Brundibar is an extraordinary picturebook, based on the Czech opera of the same name written by Hans Krasa, who was killed in Auschwitz in 1944. The original opera was preformed 55 times by the children in the Nazi concentration camp, Terezin, before they were put to death, and this background is vital to fully understanding the book. Ostensibly the story of two children, Pepicek and Aninku and their search to find milk for their sick mother, the story works on many different levels, examining serious issues such as poverty and oppression. Younger readers will enjoy the children’s quest and their final triumph, even if the overall context is lost on them, but the book’s true audience is older, knowing children and adults. The playful text is deftly written and, like the children, hurries along at quite a lick: ‘And everyone everyone everyone was there, buying buying busy buying.’ Kushner uses rhyme and alliteration to keep up the pace and the illustrations are also full of chaotic movement.
And what illustrations! It’s impossible not to be awestruck by the double-page spread where young children ride on the backs of black birds while their mothers weep below, surrounded by towering Van Gogh-like cypress trees. Sendak, in what he describes as his ‘fat’ folk-art style, sets the tale in Old Town Prague and peoples it with a Breughelesque cast of unforgettable characters: from the rotund baker (‘borrowed’ from In the Night Kitchen) to the nefarious Brundibar himself. The colours leap off the page: hot pink and sunflower yellows juxtaposed against flat greens and browns. The faces of the children, staring out at the reader, are truly unforgettable. Are these the faces of actual children? They are so individual, and so heartbreakingly real that they could be.
While the book would certainly benefit from annotations, as it provokes as many questions as it answers – what is the relevance of Meko’s Dairy for example, what does the ‘Skola’ graffiti on a fence mean – it’s an incredibly powerful work and a must for anyone interested in the contemporary picturebook world. Maurice Sendak truly is a master.