Rebecca Scott penned this review.
Pepicek (very small) and Aninku (his sister, even smaller) have a problem: their mother is very sick. The doctor told them to go to town to get milk, but how can two children who have no money buy milk? And how can they get money when they have nothing to sell? They could sing for money … except that Brundibar (Czech slang for bumblebee) can sing much louder than two small children, and he chases them off. With the help of three talking animals, three hundred schoolchildren, and eventually the whole town, they chase off bullying Brundibar, get money and milk for their mommy, and so are happy again.
That’s the story in Brundibar, the children’s book written by Tony Kushner (who penned the acclaimed play Angels in America) and illustrated by the marvelous Maurice Sendak. It’s a charming story about how the weak can overcome the strong by banding together. But perhaps more interesting to grown-ups is the story of Brundibar.
Long before it was a book, Brundibar was an opera, one written to be performed and accompanied by children. Scored and written in the late 1930s by Hans Krasa and Adolf Hoffmeister (respectively) for performance by the children of an orphanage in Prague, the show didn’t see the stage until Krasa, along with tens of thousands of other Czech (and German, Austrian, and Danish) Jews, was sent to the ghetto at Theresienstadt (Terezin). There he rewrote it to make the message of resistance against oppressors even stronger, and began to teach it to the children. For the performers, the work became a refuge from the horror of their lives. For those imprisoned in the ghetto, the show became a source of hope. Between 1942 and the end of the war, Brundibar was performed more than fifty times.
Reading the book, and especially looking at Sendak’s wonderful drawings, it’s easy to see that this was originally an opera. The story is much concerned with singing, and all of the characters seem to dance on the page. Each vendor in the square has his or her song, and there’s Brundibar’s, and the children get two.
Sendak’s marvelous illustrations are as rich as ever. The backgrounds teem with details (liberal sprinklings of Stars of David, writing in Hebrew and what I can only assume is Czech, blackbirds getting up to mischief, a very very very small and curious cockroach, and the reappearance of a familiar face from In the Night Kitchen, to name a few). I’m particularly fond of the two-page illo following the lullaby. I’d love to have a framed copy of it, sad as it is.
The only problem I have with the book is one that I assume stems from Kushner’s wish to stay very true to the original. This is a children’s book (a genre which is frequently written in verse), and one that is based around music. Yet the text slips in and out of verse, swaps rhyme schemes and rhythms, and fails to call music to my mind’s ears. I want it to, very badly. I keep trying to set the songs to music in my head, as I did as a child with the dwarves’ song from The Hobbit. But they don’t go, most of them, at least not for me. As I said, I can only suppose that this is because Kushner wanted to remain true to the words of the original, and the problems with lyrical translations are legion. This does; however, serve to make me want to hear the opera. Maybe if I do, I will find the music I’m looking for.
Despite this, Brundibar has definitely earned a place on my bookshelf.
(Michael Di Capua Books, 2003)