An intriguing, lively book, Brundibar is bound to be one of the most talked-about children's titles of the fall publishing season. The story has all the makings of a classic fairy tale: Pepicek and Aninku, a brother-sister pair, must fetch milk for their sick mother, but they have no money. When they go to town for the milk, they see wealth and luxury everywhere, but they also notice an evil hurdy-gurdy player named Brundibar. This colorful character sings terribly, yet the townsfolk shower him with money nonetheless. Thinking they can sing better than Brundibar, Pepicek and Aninku decide to perform. Yet no one hears them because of Brundibar's shrieking. Defeated, the children run away, only to be joined by a group of animals and children who offer to lend their voices. The group naturally triumphs, earning coin after coin, while Brundibar is sent scurrying.
Drawing on a Czech opera written in 1938, Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning playwright Tony Kushner teamed with children's favorite Maurice Sendak to produce this wonderful story. During World War II, Brundibar was performed by the children of Terezin a Nazi concentration camp that was often the last stop before Auschwitz. Scenes from the opera were included in a Nazi propaganda film made to convince the world that the Jews were being treated well. All of that said, Brundibar is exuberant in both its text and illustrations. Kushner's American lyrics are simple ("I am Pepicek, very small/And I am Aninku, his sister, even smaller") yet lyrical ("Nearby a baker, his face like a sticky bun/raisin eyes and a round red knob of a nose,/shook his jelly-jowls and sang"). Sendak's illustrations are classic, with simple lines on characters' faces portraying a wide range of emotions and energy. What's new here are the vibrant colors, stemming from a technique that the artist has developed using colored pencils, crayons and brush pens. The method serves him well.
More than a skillful collaboration by two masters, Brundibar is an entertaining tale with multi-layered messages for everyone. Bravo!