Hungry Jim by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Chuck Groenink

Hungry Jim by Laurel Snyder
illustrated by Chuck Groenink
Review Copy from Chronicle Books
I am jealous of readers who open the covers of Hungry Jim knowing nothing about this book. If you fall into that category and have the book nearby or plan to get your hands on it soon (which you should do immediately because it is a rare and superb picture book) stop reading my review now (but return to it after) and trust that your money will be or has been well spent. 

That said, I am also grateful for what I know about this book, and knew before I read it, specifically the dedication that reads:

Chuck and Laurel humbly dedicate this book to the memory of the unrivaled Maurice Sendak, who is alive inside all of us, and occasionally peeks out in a book like this one. 

We ate him up. We loved him so.

And they did. They ate him up and they spit him out in the form of a magnificent picture book that transported me, more than any book I have ever read since, back to the moment in time when, as a child, I read Where the Wild Things Are and felt a deep connection with Max and his wild things/feelings. Experiencing that connection, Sendak's book also helped me see the possibility that, despite what adults in my life insisted, it was o.k. to feel wild, to be wild, to feel those powerful, dark emotions and know that, just maybe, dinner would be waiting for me when they subsided, and it might still be hot. All the other messages I received as a child were that these feelings were not acceptable, would not be tolerated and should be locked away. I might have to wait a long time for that hot dinner to be there for me, but Maurice Sendak and his book gave me hope that it was possible, that it could be there for me someday, even if I had to leave it for myself. 

As a kid, I had a rudimentary understanding of why Sendak's book meant so much to me, how I connected with it. As an adult, I can understand why I carried it (literally: I took the book and my small, stuffed Max doll** off to college with me) into my adulthood and made sure it was a part of the literary lives of my children. And I profoundly thank Laurel Snyder and Chuck Groenink for presenting me with the gift the of Hungry Jim, a book that invited me to revisit and reflect upon an important book from my childhood. Hungry Jim is also a gift to a new generation of children, both for reinforcing Sendak's message from Where the Wild Things Are, assuring children that their powerful, sometimes dark, feelings are o.k. and they will still be loved after letting them run wild, and also for introducing new readers to the "unrivaled Maurice Sendak."
With thoughtful, precise text and a muted palette and stage-setting like illustrations that echo the style of Sendak, Snyder and Groenink tell the story of a boy who has a beastly day. When Jim woke up on Tuesday morning in a cozy room with a drum and kid-art on the walls (look for a drawing of Moishe from Where the Wild Things Are in the final pages), "his tail had fallen asleep. This seemed odd. Jim had never had a tail before." While, cleverly, the text never states this, the illustrations show readers that Jim, once a boy, is now a lion. When Jim's mother calls him downstairs for pancakes, his stomach growls, but not for what you might expect, "She sounded DELICIOUS." Staring in a mirror, Jim, "felt beastly" and unsure of what to do ("on the one hand, he did not really want to devour his mother,") on the other hand . . .
It happens off the page, readers only seeing the lunging hindquarters of the lion and the flying pancakes, pan and spatula, when Jim eats his mother. And he feels terrible (physically or emotionally? the texts is wonderfully vague). But also still hungry. Jim heads into town and onto the main street, eating a dog walker and dog along the way - all you see is a leash trailing from the lion's mouth, a shoe and a plastic bag of dog poo flying behind. Re-readings (and there will be many) will reveal more visual treats of this type from Groenink. Jim goes on to eat an old lady, a girl with a donut, a butcher, and the further he runs, the hungrier he becomes. Yet, Jim, "wanted to eat anything. He wanted to eat everything. He wanted to cry." Jim is of two minds about his actions, quite literally as his stomach speaks to him. His stomach wants to eat - and not be eaten - with Jim occasionally at odds with this inner force. 

Snyder truly taps into the rush of feelings, the loss of control, the delight and the darkness of childhood emotional experiences with Jim's experiences. Jim runs out of town and into the wilderness, he runs and runs some more but, "wherever Jim ran, there he was." Reaching a stormy ocean that looks, "furious and confused," Jim looks into it saying, "I know how you feel." Here, Jim encounters a bear - a bigger, wilder beast more aggressive creature and, "springing, pouncing, and yowling," Jim was "loose and wild. And oh, it felt GOOD!"
After battling and eating this beast, Jim is not hungry anymore, "In fact, he was stuffed." Heading home, he burps, "BRAAPs," "BLURFFs" and "BLURPs" his conquests back into life, pretty much where he found them, only slightly less worse for wear. Back at home, he returns his mother to the kitchen and, echoing the final sentiments of Where the Wild Things Are, feels a "huge relief to find things mostly as he'd left them."
The final pages of Hungry Jim are where I feel that Snyder and Groenink's book goes beyond loving tribute and gives children the opportunity to experience the connection and clarity that Sendak's book gave me so many decades ago. Returning to his room, Jim blurps out the bear, who has a wonderfully disgruntled look on its face. The following wordless two-page spread shows Jim the lion, looking over his shoulder then, in three moves, transforming into Jim the boy - a  surprised boy staring up at the angry muzzle of a bear. The book ends with these words, "Jim was faced with a dilemma. Jim solved it. He didn't even feel a little bit bad about that. He only felt hungry. For pancakes." The accompanying pages of the book show Jim the boy, triumphantly staring up at the bear then, with a page turn, the bear is gone, a paw being shoved into Jim's mouth, and a happy wipe of the mouth with a pajama sleeve. The final illustrations are brilliant, with Jim looking like he has truly had an adventure, his pajamas dirty, the bottoms of his bare feet filthy, the white background of the pages looking like they have been touched by grubby little hands. When you are a kid (and an adult . . . ) powerful feelings are messy and dirty and uncontrollable. And when they have run their course, and you are truly loved, there is a stack of pancakes, a warm smile and an arm around you, just like there is for Jim at the end of this book.




**For a fascinating history of the creation of these dolls - as you can imagine, if you know even a little about Sendak, he would not, at least originally, allow the crass commercialization of his creations - can be found here, on the website. of Mel Birnkrant, a toy designer and collector who had a personal relationship with Sendak starting in the 1960s. In 1979, despite offers from major toy manufacturers like Fischer Price and Creative Playthings, Sendak turned to Brinkrant, who worked for Colorforms at the time, to design dolls of the characters from the book, which had been reissued in 1975 with remastered art, superior to the original. The original dolls 18'' dolls were marvelous and met Sendak's high standards but were not a success. Eventually, Sendak was convinced to allow a different company to manufacture them and they were never quite the same.

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