This is a golden oldie, a Caldecott Honor Book back in 1960, predating Sendak's 1964 Caldecott Medal for Where the Wild Things Are. I am reviewing it here because Harper Collins is reissuing the book in February 2013. So just how well does The Moon Jumpers hold up?
It is retro in two obvious regards: it's a quiet book, and the dad in the book smokes a pipe. The text of the story would be a real hard sell if Udry sent it out to Scholastic or any other publisher today. Fortunately, she sold it in a kinder, gentler day, and then Sendak's illustrations made a slight story into something significantly more magical. Basically, four kids go outside and play around. Then their mom calls them in and they go to bed.
What does Sendak do with this material? He adds a cat, for one thing. He shows how four kids can make a game out of anything, including a tree branch and the moon. And he gives the whole thing this really atmospheric feeling, reminding us that there is something mysterious and a little wild about the night and the moon. The four children--two girls and two boys--are a bit pretty, especially the girls, but we can happily forget that as they strike kid poses and flop around and goof off. (See Sendak's brilliant work showing how kids move and the faces they make in Ruth Krauss's A Hole Is to Dig.)
The spreads here are flatter and simpler than in some of Sendak's later work, though you can see hints of Where the Wild Things Are in his trees and bushes. The shapes of the house, the trees, and the shadows make new meaning out of the night, as do the figures of the children. One spread I particularly like doesn't show the children at all, just the house, the night, and the cat.
But I am not giving enough credit to Janice Udry for her own understanding of children. What do the children do, playing outside?
"We climb the tree just to be in a tree at night. And we make a little camp and pretend we're on an island for the night. We make up songs. And poems. And we turn somersaults all over the grass. We tell ghost stories. And holler 'Boo!' under the window. We jump and jump, over and over, and higher and higher. But nobody has ever touched the moon."
Today, even if you had four kids instead of two and weren't afraid of them getting snatched from the yard and could get them out the door after dark, they would probably sit on the porch playing video game apps.
I hate to cite nostalgia, but it's another good reason for liking this book. Most of all, though, I think I like it for the mood. People don't necessarily talk a lot about that as a book illustration skill, but one reason Maurice Sendak is considered a master illustrator is because he could create a tone so distinct it was like a voice calling softly through the night.
The Moon Jumpers reminds me of that--and of catching fireflies when I was a child in my grandmother's backyard.