They say that the study of science opens up a world of possibilities.
I suppose that's true, but I have to admit I didn't enjoy my high school science class.
The teacher was a sterotype: bowtie, pocket protector, thick glasses, eyebrows permanently singed from leaning over Bunsen burners.
My lab partners were freaky. The girl on my left enjoyed dissection way too much and was prone to gleefully shouting out, “This frog’s guts look just like the inside of an eggroll!” The boy on my right kept stealing beakers and test tubes from the equipment locker because “my brother can use this stuff in his meth lab, man.”
Halfway through the semester I dropped Science and started working in the school library during that period.
Considering my teenage apathy for the subject, you may be surprised to learn that whenever I visit a used bookstore these days I invariably make a beeline for the science section. (And speaking of bees, did you know that scientists still don't know exactly how bumblebees are able to fly? No, I didn't learn that in biology class; I got that from the Robert Cormier novel THE BUMBLEBEE FLIES ANYWAY. Once again, literature trumps science.) The reason I rush to the science shelves is that I'm hoping to find a copy of this book:
Most old science textbooks are virtually worthless, yet 1947's ATOMICS FOR THE MILLIONS is highly valued by children's book collectors. A true first edition (identified by its herringbone-patterned endpapers, price of $3.50 on both front and back flaps of the dustjacket, and notice on the copyright page stating “The quality of the materials used in the manufacture of this book is governed by continued postwar shortages") of ATOMICS FOR THE MILLIONS can be sold FOR THE THOUSANDS. I've seen copies priced as high as $1500.
What makes this book so valuable? Is it because the lead author, Dr. Maxwell Leigh Eidenoff, was part of the Atomic Bomb Project at Columbia University and the University of Chicago?
No, it has more to do with the fact that its co-author, Hyman Ruchlis, was a science teacher at Brooklyn’s Lafayette High School.
While working on the book, Mr. Ruchlis asked one of his students at Lafayette High, a gifted young artist, if he would provide the illustrations for the volume. The student agreed to do the artwork in exchange for $100 and -- now here’s a kid after my own heart -- a passing grade in class.
This kid also got his name on the title page:
ATOMICS FOR THE MILLIONS was the first-ever book illustrated by Maurice Sendak. He was only nineteen when it was published and it would be another four years before he illustrated his first children's book, THE WONDERFUL FARM by Marcel Aymé. Since that time, of course, Maurice Sendak (WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE; IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN) has become one of the premiere children's book creators of our time.
Is it any wonder that so many book collectors want a copy of Mr. Sendak's very first published work...even though it is a science textbook? Here is his debut illustration from Chapter One of ATOMICS -- and chapter one of his career:
Reportedly, Mr. Sendak wasn't happy with his illustrations for this volume (he later inscribed one copy of the book with the phrase, "My first + worst") and it clearly is the work of a young artist -- a little primitive, a little messy and unpolished, but also bursting with enthusiasm, talent, and unfettered creativity.
It's fascinating to look at the wide array of illustration styles Maurice Sendak employed in these pages. In fact, it's easy to imagine the young artist going off in any number of career directions after finishing this book.
He could have specialized in portraiture or caricature:
He could have illustrated nonfiction and historical novels:
(Incidentally, you can click on any of these pictures to supersize them.)
He could have gotten into advertising illustration:
(And what a far cry those bunnies are from the rabbit he later drew for Meindert DeJong's SHADRACH!)
He could have illustrated funny middle-grade fiction:
Or worked in comic books:
This one looks like a panel from a newspaper comic strip:
And of course he could have continued illustrating science and technical books:
Or branched out into animation:
...But do you think that anyone looking at this illustration:
would have predicted a career as a picture book illustrator? I'm not sure I would have.
You'll recall that ATOMICS FOR THE MILLIONS started with a picture of a road. It ends with one as well. And, of the dozens and dozens of varied illustrations Sendak contributed to the book, I think that last picture is my favorite:
Reminiscent of an editorial cartoon, the illustration depicts mankind at the crossroads after dropping the atomic bomb. But I read other significance into this picture as well. To me it symbolizes the young Maurice Sendak who has just spent the past two hundred and fify pages showing us the breadth and depth of his talent. Now he's at the crossroads, ready to start his career. Which direction will he go?
Science books? Advertising? Comic strips? Editorial cartoons?
He had a world of possibilities to choose from.
How lucky we were that he ended up following the road that led to children's books.