to compare the humorous stage-set images of The Z Was Zapped to certain stage-set images of René Magritte. Throughout his career Magritte employed the stage curtain and the shallow space of a stage as a compositional devise that gave a theatrical air to his images. The advantages of this performance-evoking strategy include the compositional attractiveness of this mode of display, the basic wittiness of making a static image into a dramatic action, and the effectiveness of this style of presentation as a means of heightening audience attention. Magritte works such as "Homage to Shakespeare" and "Wasted Effort" are particularly amusing in their interplay of landscape and stage-set elements. The metamorphosis of the stage-curtain shape into the fragment of sky that we see in both of these works is typical of the transformative play Magritte develops in much of his work. Things often turn into sky or stone in Magritte's pictures. Or shoes become feet or bottles become carrots. A complete catalog of Magritte's warpings of one thing into another would be a very long list indeed. Similar transformations could be noted in the works of many other modern artists (and even in the works of some artists from earlier eras), but the clarity and fastidiousness of Magritte's likenesses make him the surrealistic forerunner most obviously comparable to Van Allsburg.

In The Z Was Zapped many of the letters of the alphabet undergo transformations in keeping with an alliterative phrase utilizing the sound of the letter. Thus, we have "The E was slowly Evaporating" as the caption for an onstage E that is fading away at the top as it gives off steam. "The G was starting to Grow" shows rootlike appendages bursting out of the edges of a G. Similarly, a J is shown to be jittery, an M is melting, a V is vanishing, and a W is warped. Other letters are under attack in a variety of ways. The B was bitten, the C was cut to ribbons, the F was flattened by a gigantic foot, the K was kidnapped by gloved hands, the N was nailed, the P was pecked by a nasty-looking bird, the Q was quartered by a knife that hangs in mid-air without the support of a hand, the U was uprooted, the Y was yanked, and, of course, the Z was zapped. The natural elements play a role in beating up on the hapless alphabet: lightning zaps the Z, an avalanche falls on the A, and water soaks the S. In addition to the emphasis on absurd transformations of objects, the use of stage settings, and meticulous attention to appearances, Van Alls-burg shares with Magritte a knack for witty presentation of body parts (hands and feet in particular) separated from the rest of the body. (The illustrations for F and K are of interest in this regard.) It is even possible that Van Allsburg, perhaps unconsciously, derived the idea for this book directly from a work by Magritte. Some of the letters that Magritte did as chapter headings for an edition of Lautreamont's Les chants de Maldoror are interestingly similar to Van Allsburg's letters. Particularly pertinent is Magritte's drawing of an R with an eagle's clawed foot reaching out on one side and a human hand on the other (Hubert 194-205).

The violence of Van Allsburg's alphabet no doubt comes as a surprise to many readers. The brutal way that many of the letters are destroyed or threatened hardly fits with conventional ideas concerning what is appropriate for small children; although superficially Van Allsburg's transformations may seem more ruthless than Magritte's, there is, however, an element of melodrama to Van Allsburg's staged destructions that makes them, ultimately, less unsettling than Magritte's. Although it seems odd that The Z Was Zapped, a book ostensibly to be shared with the youngest of children, is in several respects the least gentle of Van Allsburg's exercises in surrealism, it can be seen that Van Allsburg's "unsettling provocative elements" are held under control by our awareness that the artist-writer is having fun with his series of alphabetic horror shows.

Van Allsburg's The Z Was Zapped belongs to a genre of whimsical nonsense alphabets perhaps best represented by Walter Crane's The Absurd ABC, with its wonderful jumble of motifs from nursery rhymes and fairy tales, but it is the Magritte-like quality of Van Allsburg's ABCs that makes their absurdity distinctive.

Ben's Dream wears the badge of surrealism through the genuinely dreamlike nature of its narrative. Also suggestive of surrealism is its humorous display of famous monuments and buildings. A specific connection to surrealism can be found in the obvious echo of an image from Une semaine de bonté, a surrealist montage picture book by Max Ernst.3 Ernst's image of the Egyptian Sphinx seen through the window of a railroad car is reinvented by Van Allsburg in the image of the Sphinx seen from the front porch of Ben's floating house—in both images the head of the Sphinx is facing exactly the same way. It would not be surprising to hear that Van Allsburg was directly inspired by the example of Ernst's collage novel (Ernst 137). Beyond this specific reference, making famous buildings look ridiculous is entirely in the spirit of the surrealist project. It should be noted, however, that the punchline of Ben's Dream, which indicates that both the boy and the girl had dreamed the same dream, is suggestive of the strangely-enough motif. Also, although Ben's Dream can be seen to have derived from surrealism, it is too mild-mannered, too gentle in its dreaming to be fully in tune with the disturbing ferocity of the great surrealist masterpieces.

Surrealist qualities of a more unsettling sort are to be found, however, in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. Van Allsburg's startling intrusion of an ocean liner into a canal that I referred to at the beginning of this essay bears a family resemblance to the startling emergence of a train engine from a fireplace in Magritte's Time Transfixed. The playful joining of the ordinary to the extraordinary are specialities of both Magritte and Van Allsburg. Van Allsburg gives us an unexceptional suburban street where we discover one of the houses to be blasting off like a rocketship, whereas Magritte gives us a fish washed up on the shore that just happens to have legs where its tail should be. The Magritte resemblance has been suggested by other commentators on Van Allsburg's books. For instance, John Russell, reviewing The Wreck of the Zephyr, noted that "some of the images of flight are worthy of Magritte himself."

The literary aspect of the Harris Burdick book also has a rough equivalence in Magritte. Magritte made the naming of his paintings into a game separate from the making of his pictures. Much could be said about how this practice helped Magritte put forth the fiction that his pictures were not self-revelatory. Magritte often solicited his literary friends to make up names for his pictures, thereby ensuring a mysterious disjunction between the picture and its label. In one sense Van Allsburg self-consciously cultivates mystery through the puzzling labels he forces us to connect to the Harris Burdick pictures, but the stronger effect of the labels is to demystify the pictures, at least to some extent. Each caption implies a particular kind of story. There would no doubt be much more agreement between stories generated from Van Allsburg's captions than there would be between stories generated from Magritte's often-baffling titles.

The fourteen inscrutable fragments that make up The Mysteries of Harris Burdick are deft excursions into the fantastic that demonstrate the potential of the picture-book form for combining literary and pictorial means to produce powerful literary-pictorial ends. Perhaps not everyone would agree with me that The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is the best of Van Allsburg's many excellent picture books, but I think it is the best place to look for an understanding of his profoundly whimsical art. Composed as it is of fragments, Harris Burdick shows us the artist-writer at play in his workshop.

In this strange workshop, the subgenre that I am calling the strangely-enough tale plays a prominent part. The term strangely enough is taken from the title of a popular book of tales published by C. B. Colby in 1959.4 What made Colby's collection of strange stories exciting for twelve-year-olds of all ages was the attitude he adopted toward the material and expressed in his title. Colby managed to present his brief retellings of startling tales in a manner that suggested they might be true, despite their strangeness. Colby's journalistic plain style of writing was one of the elements that seemed to attest to the truth of the tales. Paradoxically, if Colby had been a better writer, his tales would have seemed more literary and thereby less real.5 The point is that Colby managed to make many of us want to believe that, strangely enough, something remarkable had really happened.

The only claim I am making here for Colby is that his work is typical of the genre and more enduring in its unpretentious appeal than many similar collections that have appeared over the years. Strangely Enough is primarily interesting as the most popular and widely distributed repackaging of contemporary oral tradition in the medium of print. Whether he knew it or not, Colby was a recorder of contemporary folk legends, primarily of the kind that Jan Harold Brunvand describes as "urban legends." Most of Colby's material appeared first in a newspaper column that he wrote for a number of years. His solicitation of tales for his column was his primary means of tale collection. The newspaper context has long been an important element in the spread and development of modern folk legends, because the inclusion of a tale in a publication dedicated to the reporting of fact tends to reinforce any assertion, however slight and whimsical, that the tale is possibly true.6

I have no idea whether Van Allsburg was directly influenced by Colby's book or by any of the numerous other books and comic books that have presented similar "strange tales," but it is apparent that several of Van Allsburg's books and all of the tales suggested in the fragments included in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick make use of the simple but powerful formula found in folk legends. In such tales there is an ordinary context out of which something extraordinary seems to develop. Journalistic versions of such tales tend to be brief and lacking in the histrionics common in oral presentations. Most such tales take no more than a page and a half to recount. The ordinary situation is explicated in a few paragraphs, then the extraordinary aspect is delivered as a kind of punchline. The understated manner of the telling in a newspaper context adds to the plausibility of the tales. Sometimes the situation seems to be falling short of the extraordinary until a chance remark by one of the characters betrays the almost dismissed extraordinariness.

Recognizing the relatedness of Van Allsburg's tales to the journalistic retelling of strangely-enough tales, as exemplified by Colby's Strangely Enough collection, provides a way of understanding the reason for Van Allsburg's peculiar flatness of delivery and brevity of exposition, which are among the most distinctive features of his storytelling style. In both Colby and Van Allsburg a flatness of tone and a terseness of narration reinforce the surface plausibility of the tale and stand in striking contrast to the bizarreness of what is taking place. Of course, a critical difference between Van Allsburg's tales and Colby's are the wonderful pictures that Van Allsburg employs to make us witnesses of the strange happenings. The startling contrast between Van Allsburg's dull, though carefully crafted, prose and his extraordinary images operates as a continuous irony. It is key to the tension between the ordinary and the marvelous that is his central subject.

The Garden of Abdul Gasazi is an excellent example of the strangely-enough plot and narrative strategy. In this tale, a little boy named Alan is asked to take care of his neighbor's dog.7 While Alan is walking the dog, the disobedient animal breaks away and heads into the mysterious garden of the magician Abdul Gasazi. Gasazi's abhorrence of dogs is posted on a sign that declares: "Absolutely, positively no dogs allowed in this garden." When the dismayed boy reaches Gasazi's house in the center of the garden, the dog is nowhere in sight. It turns out that Gasazi has either used his magic to transform the dog into a duck or played a clever joke on Alan. The rediscovery at the end of the book that the dog was in possession of Alan's hat, which had been stolen by the duck, sets up a final remark by the neighbor ("Why you bad dog," she said. "What are you doing with Alan's hat?"), which suggests, in fine, understated, strangely-enough fashion, that the extraordinary explanation is probably the right one.8

In Jumanji, Van Allsburg turns away somewhat from the popular-culture tradition of Colby and his kind and draws on the more self-consciously literary tradition that derives from the nineteenth-century weird tales of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, among others. This tradition has continued to enjoy vigorous life in contemporary works of literary fiction and in films. Among the many writers and filmmakers whose stories fit the mold of the strangely-enough tale are Alfred Hitchcock, Roald Dahl, Ray Bradbur, and Stephen King. The question of inter-connections between the weird tales of the literary tradition and the weird tales collected by journalists (such as Colby) and scholarly folklorists (such as Jan Harold Brunvand) is a rich topic that has not been adequately addressed. For my purposes here it does not seem possible to cleanly separate the collected from the crafted with regard to influence on Van Alls-burg; they are two sides of the same coin. Even the most carefully crafted of literary weird tales are aimed at popular audiences. Although the simplicity and blandness of Van Allsburg's narration of Jumanji suggest the collected tale, the twists of Jumanji's little plot and the ironies it sets up recall, in certain respects, the tales of such popular modern storytellers as Dahl and Hitchcock. The grim little twist at the end, where the dangerous jungle game is found by two little boys who are well known for not following directions, is suggestive of one of Hitchcock's wittily gruesome, unhappy endings. But the somewhat more sophisticated feel of this tale does not conceal the strangely-enough mechanism.

Although I shall not discuss here all the varied graphic techniques Van Allsburg employed in his books, it should be observed that he has produced approximately one book a year since the appearance of his first book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, in 1979. For each of these yearly productions, his artistic procedures have changed. Each book is an experimental working out of design and material problems that Van Allsburg has set for himself. Underlying his structures and his choices of picture-making techniques is a sculptural sense that derives from his training and practice as a sculptor. Judging from remarks in recent interviews, Van Allsburg still seems to regard himself—even today, after all his years of success as a picture-book artist—as primarily a finearts sculptor who does picture books as something of a sideline. The scene in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi where Alan runs through the gate in the hedge to first enter the garden is one of many striking instances of sculptural form in Van Allsburg's work. In that scene, Alan and the two statues that border the gate seem to be three statuary variations on the theme "running boy." The gateway itself seems palpably sculptural. Even the separate leaves and blades of grass possess a certain amount of what philosopher of art Susanne Langer would call "kinetic volume" (Langer, 90). Each of these figurations seems static yet uncannily capable of operating in the viewer's space as well as in the virtual scene. This picture subtly suggests to the viewer that he or she might walk into it. The sculptural palpableness of some of Van Allsburg's pictures offers powerful reinforcement to the strangely-enough element in his work. We are drawn into the spaces of the garden of Abdul Gasazi not simply because his style is realistic but because his sculptural effects break down the barrier between our space and the space of the picture. Van Allsburg's sculptural effects in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi evoke a twilight-zone mood and have, at the same time, affinities with the sculptural dimensions of works by Dali, Magritte, and other surrealist artists. Thus, the strange tale of popular culture and the dream image of surrealistic modernism are fused in a peculiarly powerful way.

The Wreck of the Zephyr is perhaps the work most completely conceived in the strangely-enough manner. Recounters of such legends add credibility to their accounts by using the framing device of casting the narrator in the role of a visitor to a scene of fantastic events; there he or she encounters a person residing in the place who tells the tale that the narrator presumably does no more than record.9 There is a twist at the end of The Wreck of the Zephyr where we are left with the implication that the narrator was the boy protagonist of the tale he has just told. Van Allsburg sets up this turn of events well. Most readers are probably taken somewhat by surprise when the old man's limping walk and anxiousness to go sailing hint that he was once the boy who flew the Zephyr. As usual in the strangely-enough tale, the truth of the story rests on the presumed credibility of the speaker as an eyewitness.

The Wreck of the Zephyr represents a new direction in Van Allsburg's picture-book art, because it is his first venture into color. Later statements about his experiments with color indicate that he was dissatisfied with the technique he employed in this book. His efforts to blend pastels in ways that would create painted effects were apparently the source of some frustration for him. Whatever difficulties this book may have caused him seem to have been worth enduring; The Wreck of the Zephyr presents striking images that might not have been achievable in other ways. For instance, the luminescent greens of the ocean in the picture on the jacket of The Wreck of the Zephyr could not have been produced with the separate-strokes-of-color technique Van Allsburg used in The Stranger.

I have already cited John Russell's comment on the evident Magritte influence on The Wreck of the Zephyr. As with many Magritte images, several of Van Allsburg's pictures for this book present key elements as suspended or frozen within the scene. Thus, Van Allsburg's flying boats have an eerie silence and a seeming motionlessness that is reminiscent of the gigantic apples or rocks Magritte hangs over seascapes in such paintings as The Beautiful Truths or The Castle in the Pyrenees. Although we could also link the marine dreams of Van Allsburg with the dramatically lighted nineteenth-century luminist scenes of such artists as Fritz Hugh Lane and Martin Johnson Heade, the overall effect of these pictures is Magritte-like.

The best selling of Van Allsburg's picture books, The Polar Express, captures a strangely-enough motif that recurs in many forms in American popular culture. Van Allsburg's explanation of how this story came to him provides a fascinating glimpse into his way of imagining but provides little by way of interpretation.

When I began thinking about what became The Polar Express, I had a single image in mind: a young boy sees a train standing still in front of his house one night. The boy and I took a few different trips on that train, but we did not, in a figurative sense, go anywhere. Then I headed north, and I got the feeling that this time I'd picked the right direction, because the train kept rolling all the way to the North Pole. At that point the story seemed literally to present itself. Who lives at the North Pole? Undoubtedly a ceremony of some kind, a ceremony requiring a child, delivered by a train and would have to be named the Polar Express.

(Ruello 170)

An image that might have been one of the Harris Burdick fragments was developed into a story that resolves itself into a kind of seasonal legend. Although the polar rite of winter around which the story revolves is a product of Van Allsburg's knack for developing fantasy rather than a conscious manipulation of an archetypal motif, the archetypal motif of this strangely-enough tale is not hard to spot. The argument of this tale is the heart-warming contention that "Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus." The movie Miracle on 34th Street is, of course, relevant here. The popular-culture nature of this tale makes it no less important than it would be if it were tricked out in the trappings of classical myth. The truth-pretense of the reality of Santa is perhaps the most widely distributed of all American strangely-enough motifs. Santa is the "flying saucer" that parents profess to believe in as an important game of ritual affection, gift giving, and seasonal celebration.

We might expect to lose the dangerous edge of surrealism in Van Allsburg's embrace of Jolly Old Saint Nick, but when we consider the intrusion of a massive train into a quiet suburban street, the restrainedly demonic nature of Van Allsburg's North Pole with its bizarrely vast snow-covered urban appearance, and the quietly nightmarish hugeness of the crowd of identically dressed elves turned out to hear Santa's speech—when we consider all the elements of this late-night sojourn—we find the surrealist edge of danger subtly implicit. It might even be said that there is something about the visualization of Santa's speech to his army of elves that is reminiscent of the famous filmed sequences of Hitler addressing his storm troopers. Although Santa is treated as an unambiguously benign being in the context of the book, there is an unsettling quality to the North Pole scene that adds an aesthetically interesting element of disorientation to the miraculous presence of the godlike Santa figure.

An even more mysterious mythos figures in the strangely-enough notion that lies at the center of The Stranger, a work that resonates on a number of levels. Visits by gods among mortals are commonplace in mythic traditions. Not identified as a powerful immortal, the god appears on someone's doorstep. Often such tales are moral fables concerning the importance of offering hospitality to strangers. Van Allsburg's tale certainly follows this pattern but adds the twist that the stranger in his book suffers from amnesia owing to a collision with a car whose driver afterward takes him into his home. The stranger's exact identity remains unexplained, but he is suggestive of Jack Frost, a being responsible for changing the season from warm summer to cool autumn and cold winter. Because of the stranger's amnesia, autumn does not come to the place where he has stopped. The farm family he stays with benefits from the prolonged warm weather that produces a bountiful harvest. Eventually the truth dawns on the stranger, and he departs to return to his appointed rounds.

Of course, as with Polar Express, we can link the story in The Stranger to a variety of popular works that share its basic strangely-enough premise. In a number of recent films a godlike personage intrudes into ordinary lives. Most often these beings are presented as aliens from other worlds, but they are typically given Christ-like qualities of spirituality and innocence, as well as certain amazing powers, that mark them as something above and beyond. The cult classic science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein, fits this profile, as do the films Starman, E.T., Man Facing Southeast, Brother from Another Planet, Edward Scissorshands, and Wings of Desire. Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast provides a largely surrealistic version of this motif. In fact, a surrealistic undercurrent could be claimed for all of the films mentioned above. As always, questions of influence are difficult, but it seems that Van Allsburg's stranger is descended from the godly visitors of ancient stories and has some kinship with the extraterrestrial visitors of recent urban legends and the many films and books those legends have inspired.10

It is in the undercurrent of danger and the irrationality of the premise that we sense the surrealist dream developing within The Stranger. The strange creatures that invade the ordinary lives in Ernst's Une Semaine de bonté are perhaps gently echoed by the kindly, but indisputably supernatural, presence of the stranger in Van Allsburg's book. The lovely and uncompromisingly ordinary depiction of a somewhat sentimentalized and gorgeously autumnal rural world serves, however, to de-emphasize the surrealistic aspect of this quiet fantasy.11

The two dimensions of Chris Van Allsburg's work that I have discussed here—surrealism and strangely-enough fantasy—can be found in all of his books to varying degrees. Because Van Allsburg's surrealism is largely manifested in his images and the strangely-enough fantasy is primarily evident in his narratives, these two aspects of his work are largely complementary and do not conflict. Both surrealism and the popular tradition of the strange tale provide opportunities to show that the extraordinary resides in the ordinary and vice versa. Surrealism and the weird tale constitute two different but related ways that dreams intrude on everyday life, and Van Allsburg has learned lessons from both of these living traditions.


  1. It may seem odd to speak of the tradition established in the name of an avant-garde style of art whose founding practioners passionately declared themselves to be antitraditional, but it is undeniable that surrealism established stances and styles that have been continued and developed. By speaking of a tradition we are referring to the continuance of some of the ideas and forms of masters such as Magritte and Ernst in the contemporary works of artist-writers such as Van Allsburg.
  2. Giorgio De Chirico could be considered a forerunner rather than a continuer of the surrealist movement. Some of his most surrealistic works predate Breton's founding of the movement. Chirico is one of those who did not like the term surrealism and did not consider himself a surrealist.
  3. A large subject I cannot adequately address here is the important ways surrealist artists were themselves influenced by nineteenth-century children's picture books. It has been persuasively argued, for instance, that Max Ernst's Une semaine de bonté was influenced by Lewis Carroll's Alice books and their Tenniel illustrations (Wilson 364-71).
  4. I wish to make clear that my adoption of Colby's title as the label for a genre of popular pseudo-nonfiction should not be taken as an unqualified tribute to the literary quality of his work. Certainly there was nothing particularly original about what he put together. Collections such as Colby's had been published before—notably R. DeWitt Miller's Impossible: Yet It Happened (1947). Miller's book purported to be a study of the paranormal, a claim that was to be repeated by scores of authors who contributed to the paranormal publishing industry that mushroomed in the 1970s and still prospers. A recent series of such collections by Robert Ellis Cahill sells well at various "spooky" tourist spots in New England. The roots of all this can be traced back to the nineteenth century. Some of the early experiments in photography involved the use of multiple exposures to insert ghosts and faeries into "true" photographs. Such hoaxes and wishful musings have been rife in the flying-saucer and Loch Ness-monster subgenres as well. The superiority of Colby to DeWitt and many others, however, lies in the conciseness of his tale telling. Colby's Strangely Enough has maintained its popularity, I suspect, largely because its brief accounts spare the reader the often-pompous machinery of the typical paranormal author's explanation of his "field of research." Colby's stories, which have had numerous reprintings, are unencumbered folk-tales and provide the kind of pleasure any good story affords.
  5. It could be argued that the more self-conscious storytelling style of Rod Serling, for instance, kept his published short stories from lingering in the mind with the peculiar aura of plausibility that inheres in Colby's tales. Serling did, of course, achieve a wide audience for his fictions, especially once he established his type of tale in the medium of television, but Serling's narratives seem to fill a different sort of niche in the popular imagination than do Colby's. With Serling we always knew that he was taking us into an artificial realm known as the "Twilight Zone," but with Colby the extraordinary events seemed to be things that had happened to genuine, though only sketchily characterized, ordinary people with whom Colby had talked.
  6. It should be noted that journalistic accounts, even when they debunk the tales, serve to support the further spread of the legends. Published versions are disseminated informally through oral retellings. Tour-group leaders, for instance, often seize upon such anecdotes to entertain their customers. In Hawaii tour guides have gained wide audiences for their versions of such tales. On walking tours, the on-site nature of the tale telling enhances the strangely-enough effect of a story by adding the tangibility of observable buildings, streets, and landscape elements. Even when the conductors of these tours are academically trained scholars, the tales are seldom described as folk legends. It is much more fun for both teller and listener to subscribe to a strange-but-true approach to the material. Further, local tales are seldom related to larger archetypal motifs. For example, the reported tendency of Madame Pele, the volcano goddess, to hitchhike and then disappear from the car is never linked to the wide-spread legend of the "vanishing hitchhiker," which has been discussed by Jan Harold Brunvand in several of his books. The desire to consider the strange tale as possibly true tends to routinely overwhelm any attempt to debunk the tale. Brunvand claims, in fact, that debunkings merely serve to further the distribution of the tale (153).
  7. The bull terrier that first appeared in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi developed into something of a game Van Allsburg plays with his loyal fans. This game involves the reappearance of the bull terrier in book after book; in many of the books the distinctive dog makes his appearance in an obscure corner of only one picture. This odd and amusing practice serves to link Van Allsburg's books to one another. The artist confesses to having enjoyed this find-me exercise. As he has pointed out, the dog is most difficult to find in The Stranger (Ruello 169). After The Z Was Zapped in 1987, however, this visual joke was dropped from his productions for the next three books; Two Bad Ants (1988), Just a Dream (1989), and The Wretched Stone (1991) are entirely dogless. The dog makes an amusing reappearance, however, in The Widow's Broom (1992) and can also be spotted in The Sweetest Fig (1993). It should be noted that his use of a repeated motif, which in popular culture would be called a "running gag," could be viewed as yet another resemblance to surrealist practice. Magritte, especially, is famed for the repeated appearances of his chess pieces, harness bells, men in bowler hats, and the like. Van Allsburg's overall opus is a unity that allows a playful weaving in and out of a pointless but interesting signature motif; this same element of play in serious art is a hallmark of much modernist art influenced by surrealism. The inclination toward playfulness is a key element in Van Allsburg's embrace of both popular culture and surrealism.
  8. The value of noticing the strangely-enough plot of The Garden of Abdul Gasazi is amply testified to by the misinterpretations of plot action that are fallen into by Peter Neumeyer in a recent article on Van Allsburg that appeared in the Children's Literature Association Quarterly. Neumeyer insists upon oversimplifying the story by making it into a case of the protagonist-fell-asleep-and-dreamed-an-adventure-and-then-woke-up ploy so common in the least imaginative children's books. It is, however, obviously the case that the boy wakes up and has the encounter with Gasazi in a waking state. After the adventure he returns to the house, missing the telltale hat. For the dream plot to be operative, the boy would have to be shown waking up at the end of the story. The strangely-enough plot provides a way of understanding the bizarreness of the tale without resorting to the unpersuasive leap to the it-was-just-a-dream explanation that Neumeyer felt he needed to give. In general, Neumeyer's article is flawed by his desire to render Van Allsburg's books as if they were coded messages rather than works of art. Because of Neumeyer's quest for "visual literacy," he fails to do justice to the magic and mystery of Van Allsburg's picture books.
  9. This plot bears some resemblance to the plots of the many Japanese noh plays, in which a person from the particular place tells a tale of an earlier time. As in Van Allsburg's story, the teller is eventually discovered to be the character whose woes are being recounted. In noh plays this tale teller is usually a ghost.
  10. The list of books and films cited here indicates a continuing theme in popular culture, in which Van Allsburg's The Stranger has played a part. Several of the films mentioned postdate Van Allsburg's book and are obviously not considered influences on Van Allsburg. Because the theme of the godlike stranger is so ancient and pervasive, it would be difficult to establish a sequence of influences.
  11. The seasonal feeling of The Stranger is one of its especially attractive features. I can recall no other picture book more effective at rendering autumn and the harvest time. Van Allsburg's technique of painstakingly laying on tiny unblended lines using pastels provides him with excellent means to realize the bright subtleties of autumn colors. His attention to details—such as individual blades of grass in the foreground, separate dots for leaves in middle-ground trees, strokes suggestive of the grain of wooden floorboards, and attractively plausible stylizations to represent distant elements—results in a book that seems to love the look of its subject. Van Allsburg creates strong sculptural effects in several of the pictures in The Stranger, such as the soup-serving scene and the pumpkin-loading scene. For the most part, however, we are not compelled to enter the pictorial space as we are in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi. The images of The Stranger are separated from the audience by a haze of seasonal romance. The viewer is happy to step back and contemplate the seasonal display.

Works Cited

Breton, André. Manifestoes of Surrealism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969.

Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings. New York: Norton, 1981. (Other Brunvand books include The Baby Train, The Choking Doberman, Curses! Broiled Again, and The Mexican Pet.)

Cahill, Robert Ellis. New England's Things That Go Bump in the Night. Peabody, Mass.: Chandler-Smith, 1989. (Other Cahill works include New England's Visitors from Outer Space and New England's Witches and Wizards.)

Colby, C. B. Strangely Enough! New York: Sterling, 1959.

Ernst, Max. Une semaine de bonté. 1934. Reprint. New York: Dover, 1976.

Heinlein, Robert. Stranger in a Strange Land. New York: Putnam, 1961.

Helprin, Mark. Swan Lake. Illus. by Chris Van Allsburg. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.

Hubert, Renée Riese. Surrealism and the Book. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Langer, Susanne K. Feeling and Form. New York: Scribner's, 1953.

Lautreamont. Les chants de Maldoror. Trans. Alexis Lykiard. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1972.

Miller, R. DeWitt. Impossible: Yet It Happened! New York: Ace, 1947.

Murray, Peter, and Linda Murray. A Dictionary of Art and Artists. New York: Penguin, 1959.

Neumeyer, Peter. "How Picture Books Mean: The Case of Chris Van Allsburg." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 15, no. 1 (1990): 2-8.

Ruello, Catherine. "Chris Van Allsburg Interview." In Something about the Author, vol. 53, ed. by Anne Commire. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989. Pp. 160-72.

Russell, John. Review of The Wreck of the Zephyr, by Chris Van Allsburg. New York Times Book Review, June 5, 1983, 34.

Serling, Rod. From the Twilight Zone. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960.

Van Allsburg, Chris. Ben's Dream. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982.

——. The Garden of Abdul Gasazi. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.

——. Jumanji. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.

——. Just a Dream. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.

——. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

——. The Polar Express. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

——. The Stranger. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.

——. Two Bad Ants. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.

——. The Widow's Broom. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.

——. The Wreck of the Zephyr. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983.

——. The Wretched Stone. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

——. The Z Was Zapped. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

Wilson, Sarah. "Max Ernst and England." In Max Ernst: A Retrospective, ed. Werner Spies. Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1991. Pp. 363-72.

Other Works of Interest

Cummings, Pat, ed. Talking with Artists. New York: Macmillan, 1991. (Van Allsburg is one of the artists interviewed.)

Nodelman, Perry. Words about Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children's Picture Books. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988.

Philip Nel (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Nel, Philip. "Dada Knows Best: Growing up 'Surreal' with Dr. Seuss." Children's Literature 27 (1999): 150-84.

[In the following essay, Nel argues that Seuss's children's works display an affinity for the tenets of the twentieth-century avant-garde movement, Dadaism, and modern surrealism.]

Placing Dr. Seuss—the pen name of Theodor Seuss Geisel—in the company of Dadaists and Surrealists may seem a curious idea to some. Geisel (1904-1991) is best known as the author of roughly forty-seven children's books, but dada and surrealism are best known as part of a philosophical-artistic movement in twentieth-century art—the historical avant-garde. Although their images were later embraced by advertisers,1 most surrealists and dadaists maintained an oppositional role with respect to mass culture; indeed, most were sympathetic with socialists and communists. Seuss, on the other hand, was a very successful capitalist and very much a part of American mass culture. He became nationally known for his "Quick, Henry, the Flit!" advertising campaigns for Flit bug spray in the 1920s and 1930s, he founded the immediately profitable Beginner Books division of Random House in 1958, and by the time of his death "Dr. Seuss" was a multi-million-dollar industry. But although he profited from mass culture, Geisel did not endorse all of its attendant values. For example, The Lorax advocates environmental conservation, The Sneetches criticizes anti-Semitism, and the Butter Battle Book agitates against nuclear proliferation not because addressing these topics would sell more books but because Seuss wished to provoke his readers into rethinking the dominant beliefs of their society.

Highlighting the connection between Dr. Seuss and the twentieth-century avant-garde calls our attention to his role as a cultural critic. It is this essay's contention that Geisel's work draws on what Andreas Huyssen has called "the original iconoclastic and subversive thrust of the historical avant-garde" (After the Great Divide 3), a movement initiated by the dadaists in the second decade of the twentieth century. The term historical avant-garde is, in Peter Bürger's words, an attempt to "re-integrate art into the life process" in order to engender in the audience a "critical cognition of reality" (50). Aware that "reality" is itself shaped by ideology, Seuss is a successful example of an artist who—in the tradition of the historical avant-garde—tried to shake his audience out of their habits of thought and cause them to rethink their assumptions.

We need to be reminded of this aspect of Seuss because recent "Seuss" works—books patterned on those of Seuss but written by others—have transformed him from a subversive force into a moralist who supports the status quo. Seuss's tales have always contained morals, but they have delivered these morals by raising questions and by provoking their readers. Recent books patterned on Seuss have done exactly the opposite. For example, take the first offspring of Nickelodeon's "Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss," a work called The Song of the Zubble-Wump (1996). Originally an episode of the show and now a book, this new story uses Seuss's characters and some ersatz Seussian rhymes to tell an overtly moralistic story unlike any the original Doctor ever wrote. In fact, Seuss's first published children's book, To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, rejected by twenty-seven publishers before Vanguard Press took it on in 1937, was rejected precisely because editors thought it lacked "moral or message" and contained nothing that would help in "transforming children into good citizens" (Geisel, quoted in Morgan and Morgan 81).The Song of the Zubble-Wump, however, seems intent on turning Seuss into William Bennett; as a result, morals and messages take center stage. The once-iconoclastic Cat in the Hat arrives to deliver a line about the gift of life, an overtly religious reference that Geisel would never have permitted.2 The Cat in the Hat rescues a Zubble-Wump egg from the Grinch and solemnly tells us, "That egg is a miracle." The Cat also delivers a lecture to the Grinch and to a little girl-muppet named Megan, who has broken the egg while trying to wrest it from the Grinch. This in turn prompts Megan—apparently to prove that she has learned her lesson—to offer us a speech about sharing that concludes with "amen." This scene is ridiculous: the Cat is an anarchist, not a moralist.3 His persona does become less rambunctious in the later books, but he is always more interested in challenging the rules than in laying down the law. Original Seuss books offer not "amens" but questions to provoke the reader.4

As a way of debunking this imaginatively stale, Book of Virtues version of Dr. Seuss, this essay revives the subversive Seuss in the following four ways. The first section looks at the stylistic similarities between Dr. Seuss's paintings and those of the twentieth-century avant-garde, arguing that Seuss shares their criticisms of the artistic establishment. Using a comparison between the work of the Belgian surrealist René Magritte and Dr. Seuss's The Butter Battle Book, section two illustrates how Seuss uses ambiguity as a way of challenging his audience; that is, lack of resolution in Seuss's work interpellates readers into an active critical role and invites them to take up the more rebellious sentiments of the narrative. The third section locates Seuss in the tradition of English surrealists such as Herbert Read, who looked, as Seuss did, to Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll as literary antecedents. Drawing on nonsense literature's close association with the avant-garde, Seuss's work reveals the "rational" adult world as unsound and encourages his readers to do the same. The concluding section examines the effects of the recent merchandising frenzy (of which Zubble-Wump is a part) in light of postmodernity: some critics contend that capitalist culture has co-opted the avant-garde, but Seuss's work demonstrates the possibilities of ideology critique in a "postmodern" era.5 While the new Seuss book—which was written by Jim Henson Productions—exemplifies pastiche in a Jamesonian sense, a recent Seuss exhibit in New York used pastiche to critical ends and offered some hope for the survival of Seuss's avant-garde edge in the mass market.

"The Joyous Leaping of Uncanned Salmon": A Dadaist at Heart

One might say that the avant-garde moved in just down the street from Theodor Seuss Geisel: in late 1936, just before Seuss's first "children's book," To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was published, the Museum of Modern Art launched Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism, the first major American exhibition of surrealist art. It stayed at MoMA into 1937, after which it toured the country. For those who did not visit Fantastic Art during its national tour, the American media did its best to bring the experience to them. The exhibition prompted a New Yorker cover and cartoons in January 1937, mentions in The New York Times, several stories in Life magazine, and newsreels from both Paramount and Universal that were shown in theaters nationwide (Marquis 173). Although the popular press seized on the entertainment value of the works, many in the artistic community took the work seriously, and, as Martica Sawin and others have shown, MoMA's Fantastic Art show marked the beginning of surrealism as a widely felt influence in American art.6 In the later 1930s and early 1940s, New York would become a veritable beachhead for the European avant-garde when they fled from Hitler's armies to live in exile in America (Sawin ix-xv). Some returned after World War II, but some remained, and their presence made an impact—political and aesthetic—on American artists. As Meyer Schapiro, a neighbor and friend to many of the surrealists-in-exile, said, "It wasn't automatism that the Americans learned from the Surrealists, but how to be heroic" (Sawin ix). Although it may not be fair to argue that Dr. Seuss was influenced by the European avant-garde's heroism, it is not hard to imagine that, as a painter and cartoonist living in New York from 1928 through 1942, Seuss felt the influence of this new artistic presence. PM, the pro-labor New York newspaper in which Seuss published several hundred political cartoons during 1941 and 1942, ran several stories on the exiled avant-garde during this same period, including drawings by André Breton and other surrealists. And, as an artist whose lifelong interest in art produced not only original paintings but a television special on modern art,7 it seems likely that Seuss would have been interested in visiting such widely reviewed and discussed shows.

When Seuss's paintings were published in The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss in 1995, many were struck by the echoes of cubism, surrealism, and dada in his work, influences that probably date to this period in his life. At the opening of an exhibition of his paintings in 1976, a television reporter asked Geisel, "Do you associate yourself with any of your characters?" He answered, "Yes, especially the devious ones" (Morgan and Morgan 232). It is appropriate that Dr. Seuss should speak of deviousness at an exhibition of his artwork, because his art draws on the avant-garde. Titles such as The Rather Odd Myopic Woman Riding Piggyback on One of Helen's Many Cats and The Joyous Leaping of Uncanned Salmon resemble titles of dadaist work, and some of these works are as disturbing as anything produced by the Dadaists and the Surrealists.8 In one untitled work that explores the effects of sadism on women,9 sadism seems to be complicit with industry and with men in military uniforms, but—like many surrealist works—the painting creates an analogy while stopping short of indicating precisely what the analogy means. That said, industry and the military seem likely targets. Indeed, the tendency of the creatures in this painting to metamorphose into other objects—often into machines—recalls Kurt Seligmann's Life Goes On (1942), as well as some of the Exquisite Corpse experiments by André Breton and his surrealist group. Or consider the oppressively angular, geometric shapes of Seuss's Minor Cat in a High-Yield Emerald Mine (undated). The images in this painting share a stylistic similarity with Oscar Domínguez's Nostalgia for Space (1939).

In addition to the stylistic and titular similarities of his work with theirs, Geisel, like the Surrealists, valued the unschooled artist and held "high art" in a certain contempt (as shown by his "Escarobus" hoax, described in the following paragraph). André Breton and others sought out those whose talents had not been "corrupted" by formal artistic training (self-taught artists such as Yves Tanguy), claiming that the absence of training helps liberate the artist from bourgeois assumptions. Although such a position clearly idealizes the "untutored" as a space free of ideological constraints, Breton nonetheless has a point. Inasmuch as adherence to artistic norms indicates an acceptance of the ideological assumptions behind those norms, the self-taught artist may be more open to new experiences. As Breton writes in Surrealism and Painting (1928), "experience itself has been assigned limits. It inhabits a cage increasingly difficult to coax it out of" (Nadeau 80n). Echoing Breton's idea that formal training inhibits artistic development, Geisel said:

If I'd gone to art school I'd never have been successful. In fact, I did attend one art class in high school. And at one point during the class I turned the painting I was working on upside down—I didn't exactly know what I was doing, but actually I was checking the balance: If something is wrong with the composition upside down, there's something wrong with it the other way. And the teacher said, "Theodor, real artists don't turn their paintings upside down." It's the only reason I went on—to prove that teacher wrong.

(Cott 18)

And at least in the case of Horton Hatches the Egg (1940), Geisel's openness to unusual experience proved him right. As he recalls, "a sketch of an elephant … happened to fall on top of a sketch of a tree." When he asked himself, "An elephant in a tree! What's he doing here?" (Hopkins 113), the story of Horton began.

In addition to a willingness to embrace accident, Geisel, like the dadaists, was openly skeptical of the artistic establishment. He no doubt would have been amused by Duchamp's urinal, submitted under the title of "Fountain" for the 1917 Independents Exhibition in New York, and the scandalized public's response to it. Geisel's provocations may not have been quite so public, but he did challenge accepted notions of high modernist art. For example, in apparent accord with the German dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck's claim that "art …, regarded from a serious point of view, is a large-scale swindle" (Motherwell 43), Geisel created a moderate-scale swindle as a way of proving exactly this point. Indeed, the story of Geisel's hoax is a classic example of his playfully antagonistic attitude toward the art establishment. In the mid-1950s, not long after moving to La Jolla, California, Edward Longstreth, a friend of Geisel's and a patron of the La Jolla Museum of Art, "launched into a condescending lecture about modern art one evening." Geisel rebelled by tricking his friend into buying some work of "the great Mexican modernist," Escarobus—a fictional painter whom Geisel invented on the spot. Geisel claimed to have five Escarobuses and let slip that he intended to sell them in order to get the money to Escarobus to help him pay his back taxes. Longstreth took the bait, and Geisel "stayed up most of the night creating the world's first Escarobus," which—as Judith and Neil Morgan describe it in their biography of Seuss—sounds like a parody of the sort of modernist work revered at the time: "[Geisel] peeled the wood off a soft pencil, scraped the lead lengthwise across art paper, dipped small hunks of bread in the vodka he was drinking, and dragged the soggy bread across the paper. Next he painted [Lady] Godivas on the smudges, bisecting and trisecting them so that it was impossible to tell that they were naked ladies" (142-43). Later that week, he sold the painting to Long-streth for five hundred dollars. Longstreth was so impressed that he offered to buy the rest.10 As Geisel said to New Yorker writer E. J. Kahn several years later, "That experience made me suspect that a lot of modern art is malarkey. If I can do it myself, it can't be any good" (Kahn 53).

Geisel's hoax worked on two levels: in one sense, it fooled the self-proclaimed expert on modern art. In a larger sense, his hoax showed that standards of aesthetic quality rest more on the critic's habits of perceiving than on anything inherent in the work; that is, by creating a painting that appeared to conform to conventions of great modern art, Geisel ridiculed the notion of a category of "great modern art." Congruent with the goals of the avant-garde, Geisel mocked the notion of taste on which high art depends. In his "Escarobus" challenge, he demonstrated a principle articulated by Marcel Duchamp in an interview conducted in 1956: "Repeat the same thing long enough and it becomes taste.… [G]ood or bad is of no importance because it is always good for some people and bad for others. Quality is not important, it is always taste" (Duchamp 134).

Calculated Ambiguity: How Seuss and Magritte Provoke the Audience

By the time of Geisel's prank in the mid-1950s, tastes had changed and the works of surrealism and dada had been canonized as high art. Although acceptance by mainstream culture may minimize the original works' subversiveness, such acceptance does not necessarily neutralize the subversive potential of the avant-garde techniques that these works introduced. In fact, long after the works of the original historical avant-garde became museum pieces, the goals of the surrealists and the dadaists continued to inspire generations of artists to create art that challenged the social and political mores of the day. For, in addition to the goal of challenging canons of taste, the historical avant-garde wished to challenge habits of thought, to make their audience rethink its assumptions about the world. One way to achieve this effect was to create an ambiguous image—"an image that resists any explication and that simultaneously resists indifference," as René Magritte has said of his paintings (Torczyner 126). Like Magritte, Geisel consciously harnessed the power of the ambiguous as a way of provoking his readers. As he once said of his compositional technique, he enjoyed approaching a book "with a situation or conflict and then [I] write myself into an impossible position so there is no [apparent] way of ending [the book]" (Morgan and Morgan 128-29).

As an illustration of the power of the ambiguous image, let us look at three works by Seuss and one by Magritte: a Seuss cartoon from 1941, a Seuss painting from 1968, Seuss's The Butter Battle Book (1984), and Magritte's The Art of Living (1967). In contrast to a similar image in Seuss's 1968 painting Fooling Nobody, the cartoon, "We Always Were Suckers for Ridiculous Hats" (April 1941), is not at all ambiguous. One of the first cartoons Seuss drew for the daily New York newspaper PM, this cartoon uses the image of the "Ostrich Bonnet" to argue that Charles Lindbergh's isolationist stance is akin to sticking one's head in the ground. To ignore the threat of Hitler is to behave like an ostrich, Seuss tells us. A parallel image cropped up twenty-seven years later in Seuss's watercolor Fooling Nobody, but now the target has changed from Lindbergh to nuclear weapons. The "atom" image that appears in each eye and the year of the painting—1968—suggest that nuclear arms are a likely subject. Unlike "Suckers for Ridiculous Hats," the Fooling Nobody image is ambiguous; instead of recognizing a person wearing a false head, the viewer is now unsure who is wearing whom. Both the "bonnet" head and the lower creature's head appear to be conscious. Unlike the cartoon, the painting does not present a mask that is simply hiding the face.

Fooling Nobody uses juxtaposition to pose a question that it leaves its audience to answer. As Magritte's paintings often do, Seuss's watercolor places images in tension but leaves that tension unresolved. In Magritte's The Art of Living (1967), for example, a spherical "head" floats like a balloon above what appears to be an empty suit of clothes. Is the "head" the "idea" of the "man" below it? Or—since the suit is empty—is the man a figment of the floating head's imagination? The Art of Living does not answer the questions it poses, and neither does Fooling Nobody. The latter employs this very sort of juxtaposition to address nuclear anxieties but encourages the anxieties to linger instead of resolving them. If the creature with the atom-shaped eyes is a projection of the lower one, then the atoms may represent the latter's nuclear anxieties; that is, the lower creature's apparent calm is—as the title suggests—fooling nobody. If, on the other hand, the lower is a projection of the "puppet" creature above, then the title is ironic, because the apparently calm demeanor of the smaller creature is fooling people. On the other hand, both beings are visible, and it's unclear who is the projection of whom or even if "projection" is the case. Fooling Nobody oscillates between these figures, posing but refusing to answer its provocative questions. The work forces an unresolved argument onto its audience, demanding a response that we, the viewers, must provide.

Seuss continued to use ambiguity as a way to address nuclear anxieties in The Butter Battle Book. As with Fooling Nobody, the book forces the task of resolution onto the audience. Like the battle between the Big-Endians (who open their eggs at the large end) and the Lilliputians (who open theirs at the small end) in Swift's Gulliver's Travels, The Butter Battle Book depicts an escalating arms race between Yooks, who butter their bread butter-side up, and Zooks, who butter their bread butter-side down. A Yook grandfather tells his grandson about the increasingly sophisticated weapons that Yooks and Zooks have devised to destroy each other. Their arms race culminates in the "Bitsy Big Boy Boomeroo," a bomb that "can blow all of those Zooks clear to Sala-ma-goo." But when the Yook grandfather arrives at the wall, his longtime enemy Van Itch (a Zook) is there—holding the Zooks' version of the Big Boy Boomeroo. The two stand poised on the wall that divides their nations, each holding a kind of a nuclear bomb over his opponent's side of the wall, threatening to drop it. The unresolved ending mimics a surrealist work by refusing to provide an answer and, instead, forcing the reader to deal with the tension:

"Grandpa!" I shouted. "Be careful! Oh, gee!"

"Who's going to drop it?"

"Will you …? Or will he …?"

"Be patient," said Grandpa. "We'll see."

"We will see …"

And with that, the book ends.

But the tension continues for the reader—especially for the reader in 1984, the year of the book's publication. Although the years 1989 to 1991 saw the end of the Cold War, in the first half of the 1980s Cold War tensions rose and the threat of nuclear annihilation seemed very real. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan was investing in nuclear weapons and in the famous Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as "Star Wars." In the previous year, nuclear war came into American living rooms via ABC-TV's broadcast of The Day After, a widely watched movie that depicted America after a nuclear attack. If Seuss's goal was to draw on these anxieties in order to provoke the public, The Butter Battle Book succeeded by inciting much public debate. The New York Times Book Review offered praise but also called the book "too close to contemporary international reality for comfort." The reviewer added, "we want to protest—you can't leave us hanging like this" (Lifton 37). A self-described "concerned Christian mother" in Texas began an effort to "ban the book and halt future editions." She wrote to Random House, asking, "How dare a well-respected publishing firm" publish "the most blatant form of brainwashing I have ever encountered?" (Morgan and Morgan 254).

"An Imagination with a Long Tail," or, "On beyond Common Sense": TheCat in theHat and Other Subversives

Although the Times reviewer was correct in saving that The Butter Battle Book leaves the reader hanging, the concerned parent went too far in calling the book "brainwashing." The book's educational technique is precisely the opposite of brainwashing: instead of attempting to systematically indoctrinate its reader into a system of beliefs, Butter Battle delivers its anti-arms race message by questioning the logic of mutually assured destruction. Instead of preaching the virtues of peace, it uses absurdity to reveal a "commonsense" foreign policy as common but not sensible; instead of delivering clear-cut answers, it throws us back on our own imaginative resources to resolve the problem. Although not all of Seuss's works are as confrontational as The Butter Battle Book, many are, and they similarly confront their readers by leaving the ending open. For example, both Yertle the Turtle (1958) and The Lorax (1971) introduce an element of uncertainty at the end, encouraging the reader to take up the actively critical sentiments of each book.11 Those who assert otherwise seem to be trying to fit Seuss into the "happy ending" that many erroneously expect from children's literature.12 In Seuss's stories, the imagination has power, and the books often end without complete resolution in order to encourage readers to exercise that power.13 My thesis in this section is that many of Seuss's tales emphasize the imagination and deliberately resist narrative closure for two reasons—to interpellate the reader into an active role and to encourage readers to identify with the rebellious elements of the narrative, using their imaginations as a source of strength.

The avant-garde, like Seuss, relies on the irrational or absurd in order to reveal the so-called rational world as a construct. As André Breton and others wrote in 1925, "We make no claim to change the mores of mankind, but we intend to show the fragility of thought, and on what shifting foundations, what caverns we have built our trembling houses" (Nadeau 240). In order to apply this idea to children's literature, think of Roland Barthes's analysis of toys in Mythologies (1957). If, as Barthes argues, toys "prefigure the world of adult functions" (53), preparing the child to accept the constructs of society (such as nuclear proliferation) as "natural" and "normal," then explicitly nonfunctional toys can help children to see the world as a construct, providing a basis from which to challenge it. As Geisel once argued, "If you don't get imagination as a child, you probably never will … because it gets knocked out of you by the time you grow up" ("Logical Insanity" 58). Nonsense literature can provide exactly this sort of toy—one that allows the child to imagine alternatives to all of the "things that the adult does not find unusual" (Barthes 53).

Seuss and the English surrealists were both drawn to the nonsensical because such literature can potentially reveal the "natural world" as ideologically determined. For example, noting that "the nonsense verse and tales of [Edward] Lear and Lewis Carroll" have been "described as mad or nonsensical" to encourage us not to take them seriously, the British surrealist Herbert Read called for "a reconsideration of such literature" so that its subversive potential may be better appreciated (Read 55-56).14 Sixty years after his directive, Celia Catlett Anderson and Marilyn Fain Apseloff offered an analysis of nonsense tales with which Read would likely have been pleased. In Nonsense Literature for Children, they argue that nonsense literature has "the heretical mission of … teach[ing] the young that the world constructed by their elders is an artificial thing. Nonsense literature uses the spirit of playfulness to rearrange the familiar world. It thereby reveals that the rules we live by are not inevitable" (94). Geisel not only read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland when he was young (Bandler 2) and considered himself to be writing in the tradition of nonsense literature,15 but, I would argue, he embraced the genre's "heretical mission," deploying nonsense to challenge the "sense" of the adult world. Calling himself "subversive as hell," Geisel explained, "I've always had a mistrust of adults" (Cott 28). In that same interview, he went on to indicate that his children's books offer a way of subversively expressing that mistrust. As he put it, "children's literature as I write it and as I see it is … satirizing the mores and habits of the world" (29).16

Seussian satirizing begins with language itself, offering a perfect occasion to critique power as well. Foucault has argued that children learn the structures of language and power simultaneously; so, while learning to speak, a child absorbs the basic knowledge of how society works. What better place to challenge knowledge-power than with a child's earliest experience with the printed word—the alphabet? Lear's many nonsense alphabets introduce this idea into children's literature, and Seuss's On beyond Zebra! goes beyond mocking spelling (as Lear does) to challenging the alphabet itself. The narrator invents letters beyond Z, allowing both narrator and reader to discover creatures not visible to those who restrict themselves to the conventional English alphabet. In the story, increased awareness of the world depends on expanding the alphabet, suggesting that experience is confined by the structures of language. The narrator's remark, "In the places I go there are things that I see / That I never could spell if I stopped with the Z," recalls Breton's comment in Surrealism and Painting (1928) that "experience itself has been assigned limits" (Nadeau 80n). The narrator reveals these limits as artificially prescribed, pointing to "things beyond Z that most people don't know" and encouraging the reader to explore too. The book concludes with an unnamed letter and asks, "what do you think we should call this one, anyhow?" This open-ended question prompts the book's readers to challenge the limits imposed on experience and to imagine for themselves.

Perhaps the most famous of Seuss's open endings occurs in The Cat in the Hat (1957). Like Magritte's Human Condition paintings, The Cat in the Hat questions the relation between "real" and "imaginary" and by refusing to answer this question interpellates the reader into an active critical role. Magritte's Human Condition 1 (1933) challenges the viewer to rethink the relation between experience and representations of experience. Seuss similarly challenges the reader; at the conclusion of The Cat in the Hat, the narrator asks, "What would you do / If your mother asked you?". Should the children describe an actual experience that their mother will think they imagined, or an imagined experience that she will accept as actual? In other words, should they lie or tell the truth? Like Magritte, Seuss withholds any answer in order to provoke his audience into solving the puzzle themselves.

A brief comparison with Crockett Johnson's A Picture for Harold's Room (1960) shows how open-ended Seuss truly is. Johnson goes as far as Seuss in challenging the boundary between imaginary and real worlds; unlike The Cat or Magritte's The Human Condition, however, A Picture for Harold's Room maintains a clear boundary between the two by using a frame to separate the imaginary from the real. In the story, Harold draws an unframed picture and enters it. While he stays at the horizon of his picture, he is a giant in his world; but in the process of drawing train tracks towards the front of the picture, an inattention to perspective renders him a midget—smaller than a mouse or a bird. In order to resolve his problem, he simply declares, "This is only a picture!," crosses out his picture, and announces, "I am not big or little. I am my usual size" (54-56). At the end of the story Harold draws a framed picture on the wall of his room, resolving the tension between the real and the imaginary worlds by providing a stable boundary between them. There is no such frame in The Cat in the Hat: both the Cat and the children's mother enter and exit through the same door and are part of the same "real" world. Seuss's conclusion leaves the questions of the narrative still open for discussion after the reader closes the book. Seuss poses a genuine dilemma for a young reader, pitting the desire to be honest against the desire not to get in trouble.

Furthermore, the question at the end of the book reinforces the Cat's questioning of the existing order, which begins the moment he enters the story. As Geisel told interviewer Jonathan Cott, "The Cat in the Hat is a revolt against authority, but it's ameliorated by the fact that the Cat cleans up everything at the end. It's revolutionary in that it goes as far as Kerensky and then stops. It doesn't go quite as far as Lenin" (Cott 28). The Cat doesn't go as far as Lenin, but it did go far enough to alarm some parents and has been credited with killing the "Dick and Jane" readers. Although children would no doubt agree with Anna Quindlen that "the murder of Dick and Jane … was a mercy killing of the highest order" (19), their elders did not. As Geisel's biographers note, the fact that the Cat's "boisterous rampage in the absence of adults went unpunished … alarm[ed] some of the school establishment who felt safer with Dick and Jane and considered the Cat a 'trickster hero'" (Morgan and Morgan 171). Perhaps sharing this sentiment, schools initially resisted buying The Cat in the Hat.17 Although the book may not be revolutionary in a Leninist sense, its anarchistic spirit is nonetheless close to dada. Like the dadaists before him, the Cat is a rebel whose political philosophy, such as it is, seems to be based primarily on rejecting the current order.

Evidence that Dr. Seuss endorsed the Cat's rebellious spirit can be found in the author's identification with the Cat. Not only did he make the Cat the symbol for his Beginner Books series and use the Cat as a narrator in later works such as The Cat in the Hat Songbook (1967) and The Cat's Quizzer (1976), but, just prior to writing the sequel to The Cat in 1958, Geisel drew a picture of himself as the Cat in the Hat to accompany an article in The Saturday Evening Post of July 6, 1957. The caption read "Self-portrait, by Dr. Seuss." The imaginative conflation of Cat and author emphasizes Dr. Seuss's kinship with his alter ego, and suggests that the Cat shares some of his creator's values.

Although nonsense books such as On beyond Zebra! do reveal experience as a construct and The Cat in the Hat does challenge domestic order, it is important to note that nonsense works are not ideology-proof. The surrealists tended to idealize nonsense, the unconscious, and all things irrational as neutral spaces from which to reveal and skewer social norms; however, such an idea seems a bit naïve, for these spaces are neither magically beyond ideology nor entirely defined by it. That is, although it would seem reductive to say that the irrational merely replicates ideological structures, nonsensical thinking is not ideologically immune either. If we leave behind the idea of an ideology-free space and instead think of nonsense and the illogical as providing the reader with the cognitive tools with which to build a critique of ideology, then nonsense literature becomes critically viable. For example, as Fox in Socks (1965) shows how the meanings of words shift according to their context, so a child could come to understand that the world's accepted truths may only be true in certain contexts. For example, the fox's stacks of bricks, chicks, blocks, and boxes have one effect when stacked on the ground and another (more painful) effect when stacked on top of the character Knox. A benign stack on one page becomes a potentially harmful stack on the next. Also, by placing common items in uncommon places, the book provides an opportunity to ask what words such as common and uncommon mean. Magritte once said of his paintings, "If the spectator finds that my paintings are a kind of defiance of 'common sense,' he realizes something obvious. I want nevertheless to add that for me the world is a defiance of common sense" (Gablik 14). Seuss's works open the door for children to ask questions of their world and explore the ways in which it often does defy common sense.

Given Seuss's challenges to common sense, the critic George Bodmer's claim that books such as these merely "reflect the anti-didactic mood of our time" and question "our ability to learn and to teach" (115) falls a bit short of the mark. The books do teach and are didactic, but, instead of delivering a lecture to their readers, Seuss's works teach by encouraging subversive thoughts and behaviors. In her book Dr. Seuss, Ruth MacDonald claims, "Though Dr. Spock's permissive parenting has frequently been credited with spurring the youthful rebellion of the 1960s, Dr. Seuss might equally be given credit, since he demonstrates a kind of permissiveness with language" (MacDonald 169). MacDonald's connection between Seuss and the revolts of the 1960s offers us an opportunity to explore the ways in which Seuss's nonsense work both challenges and is implicated in the ideologies it critiques. As a case in point, consider The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (1958).

Starring the anarchic Cat in the Hat and featuring twenty-six increasingly smaller cats lettered A through Z, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back offers another variation on the nonsense alphabet theme. A closer look, however, suggests that the work may be an antecedent to The Butter Battle Book or the painting Fooling Nobody because the "Voom" coming from beneath the smallest cat's hat resembles atomic energy. Like the dual threats of radiation and Communist infiltration (prevalent during the 1950s, when the book was composed), a growing pink stain is pervasive and real but lingers just beyond the control of the narrator. In this sense, the stain suggests a "red menace" growing out of control, threatening the American values of home and family represented by the two children (Sally and the narrator). Living in La Jolla, California, a mere one hundred miles south of Hollywood, and having worked in film himself, Geisel would no doubt have been familiar with the "Hollywood Ten," alleged Communists in the film industry whom the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities sent to federal prison in 1947. Other incidents contributing to the climate of hysteria and fear of alleged subversives in the 1950s were, of course, the witch hunts (1950-54) led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and Congressman Richard Nixon and the widely publicized Hiss-Chambers case (1948-50), in which Time magazine's Whittaker Chambers accused the State Department's Alger Hiss of being a Communist spy. So, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back's representation of the spreading red stain across the landscape certainly echoes the fears of the times. When, at book's end, the Voom arrives like an atomic bomb to clean away the threat of subversion, Seuss seems to be representing but not critiquing anti-Communist paranoia.

Although the pink stain and the Voom clearly locate the book in the context of the anti-Soviet mood of America in the '50s, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back does not endorse such paranoia. True to the radical nature he has shown in The Cat in the Hat. the Cat deliberately inverts the dominant logic of the day in order to challenge it. Instead of containing the symbolic "red menace," he deliberately, even merrily, spreads it everywhere. Like a dadaist, the Cat uses paradox and chance to shake Sally and the narrator out of their habitual perception of the world. What Suzi Gablik has said of Magritte's paintings applies to the Cat: he makes "a systematic attempt to disrupt any dogmatic view of the physical world" by means of the "conceptual paradox" (112). As Magritte balances a glass of water on top of an umbrella in Hegel's Holiday (1954), the Cat balances a fishbowl full of water (and fish) in The Cat in the Hat (1957). In The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, the Cat again employs this sort of paradoxical logic, eating cake in the bathtub and "cleaning" up the pink ink by spreading it around. (Indeed, he seems to "clean" by becoming an abstract expressionist: the Cat paints with a dress, with shoes—and little cat C spreads pink paint with a fan.) The Cat's paradoxical response to the children's growing fear of the spreading pink ink conveys an implicit criticism of anti-Communist paranoia. Their increasing anxiety prompts the Cat to keep spreading the ink and, in another paradox, spreading the ink actually leads to cleaning it up. The Cat's alphabet of increasingly smaller cats finally leads him to the Voom (under little cat Z's hat) that will clean the pink ink away.

Though the Voom has "the power of the atomic bomb" (MacDonald 129) in the swiftness with which it erases the "reds," it differs from the bomb in one very significant aspect: the characteristic of annihilation has been withdrawn from it. Whereas the Voom's historical referent is clearly an atom bomb, Seuss's depiction partakes of Magritte's "modification," in which "a property normally associated with an object is withdrawn"—as in Magritte's The Battle of the Argonne (1959), in which gravity is removed from a rock, allowing it to float (Gablik 129). The power of atomic destruction has been removed from the Voom: although it at first appears to have destroyed pink ink, cats and all, the Voom has in fact merely relocated them under the Cat's hat. As the Cat explains to the bewildered children immediately after the Voom has "clean[ed] up the snow" (and everything else), "That Voom blew my little cats / Back in my hat" (59, 61). He adds, gesturing to his hat, "if you ever / Have spots, now and then, I will be very happy / To come here again" (61), indicating that Voom, little cats, and all are now back under his hat and suggesting that their containment is very temporary. In response to both the Voom and the Cat's promise to return, the children's faces express a mixture of grateful surprise and worried disbelief, reinforcing the sense that peace has returned only for the moment. As he does in many of his works, Seuss ends the book without completely resolving it, requiring the audience to take an active role in providing resolution.18

The atomic subtext of The Cat in the Hat Comes Back shows that Seuss's nonsense functions in a manner similar to the historical avant-garde's use of nonsense and the irrational: the devices render the work both complicit with and critical of the world in which it is written. If children learn the structures of power as they acquire language, then deconstructing language can have a liberating effect—a potential challenge to the structures of power that language bears. Seuss's works license the imagination as a realm in which one can at least imagine another world—if not actually realize that world.19 Mary Lystad has said of The Cat in the Hat, "The message is clear—if the world is bleak, change it, create a new world!" (201). And as Bodmer says of The Butter Battle Book, "If the world is to be saved,…it is only through leaps of imagination" (116). By providing the imaginative impetus to change the world, Dr. Seuss encourages children to subvert dominant modes of socialization. In this sense, Seuss's books go beyond the conventional definition of nonsense literature, which uses absurdity to reveal reality as a construct but less frequently indicts society at large. Whether Seuss's works have this effect on children is beyond the scope of this inquiry, but it is clear that children are drawn to the power of imagination that Seuss's books grant them. As a child once wrote in a letter to Seuss, "Dr. Seuss, you have an imagination with a long tail" (Cott 18).

Modernism, Postmodernism, and Consumerism: How Will the Lorax Survive?

At this point, the astute critic may ask: Since imagination is, as we have seen, always already implicated in the societal structures against which it may rebel, how can imaginative power ever provide an effective critique of the pervasive, even insidious, effects of late capitalist culture? After all, this reasonably skeptical person might continue, even when the historical avant-garde attempted to expose the paradoxical logic of the material world, it ultimately found itself becoming co-opted, marketed as exotic entertainment to that same world. If, instead of offending or provoking, surrealism and dada were transformed into amusement, then what hope does Dr. Seuss's work have of succeeding where the historical avant-garde failed? In order to develop an answer to these questions, let us turn to La Jolla, California, in 1971, where we find Fredric Jameson writing Marxism and Form and Theodor Seuss Geisel writing The Lorax. In the former work, Jameson argues that "the development of postindustrial monopoly capitalism has brought with it an increasing occultation of the class structure through techniques of mystification practiced by the media." He continues, "as a service economy we are henceforth so far removed from the realities of production and work on the world that we inhabit a dream world of artificial stimuli and televised experience" (xvii-xviii). In its way, The Lorax addresses similar concerns: it criticizes an ideology of consumption that praises material production while ignoring its material effects. To put this in the terms of the book's narrative, the Once-ler may be a material success, but his Thneed business destroys the Truffula trees and sends the wildlife into exile, leaving behind a barren, gray urban landscape. The Lorax also shows the media's complicity in mystifying the effects of capitalism: the Once-ler's "You need a Thneed" advertising campaign successfully convinces the buying public that these worthless pieces of knitted Truffula tufts are actually valuable, while at the same time it diverts attention from the damage done to the environment.

But where Seuss offers a moment of hope at the book's end (the last Truffula seed, thrown for us to catch, to start again), Jameson despairs. When addressing the role of the avant-garde in offering a critique of capital, Jameson argues that when surrealism was effective it worked because it interacted with a nonindustrial nature, and such a nature no longer exists. In fact, "it is the very memory of nature itself which seems to face obliteration" now (106). But while Jameson is saying that "the objects of Surrealism are gone without a trace" (104) and, anyway, "the idea of Surrealism is a more liberating experience than the actual texts" (101), Seuss's Lorax challenges Jameson's claim. Its critique of capitalism relies less on an idealized nature (though at least the memory of nature exists here) than on its open-ended narrative structure and the surreal disembodiment of the Once-ler himself. And, as a kind of surrealist critique of capital, I think the Lorax works.

That said, Jameson may yet have the last word. The recent mass commercialization of Seuss threatens to dull his critical edge, to transform "Dr. Seuss" into another Walt Disney, one of many blithe affirmations of consumer culture that dominate America's cultural landscape. In Postmodernism (1991), Jameson again argues that postindustrial capitalism will neutralize attempts to offer resistance. He offers the postmodernism of his title as proof: as flat, blank parody, it merely reflects the society from which it comes. In contrast to Jameson's bleak view, critics such as Linda Hutcheon, David Harvey, and Andreas Huyssen maintain the possibility of an oppositional post-modern—a postmodern that can offer a critique. And, at least in the versions of Harvey and Huyssen, the avant-garde has a role to play here. It is the radical politics of the avant-garde, suppressed in definitions of high modernism, to which postmodernists return in order to counteract the effects of affirmative culture.

Geisel is an appropriate figure to place in this debate. Not only does his life (1904-1991) span the years of the modern and the postmodern, but he always had a foot in each camp. That is, he was a modernist in both "high modern" and "avant-garde" terms and a postmodernist inasmuch as his work follows the legacy of the avant-garde. Much of this essay has investigated Geisel's investment in avant-garde techniques, but now let us turn for a moment to the idea of Geisel as a "high modernist" author. Geisel originally began publishing cartoons under his mother's maiden name—Seuss—because he was saving his surname—Geisel—for the "Great American Novel" he would someday write. Evidence suggests that this novel would have been high modernist in form Ruth MacDonald's description of it as "an unpublished manuscript of a virtually undecipherable, stream-ofconsciousness novel written in his mid-twenties" (3) suggests the complexity of a work by Faulkner or Joyce. Add to the case for Seuss-as-high-modernist that his attention to form is legendary. For example, the revising and rewriting of The Cat in the Hat took him about a year. Geisel credited his editor, Saxe Commins—who also edited Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Eugene O'Neill—with stressing the importance of form (Steinberg 87; Morgan and Morgan 138). Perhaps as a testament to Geisel's success at mastering formal qualities for which high modernism has been praised, the modernist critic Hugh Kenner wrote a tribute in Seussian verse ("Ode to Dr. Seuss," 1991).

To return to the question posed by Seuss's location in the history of modernity and postmodernity: Will the ongoing marketing bonanza diminish the avantgarde energies in Dr. Seuss's work? If the new Dr. Seuss books based on the Nickelodeon television show are any indication, the answer has to be yes. The Song of the Zubble-Wump (1996), for example, has tamed the wily Cat in the Hat, turning him into a moralizing preacher; instead of the provocative questions we have come to expect from Dr. Seuss, the book offers amens. In this respect, The Song of the Zubble-Wump recalls Jameson's comments on pastiche: "it is a neutral practice of … mimicry, without any of parody's ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse" (Postmodernism 17). Although pastiche can be affirmative or critical, Zubble-Wump is pastiche in the former, more Jamesonian, sense. The book brings in Horton to help save the Zubble-Wump egg, the Grinch to play the role of the villain, and the Cat in the Hat to be the book's moral center. Whatever adversarial roles these characters played in the books written by Geisel, their edges have been dulled for Zubble-Wump. The edginess that marks Seuss's style is missing, as is the malleability of the moral universe of Seuss's books.

By malleability I mean that these books suggest a certain instability in the moral world: instead of good and evil or black and white, Seuss's characters are more complex, inhabiting a world of better and worse, perhaps—but a world that has many shades of gray. For example, the Once-ler changes his mind about industry's effects on the environment, but only after his industry has already destroyed it. On one hand, he changes too late; on the other, he does change, which suggests possibilities for other changes in the future. In The Song of the Zubble-Wump, however, moral instability has been banished. Here, the Grinch—who, oddly, resembles a cross between Sesame Street's Grover and Oscar the Grouch—is the villain: "That Grinch is all broken, that Grinch is all bent. / His heart's full of hurt and his soul is cement," Megan's grandfather tells her. On the contrary, as Geisel has said of the Grinch, he "is the Hero of Christmas. Sure … he starts out as a villain, but it's not how you start out that counts. It's what you are at the finish" (Morgan and Morgan 276). Like Dickens's Scrooge, the point of Seuss's Grinch is that he has within him the capacity to change. Zubble-Wump denies the possibility of any ambiguity in the Grinch's character. The Grinch thwarts the plans of the good guys, and at the story's end the narrative promises us that the evil Grinch will be back once again: "But you all know the Grinch / He'll be back / before long." Ambiguity animates Seuss's work and enables his reader to see the inconsistencies and contradictions of the world. Zubble-Wump, however, merely reflects a staid, bourgeois status quo.

Whereas this new book moralizes instead of provoking, "Seuss!"—a recent exhibit at the Children's Museum of Manhattan—used pastiche to provoke the imagination.20 Unlike the Zubble-Wump travesty, the "Seuss!" exhibit was not part of a corporate tie-in to Seuss Enterprises; rather, the curators of the museum (which has produced many literature-based exhibitions for children) had long wanted to present an exhibition on Dr. Seuss. The museum's executive director, Andrew Ackerman, explained, "We would always ask ourselves, 'If we had a choice to do any books at all, what would they be?' It always came down to Dr. Seuss" (Graeber C1). In contrast to the first publication from the Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss series, "Seuss!" provoked thought instead of pronouncing morals, opened children's minds instead of lecturing to them. Using characters and situations from a variety of Seuss's works, the exhibit encouraged active engagement on the part of its visitors. As the critic Brian Sutton-Smith has said of Seuss's books, this exhibit encouraged "flexibility and possibility" because "flexibility of thinking … [is] what mental development is about these days" (Cott 14).

In one part of the exhibit, there were cylinders "decorated with Seussian creatures holding a letter," followed by "a word root like 'up' or 'all' or 'at.'" When children spun the cylinders, they formed new words (Graeber C26). Using chance to create new words or sentences was a favorite game of the surrealists. In this game—known as "The Exquisite Corpse"—each person would add words (starting with an article and an adjective, then a noun, and so on) to make random sentences such as "The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine" (Brotchie 25). The cylinders in the "Seuss!" exhibit may have had the liberating effect that surrealists found in nonsense: by showing children how language works, "random" sentences gave them the power to experiment. Another portion of the exhibit reproduced some of Seuss's drafts in order to show children the art of revision. Ackerman explains, "Children often get frustrated if they can't do something perfectly, so it's a big relief to know that even the best artists used drafts." The same space included a place for visitors to "do some creative experimentation, devising new characters by combining pieces in the shape of Seussian animals' heads and bodies" (Graeber 26). Again, the exhibit used Seuss's work as Seuss would have wished—to empower children to use language and their imaginations.

Power over language and imagination may not enable a child to challenge all of the world's faulty logic, but it does provide a starting point. In providing this starting point, "Seuss!" achieved what Geisel wanted children's museums to accomplish. As dada and fluxus artists wanted to break down the boundary between art and audience, so Geisel wished to break down the boundary between exhibit and visitor. As E. J. Kahn tells us, in 1955 Geisel "wrote and acted in an 'Omnibus' television show devoted to an imaginary Seuss Museum. It differed from the general run of museums in that children going through it were not forbidden to touch the displays; on the contrary, the exhibits were all marked 'Do Touch.'" Seuss explained, "I want a museum that will have a real, operable printing press alongside a shelf of books, and blocks of wood and chisels alongside woodcuts, so that children can watch and work at the same time" (Kahn 80). With Geisel's help, by 1967, one wing of La Jolla's Museum of Art had been devoted to an interactive museum, the philosophy of which seems to have been "Do Touch." As a Newsweek article reported, "grade-school kids excitedly picked through piles of Barbie-doll heads, eyeballs, limbs, and torsos for parts to build an abstract model of a city. Elsewhere, they lugged $2,100 movie cameras about to film the summertime activity at the museum" ("Logical Insanity" 58). "Seuss!" and Seuss's own museum ideas develop a kind of avant-garde for kids.

At this point, it is too early to say which version of Seuss will predominate—the one with avant-garde leanings, as exemplified by the "Seuss!" exhibit, or the affirmative pastiche, as represented by The Song of the Zubble-Wump. Let us hope for the former version, because exhibits such as "Seuss!" and books such as The Cat in the Hat can give children some of the cognitive tools necessary for questioning the world in which they live. Although Dr. Seuss's books are didactic, they teach not by delivering a lecture to their readers but by encouraging subversive thoughts and behaviors. If children learn the structures of power as they acquire language, then deconstructing language can have a liberating effect by offering a potential challenge to the structures of power that language bears. Seuss's works license the imagination as a realm in which one can at least imagine another world, if not actually realize that world. By providing the impetus to change the world, Dr. Seuss encouraged children to subvert dominant modes of socialization. And it is this skeptical, imaginative version of Dr. Seuss—and not the William Bennett-style "Moralist in a Hat"—that present and future generations of children will need to meet.

  1. Witness, e.g., Microsoft's recent "Where do you want to go today?" commercial; among the images that drift by during the thirty-second advertisement is René Magritte's bowler-hatted man. The image recurs in Magritte's work, but the best-known example is, perhaps, The Man in the Bowler Hat (1964), in which a dove flies in front of the face of a man in a bowler hat. The figure also appears in The Musings of the Solitary Walker (1926-27), In the Land of Night (1928), The Song of the Violet (1951), Siren Song (1952), Golconda (1953), The Poet Rewarded (1956), The Ready-Made Bouquet (1957), The Month of the Grape Harvest (1959), The Good Faith (1962), The Son of Man (1964), The Open Door (1965), Decalcomania (1966), and many others—including photographs of Magritte himself (he often wore a bowler hat). The Microsoft commercial was not the first time Magritte was appropriated by commercial culture. Corporate use of Magritte's images goes back at least to 1951, when designer William Golden appropriated Magritte's The False Mirror (1928) for the CBS "eye" logo: although now merely a silhouette of its original version, at that time the CBS logo featured blue sky and clouds behind the pupil of an eye—exactly as in Magritte's painting. Indeed, in December 1963, Magritte wrote his lawyer and friend Harry Torczyner that he was considering legal action against CBS: "Columbia Broadcasting has registered the image as a 'trademark,' and I think it was inspired by 'Le Faux Miroir.' I have already collected all the documentation on the presence of 'Le Faux Miroir' in the United States since 1936, whereas the trademark only dates from 1952! 'Le Faux Miroir' was reproduced in the 1936 catalogue of the Museum of Modern Art (1936 Exhibition of Dada and Fantastic Art) and on view to the New York public at that time (logically, the logo's designer, who died in 1959, must have seen it!)" (Magritte and Torczyner 93).
  2. For example, when writing How the Grinch Stole Christmas! he worked hard to avoid "sound[ing] like a second-rate preacher or some biblical truism" (quoted in Morgan and Morgan 159). Tish Rabe and David Stephen Cohen (who wrote the script of Zubble-Wump), however, seem less concerned.
  3. As Tim Wolf suggests in "Imagination, Rejection, and Rescue: Recurrent Themes in Dr. Seuss," Seuss consistently associated cats with the imaginative and the anarchic. Wolf notes the appropriateness of having "Patrol Cats" (as opposed to dogs) as guardians of "the roots of childlike imagination" in The King's Stilts (1939): "To defend our childlike imagination and joy, Seuss seems to say, we must be like cats toward society, not dogs. (This may also look forward to the anarchistic Cat in the Hat saving two children from a dull adult-ruled afternoon.)" (149).
  4. Unfortunately, Zubble-Wump seems to be the beginning of a trend in Seuss marketing. Seussisms: Wise and Witty Prescriptions for Living from the Good Doctor (1997) transforms Seuss from a figure who encourages the questioning of authority into a moralist who affirms the status quo. The small book takes Seussian verses out of context and transforms them into homilies for living. For example, whereas Oh, the Places You'll Go! addresses both hope and despair, Seuss-isms includes only the more hopeful verses.
  5. Although Geisel once said, "I'd rather go into the Guinness Book of World Records as the writer who refused the most money per word," after his death the hypercommercialization of Dr. Seuss began. Seuss's characters now appear on boxer shorts, t-shirts, and hats by Esprit; Universal City in Orlando is building a twenty-five-acre Seuss theme park in Orlando, Florida: and Steven Spielberg is developing a Cat in the Hat movie (Smith B1). During his life, Geisel restricted the marketing of his work to books and a few television specials. In their biography, Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel, Judith and Neil Morgan write of several occasions on which Geisel resisted attempts to market his work. Once Robert L. Bernstein, then sales manager at Random House, suggested many "promotional ideas, including 'Cat's pajamas' in all sizes, but Ted resisted. He was wary of anything—product franchising, most of all—that might cheapen the Dr. Seuss image" (161). Another time Geisel "set up a sculpting studio next to the pool house in La Jolla and created the Cat, Horton and four 'Seuss multi-beasts'—one named Roscoe—to be marketed as self-assembly polyethylene kits for the March toy show in 1959. But no one else's version of a Dr. Seuss creature satisfied Ted." and so the creatures were never made (164).
  6. Sawin's Surrealism in Exile (1995) traces the influence of the exiled avant-garde on American artists and posits the period (1937-45) as a crucial hinge between the European dada and surrealism of the first half of the century and the artistic movements that followed, such as abstract expressionism and pop art.
  7. The Morgans report, "Ted had written a script about modern art for a half-hour Ford Foundation television workshop in the Excursion series, and it was broadcast live over NBC on Sunday afternoon, January 31 [1954]. Burgess Meredith was the host, and [Hans] Conreid was cast opposite Ted as an art connoisseur" (145-46).
  8. As Jon Agee notes in his review of The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss in the Los Angeles Times (3 December 1995), "A couple of strange, hallucinogenic landscapes recall the paintings of Max Ernst or Yves Tanguy—except that in each case, somewhere in the scene, there's a cat. Surrealism, even Cubism, is apparent, as in the fractured perspective of a city where a feline detective pursues its quarry. The titles of the paintings ('The Rather Odd Myopic Woman Riding Piggyback on One of Helen's Many Cats') are comparable to those of the Dadaists."
  9. A sensitivity to gender has never been one of the surrealists' strong points (see especially Helena Lewis's The Politics of Surrealism 71-76). Although Geisel has been rightly criticized for his books' treatment of women—as in Alison Lurie's essay "The Cabinet of Dr. Seuss" (1990)—he never quite approaches the levels of misogyny in, say, some of Salvador Dalí's work. That said, the topic of Seuss and gender should not be ignored. To give a sense of the debate, here is the evidence, both critical of and in defense of Seuss. Lurie points out "the almost total lack of female protagonists" and adds that "when little girls appear they play silent, secondary roles" (51). She also cites the vain female characters Gertrude McFuzz in the story of that name (from Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories, 1958) and the bird Mayzie in Horton Hatches the Egg (1940). Finally, Lurie notes that, in "The Glunk That Got Thunk" (a story included in I Can Lick 30 Tigers Today!, 1969), a little girl thinks up a dangerous Glunk, which her brother must then unthink. Lurie's conclusion, however—"Moral: Women have weak minds; they must not be ambitious even in imagination" (52)—seems a bit strong, based on just one story. For example, in the posthumously published Daisy-Head Mayzie (1994), a little girl named Mayzie McGrew grows a flower on her head. If we take the flower as a metaphorical imagination, the problem is then not the fact that she has ideas but rather that Finagle the Agent exploits them for commercial gain. Also, I think it would be fair to argue that many of Seuss's young protagonists are more "everychild" figures than specifically gendered as male or female children. Geisel's response to Lurie was to note that most of his characters are animals, "and if she can identify their sex, I'll remember her in my will" (Morgan and Morgan 286).
  10. According to the Morgans, Geisel would have sold them but his wife Helen prevented him (143).
  11. In Yertle, a small turtle named Mack topples Yertle, a dictator who, Seuss says, "is Adolf Hitler" (Sadler 249). Mack undoes the hierarchical power structure that enables Yertle to dominate the other turtles, but the book does not conclude with the finality of "they all lived happily ever after." Instead, the book concludes, "And today the great Yertle, that Marvelous he, / Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see. / And turtles, of course … all the turtles are free. / As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be" (my emphasis). When asked, "Why 'maybe' and not 'surely'?" Geisel responded, "I qualified that … in order to avoid sounding too didactic or like a preacher on a platform. And I wanted other persons, to say 'surely' in their minds instead of my having to say it" (Cott 28). In other words, the maybe introduces an element of doubt that compels the reader to respond in the affirmative. The Lorax (1971), which tackles the problem of corporate exploitation of the environment, effects a similar response with the word unless. Told in the flashback format of The Butter Battle Book, The Lorax uses the character of the Once-ler to dramatize the negative effects that industry has had on the ecosystem. The Lorax concludes with a sense of urgency directed toward the reader: repentant exindustrialist Once-ler tosses the last Truffula Seed to the narrator (identified only as "you" in the text). The book concludes with the seed in transit, about to land in "your" hands. As the Once-ler realizes. "UNLESS some like you / cares a whole awful lot, / nothing is going to get better."
  12. Another critic claims that, at the end of each Seuss book, "[t]here is an abrupt return to simple diction, and a simple, realistic illustration implicitly declares that Seuss's protagonist was only fantasizing" (Lurie 50). But in Seuss's stories, there is no such thing as "only fantasizing"; on the contrary, his books consistently depict the imagination as a powerful force.
  13. A series of Seuss's stories involve a young protagonist: telling an increasingly outrageous story and conclude by framing the narrative. His first, To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937) follows this pattern, as does McElligot's Pool (1947), Scrambled Eggs Super! (1953), If I Ran the Zoo (1950), and If I Ran the Circus (1956). But even here the narrative frame often (though not always) leaves either an element of doubt or simply a weak sense of closure. For instance, in Mulberry Street, the momentum that Marco's tale has developed over the preceding forty pages is not effectively checked by the sudden decision not to tell his father about it. The cumulative effect of Marco's imaginative enterprise outweighs his two-line disclaimer that he saw only "a plain horse and wagon" on Mulberry Street. Similarly, by the conclusion of If I Ran the Circus, Morris McGurk's idea for a circus has begun to startle Mr. Sneelock, the owner of the store behind which the proposed circus would take place. When we first see Sneelock, he remains calm, smoking his pipe—and because he enters Morris's imagination as calm he remains that way throughout the tale. But during Morris's imagined circus, Sneelock's role becomes more and more dangerous: being lassoed by a Wily Walloo, having a crab apple shot off his head by a blindfolded bowman, skiing on Roller-Skate-Skis through Stickle-Bush trees, standing in the mouth of a Spotted Atrocious, wrestling a Grizzly-Ghastly, and diving into a goldfish bowl. At the end of the tale, when we reenter the world outside Morris's story, Sneelock's eyes are suddenly wide open, suggesting that the imagined feats of "brave Sneelock" have rattled him a bit.
  14. In the same essay, first published as the introduction to Surrealism (1936, including essays by André Breton and Paul Eulard) and later in Read's The Philosophy of Modern Art (1953), Read argues, "From our point of view, Lear is a better poet than Tennyson; Lewis Carroll has affinities with Shakespeare" (56). As Paul C. Ray's The Surrealist Movement in England (1971) suggests, the English surrealists looked to Carroll (1832-98) and Lear (1812-88) as literary ancestors because their techniques seemed allied with the surrealist goal of "discredit[ing] conventional reality" (28). In fact, even though the French surrealists considered Lautréamont to be their primary literary influence, they too were interested in the work of Carroll and Lear: Louis Aragon translated Carroll's Hunting of the Snark into French, and Breton saw in Carroll's work a project that intersected with his own (Ray 60).
  15. At a writers' conference at Salt Lake City in July 1949, Geisel told the assembled students that he placed his work in the company of nonsense literature: "In the realm of nonsense, there are Mother Goose, (Edward) Lear, Lewis (Carroll), P. L. Travers and Dr. Seuss" (Morgan and Morgan 123-24). Others have noted Seuss's link to the nonsensical, too. The writer and critic Jonathan Cott has suggested Lear as a possible antecedent for Seuss's "fantastical-looking animals and composite beasts" (11), and, perhaps sensing Carroll's influence, the author of an article on Seuss's political cartoons called the piece "Malice in Wonderland" (Newsweek 9 Feb. 1942: 58-89).
  16. Children's literature as children write and see it shares this characteristic with Seuss's work. As Iona and Peter Opie's collection of traditional rhymes shows, children often use nonsense as a way of criticizing the adult world. The Opies' I Saw Esau, published in 1947 and reprinted in 1992 with illustrations by Maurice Sendak, contains many apparently nonsensical (and often rhymed) challenges to authority.
  17. The book was sold in bookstores through Random House and to schools through Houghton Mifflin. The Morgans report that the "Random House trade edition quickly outran Houghton Mifflin's school edition, averaging sales at the start of about twelve thousand copies a month and rising rapidly." They speculate that the Random House edition may have sold more because "spurred by playground word-of-mouth, children nagged their parents to buy it" (156).
  18. The ambiguous note on which The Cat in the Hat Comes Back ends mirrors Geisel's conflicted relation with the idea of atomic power. On one hand, his interest inspired him to use atomic energy in an early film script. While working for the army's film division at what they called "Fort Fox" in January 1945, he was assigned "to write a film spurring postwar troops to help avoid a third world war." Inspired by a brief story in The New York Times that claimed that if the energy from a glass of water could be harnessed, "it could blow up half the world," Geisel "drafted a film treatment that warned of the potential threat of devastating explosions." Afraid that his film script would expose the Manhattan Project (of which Geisel knew nothing), a colonel in Washington ordered him to burn his source—and the film was never made (Morgan and Morgan 115). On the other hand, Geisel was very sympathetic toward the Japanese and troubled by the destruction wrought by the American atomic bombs. His film for American troops in defeated Japan was deemed too sympathetic toward the Japanese people, so RKO pictures edited it to fit the official U.S. position. As MacDonald points out, "Dr. Seuss clearly found the Japanese admirable and America's relations with them worthy of preservation in spite of public pressure in the United States to the contrary" (75). Seuss's trip to Japan in 1953 inspired Horton Hears a Who! (1954) and its message that "a person's a person no matter how small" (Morgan and Morgan 144-45). The book, which Seuss dedicated to his "Great Friend," Kyoto professor Mitsugi Nakamura, defends the rights of Whos against the threat of total annihilation of their world.
  19. For an opposing view, see Michael Steig's Freudian reading of I Wish That I Had Duck Feet in his essay "Dr. Seuss's Attack on Imagination." He calls it "a form of (possibly unintended) propaganda for conformity" (140). Although Steig admits that the message of conformity is "possibly unintended," it seems important to consider Duck Feet in the context of not only the rest of Seuss's work but of children's literature as a whole. Duck Feet (one of many Geisel works written under a pseudonym other than "Dr. Seuss") engages children's imagination at least as much as other books for young readers and does not fit the category of propaganda.
  20. The exhibit opened on February 14, 1997, and closed on February 28, 1999.
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Brotman, Jordan. "A Late Wanderer in Oz." In Only Connect: Readings on Children's Literature, pp. 156-69. Toronto, Canada: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Examination of the surrealistic aspects of the Oz books that includes a brief biography of author L. Frank Baum.

Clark, Beverly Lyon. "Lewis Carroll's Alice Books: The Wonder of Wonderland." In Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature, Volume One, edited by Perry Nodelman, pp. 44-52. West Lafayette, Ind.: Children's Literature Association, 1985.

Explores the escapist and allegorical aspects of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

Hentoff, Nat. "Among the Wild Things." In Only Connect: Readings on Children's Literature, pp. 324-46. Toronto, Canada: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Discussion of the fantastic elements of Maurice Sendak's works that includes brief interviews with the author.

Heyman, Michael. "The Decline and Rise of Literary Nonsense in the Twentieth Century." In Children's Literature and the Fin de Siècle, edited by Roderick McGillis, pp. 13-21. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003.

A critical and historical accounting of nonsensical and surrealistic literature for children.

Sale, Roger. "Lewis Carroll." In Fairy Tales and After, pp. 101-25. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Analysis of the works of Lewis Carroll with particular focus on how Carroll perceived the child's view of life.

Shires, Linda M. "Fantasy, Nonsense, Parody, and the Status of the Real: The Example of Carroll." Victorian Poetry 26, no. 3 (autumn 1988): 267-83.

Examines how Carroll uses the elements of fantasy, nonsense, and parody in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

Sonheim, Amy. "Charlotte and the White Horse and Open House for Butterflies." In Maurice Sendak, pp. 32-35. New York, N.Y.: Twayne Publishers, 1991.

Critical appraisal of Sendak's Charlotte and the White Horse and Open House for Butterflies, emphasizing the surrealist tones in both works.

West, Mark I. "Edward Lear's Book of Nonsense: A Scroobious Classic." In Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature, Volume Two: Fairy Tales, Fables, Myths, Legends, and Poetry, edited by Perry Nodelman, pp. 150-56. West Lafayette, Ind.: Children's Literature Association, 1987.

Evaluates the nonsense poetry of Edward Lear's A Book of Nonsense and its influence on later fantasy writers.