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We Are All In the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993)

Written by... Mother Goose?

Illustrated by Maurice Sendak

Sendak has said in interviews that he is obsessed with Angels, ever since he was a child and had an angelic encounter of his own. He likes to incorporate them into his books in honor of his departed friends. Whereas the angels in Dear Mili are of the classic mould, the angels in We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy are seen doing nothing more romantic than reading the New York Times.
We Are All in the Dumps... was published in 1993, and in it Sendak returns to his usual cartoonish playfulness. The colors are bright and bold, the words are hand lettered and large (and rhyme!). The children are short and pudgy and have that Nutshell Kids way about them.
Here is the complete text:

We are all in the dumps, for diamonds are trumps, the kittens are gone to St. Pauls! The Baby is Bit, the moon’s in a fit, and the houses are built without walls.

Jack and Guy went out in the rye and the found a little boy with one black eye. “Come,” says Jack. “Let’s knock him on the head.” “No,” says Guy. “Let’s buy him some bread. You buy one loaf, and I’ll buy two, and we’ll bring him up as other folks do.”

If that sounds like a mother goose rhyme, that’s because it is. Two mother goose rhymes, completely unrelated, strung together and narratively linked by Mr. Sendak. This was an experiment he’d last done in 1965 with the book Hector Protector and As I Went Over the Water.
With these two nonsensical rhymes, Sendak was able to produce over fifty full-color pages of full, deep, rich and textured narrative illustration. Except, as fun as they first appear to be, the reader may be momentarily taken aback to realize that these fun cartoonish drawings are, in fact, homeless encampments populated by dirty, malnourished, barefoot children. There are no adults present. No authority figures. It’s as though Max from Where the Wild Things Are finally got his wish, only with disastrous, real-world consequences.
With this book, people have seen a message about AIDS. They have seen a message about homelessness and poverty, pollution and capitalism. It was suggested to me recently that it also works as a fable for gay adoption.
It could be all of those things and more. All I can say for sure is that after two monstrous rats straight out of E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker (which Sendak illustrated in 1984) steal a young boy and whisk him away to a bread factory in middle of St. Paul, Minnesota, it is up to our heroes – the eponymous Jack and Guy – to rescue him. They play cards, the moon transforms into a glowing, ferocious cat, and then it begins to get pretty surreal.
The houses are built without walls. That’s the line that got Sendak, from which the rest of the story unfolded. He thought unwanted kids and of the shanty towns in Rio de Janeiro. As fanciful as the story gets, it uses this as its real-world baseline. The houses are built without walls.
I’ve read reviews from well-meaning parents warning against giving this book to children, as they found the social messages far too heavy-hitting. That’s bunk, of course. Arlo loved it, for it also works simultaneously as an adventure story, with every page filled with fantastic creatures and bizarre transformations, escapes and chases. For myself, I could appreciate those New York Times-reading angelic host, fluttering about the stratosphere, and the silent image of Jack and Guy removing the slumbering child from the surface of the moon, his arms outstretched and his head hung like Christ on a cross. There is a lot happening here for both grown-up and child to enjoy equally.
There were moments, however, which we could both share, and grow closer to each other’s worlds and perceptions.
That final page, for example, after the dramatic rescue, the adventure, the fantasia, after Jack and Guy return to their shanty town, curl up within their cardboard boxes and their newspaper-blankets, Arlo wanted to know why they didn’t just go home.
“Well,” I said. “This is their home. This is where they live.”
“No, their real home!”
“I guess there aren’t any real homes.”
He rolled his eyes. “Yes, there are! Look!” And he pointed to the large, stone monolithic highrise which overshadowed the tiny encampment, like something out of Stonehenge, only more so.

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