Fantastic Rumpus: Illustrators in the vein of Maurice Sendak

Dec 23, 2013

From 'The Monster Who Ate My Peas' by Danny Schnitzlein. Illustration by Matt Faulkner.

The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts is showing an exhibit called “Fantastic Rumpus” featuring more than 30 illustrators influenced by the late Maurice Sendak—the author of the popular children’s book Where the Wild Things Are. The exhibit is up until February 9th. 

Michigan author and illustrator Matt Faulkner is one of those artists. He'll be doing a reading at the KIA on January 25th. Faulkner says good illustrators don’t just show what’s happening in the text, but also put messages that reinforce the story—like in Where the Wild Things Are.

“The little boy within each frame of the page, at the beginning is quite small and at the end is quite small. But his scale gets bigger and bigger and bigger as you get towards the climax in the middle of the book. Conversely, the artwork also starts to fill the page more. Now the monsters are always big. But now whether or not Mr. Sendak planned that or he’s just a genius and it popped out of his head and that’s the way he does things, I don’t really care. Why ask why? It’s so profound when I saw this. And when I show it to students, it’s like fantastic opera. That he knew to do this to create this kind of tension of the scale and show the growth of spirit in the boy when he has to confront these monsters. And when he gets back home he kind of, you know, condenses again.”

The change in scale symbolizes the boy's spirit growing as he stands up to the wild things. 

Faulkner illustrated the book The Monster Who Ate My Peas by Danny Schnitzlein. It’s about a boy who gives up things he loves so a monster would eat his vegetables for him. Spoiler Alert: At the end of the story, the boy hero defeats the monster. But Faulkner decided to draw a few surprises in the background.

“When I read it to 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders, they immediately jump at the end of it, ‘There’s more monsters!’ and, ‘I thought he got rid of the monster!’" Faulkner says. "And then we talk about yeah, you know, that happens. You get one thing fixed and something else pops up. So rather than be all terrified that things are going to keep on showing up that are frightening, just deal with one thing at a time.”

Maurice Sendak’s mantra was to treat children like equals. Faulkner says he tries to be up front with kids in his work and not to ‘draw down to them.’ When Faulkner first drew The Monster Who Ate My Peas, he didn’t make the monster very scary—he just wasn’t ‘real’ enough.

“The publisher got back to me and reminded me, we need to be able to unsettle children a little bit in this story," says Faulkner. "If the monster does not have that quality that says, ‘You know sometimes things are difficult and this is how we deal with them,’ then the payoff is not going to be as valuable.”

Faulkner’s next book, Gaijin-American Prisoner of War, is sure to challenge kids. It’s loosely based on the story of Faulkner’s aunt and second cousin who were held in a Japanese internment camp in eastern California. Faulkner didn’t believe his mother when he was first told about his link to the camp.

“That’s the reality of your family," Faulkner quotes his mother. "They were in a prison camp because your cousin was Irish and Japanese-American. And she was just the wrong race at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Hear more about that book in the full interview. All in all, Faulkner says one of the most important things about being an illustrator is not to underestimate your audience.

“When you talk to a child, they are fully present," he says. "They are always upfront and they’re always ready for fun.”