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Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or, Children’s Books That Are Not Really for Children

For some reason, when I was in first grade I made up my mind that I wanted always to be prepared. (I was not a Boy Scout.) I decided on a set of things that I should always have with me, and I made sure that every day, my jeans pockets were weighted down with the entire collection: small pencil (with the tip stuck into one of those triangular pieces of rubber that help children learn to hold a pencil correctly, so I didn’t stab myself), pad of paper, Kleenex, and I can’t remember what-all. My only other strong memory from first grade was being annoyed when someone else succeeded in opening a jar that I had not been able to open. I’m sure I was a pill and also, evidently, something of a worrier or control freak.

The next year, when I was seven, my parents gave me a signed copy of Maurice Sendak’s Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or, There Must Be More to Life. The book haunted me, from then to now. It made me strangely sad and lonely and discontented, but I kept reading it until it became part of me. You can listen to the whole thing now if you like:

HPP Cover

If you didn’t listen, OK then. Jennie the Dog has “everything”: “her own comb and brush, two different bottles of pills, eyedrops, eardrops, a thermometer, and for cold weather a wool sweater. There were two windows for her to look out of and two bowls to eat from.” But Jennie is discontented because “There must be more to life than having everything!” So she throws “everything” into the nice leather bag you see on the cover of the book and sets out to find something she doesn’t have. She decides that she wants to be the leading lady of the World Mother Goose Theater, but she is told she needs experience. To get experience, she becomes nursemaid to a baby who won’t eat, whose nurses are punished when they can’t make Baby eat by being fed to the lion in the basement.

Jennie fails to make Baby eat because she accidentally eats everything herself (she has a prodigious appetite). She manages to avoid being eaten by the lion, but she is a failure, and everything in her bag has gotten broken over the course of the story. She huddles alone in the woods, her bag full of useless everything next to her:

Jennie Failed in the Woods

But then the shadowy figures of the members of the World Mother Goose Theater troupe approach.

The WMGT comes to Jennie Correct Orientation

It turns out that they consider almost having been eaten by a lion to be an “experience,” and so they invite her to accompany them to the Castle Yonder to become their leading lady in their production of Higglety Pigglety Pop! She goes with them, leaving the leather bag that holds everything by the tree:

Alone two page spread

The Epilogue tells us that “Now Jennie has everything. . . . She is content.” Yet she still writes a letter to her old master:

Hello,

As you probably noticed, I went away forever. I am very experienced now and very famous. I am even a star. Every day I eat a mop, twice on Saturday. It is made of salami and that is my favorite. I get plenty to drink too, so don’t worry. I can’t tell you how to get to the Castle Yonder because I don’t know where it is. But if you ever come this way, look for me.

Jennie

The book was almost unbearably sad to me when I was a child. Jennie was happy, but why couldn’t she have taken the bag with her? Why couldn’t her master visit her? Why did the book have to be written such that the cost of the new life was the entire sum of the old life?

And what is “everything” anyway? I think of this book when I think about the ridiculous multiplicity of all the objects I own. I think of this book when I mention to a coworker that I have three pairs of eyeglasses in my cubicle, because I’m middle class (the prescription sunglasses) and middle aged (the progressive lenses, balanced by a special pair of computer glasses). I thought of it this morning when I packed up my backpack for a work “team-building” trip to the zoo: umbrella, sunscreen, prescription sunglasses, Chapstick, mints, a book, a sweater, earbuds, a Clif bar. I don’t travel light even though, when it comes right down to it, I don’t really mind being rained on. I don’t need a book or earbuds to entertain me. I don’t need a snack. I think it’s the same thing that made me load down my pockets as a six-year-old: not so much a desire for comfort as a desire to Be Prepared, to be someone who has her shit together.

Thinking tonight of this book, which was so overwhelming for me as a child, I wonder if it was emotionally autobiographical. What did it cost Maurice Sendak to become an artist? What did it cost him to be a gay man who lived with his partner for fifty years but never came out to his parents? It probably cost him something so near to the entirety of his old life that it may have felt at times like it was the entirety. But he chose it anyway, because “there must be more to life than having everything.” There is living something genuine. There is following your own path. There are all the moments and thoughts and experiences without which Sendak could not have created the body of work that he did.

Sendak Collage

3 Replies to “Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or, Children’s Books That Are Not Really for Children”

  1. It’s an interesting reflection, and I thank you for putting it where I can see it.

    I note with some interest your comment about carrying a pencil–and that I keep a pen in my right hip pocket, even now. (It balances the multitool that lives in the left.)

    Like

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