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Maurice Sendak, 'Really Rosie' and The Intelligence Of Children

May 8, 2012

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Marc Hirsh

I'm sure that my first exposure to Maurice Sendak was Where The Wild Things Are. The book is such a fundamental necessity for any child's upbringing that it's been a staple of my So it seems you've had a baby gift pack for years.

You get Where The Wild Things Are, you get The Cat In The Hat, you get The Very Hungry Caterpillar and you get Make Way For Ducklings. You might not need them right away, but you will need them.

To many people, that was the book that came to mind when they heard that the author had died at 83. To others, it was his recent (and rippingly funny) two-part interview with Stephen Colbert. But for a music nerd like me, it was 1975's Really Rosie.

Really Rosie was one of those movies that always seemed to pop up in school at the slightest provocation. It was short enough - having originally been a half-hour TV musical - that teachers could slot it in just about whenever they wanted. It was ostensibly educational, with its core songs serving as lessons about counting ("One Was Johnny"), the alphabet ("Alligators All Around"), good manners ("Pierre") and the calendar ("Chicken Soup With Rice").

And it had Carole King. Stuck with what was surely a limited supply of acceptable movies to show elementary-school students — and the knowledge that they'd have to see them over and over — I can only assume that my teachers all breathed a small sigh of relief whenever they circled back around to the cartoon scored by one of the greatest songwriters of all time.

It's a cute movie, with a hint of subversive genius in the fact that it's about little more than a bunch of kids who are bored. But the soundtrack is brilliant. King wrote music to go with Sendak's words (some repurposed from earlier books, some brand new). She brought in her kids to sing terrific backup (her own stroke of genius; just listen to Sherry and Louise Goffin's youthful yearning as they sing "Believe Me" in the title track). The result was her strongest album not called Tapestry.

The songs that aren't in the movie expand on the setting in which the characters live, but they're not about going on new adventures. Instead, they articulate their worldviews, taking in what they see and letting us in on how they think. What they never do, not once, is treat the children as stupid, even when they're being bad.

And then there's "The Ballad Of Chicken Soup." In the movie, it's perfectly clear that the story is being told specifically in the most dramatic, gruesome manner possible, as bored children will do. But stripped of the comically exaggerated visuals (and the kids playing dead immediately afterwards), it becomes the greatest utterly terrifying children's song I have ever heard.

With a perfectly sinister piano part ticking away underneath, King recounts Sendak's tale of choking to death (...on soup). As the title character reaches his inevitable demise, King lets out an agonizing shriek, dies with a horrific moan and then snaps back to an entirely matter-of-fact tone as she brings to a close the event on such an ordinary day. You know, like today. Pleasant dreams.

Really Rosie was Sendak's lone foray into pop songwriting. Unlike Shel Silverstein, he didn't seem interested in pursuing music as a parallel sideline, and he certainly didn't feel the need to get raunchy the one time he did it. It wasn't necessary. On Really Rosie, he gave us a character who was a child pretending to be a adult — and by assuming that not only was she as smart as any grownup, but his audience was as well, he and King created one of the greatest children's albums in pop-music history, no matter how old you are.

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