“Fly by Night”: Randall Jarrell’s Best Children’s Book

A haunting book created by Maurice Sendak and Randall Jarrell (from the New Republic)

“Fly by Night,” by Randall Jarrell. Pictures by Maurice Sendak. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

There is a great distance between the callow clutter of books-for-kids and the high haunted aeries of American fantasies as told by Randall Jarrell or pictured by Maurice Sendak. These two fantasy kinsmen have worked together before (The Bat-Poet, The Animal Family) and Fly by Night is the last of these collaborations. Jarrell finished the tale before his death. Sendak has now provided the pictures.

Jarrell was a master of the pleasant seemings of American juvenile literature that hide grim truths. The Animal Family, a Newbery Honor Book, is a seemingly peaceful pastoral about a hunter who seeks and find companions. It is an idyllic tale so tranquil we are likely to overlook the fact that the hunter befriends each of his “sons” over a cashiered mother. That fact, and that the only female of the book is a mermaid in whom the hunter sees his dead mother, hints that something is amiss in Eden.

Fly by Night is likewise an embodiment of the wish for companions. David lives on New Garden Road and, because “there aren’t any children for him to play with,” spends his waking hours daydreaming in a tree house. Sometimes he is accompanied by a striped cat who makes the tree swallows uneasy and “never stays long.”

That is how David spends his days. At night David exercises an angelic prerogative: “At night David can fly. In the daytime he can’t. In the daytime he doesn’t even remember that he can.”

At night David floats while others sleep and in his clairvoyance can see their dreams: his father’s of his diminutive stature; his mother’s mixed with pancakes and feathers, his dog’s of chasing a rabbit. Sendak pictures one of these with David nestled embryonically in a tree while the cat malevolently eyes what the feline styles “dancing mice.” To hardnosed David the mice seem more frightened than dancing but, for some reason, he is powerless and cannot tell the cat “they’re afraid of you.”

David is as powerless as Huckleberry Finn, another floater, when in is tree perch he cannot save his friend Buck; as powerless as Peter Pan trying to persuade Wendy. David cannot help the mice, cannot ask the fleeing rabbit to wait, and his hovering presence makes the ponies shy. Though he exercises Superman’s power of flight, all his potential companions are the retiring Clark Kents of the animal world who take flight at his appearance.

And so he turns away from them and looks above, to a winged superior, to a night bird awake like himself. A striped owl with a small fish in its claws befriends him. The owl speaks to David in poetry and invites him to her next where two owlets rest. To hardnosed David the unfeathered owlets make a sorry picture but he sees in the loving eyes of the mother owl that she “doesn’t know how they look.”

The owl tells her three nestlings a bedtime story, one they can fall asleep to before daybreak, and one that is the keystone to Fly by Night. It is the story of an owlet who is all alone and wishes for company. A great owl comes and tells him this will only come to pass if he leaves his mother’s nest and flies in the daylight. The owlet departs, struggles in the tumult of “unfriendly day,” clumsily finds footing on a branch, and finally meets and makes a sisterly companion of another owlet in a tree at whose base a dead owl lies. The two of them wend their way back through the harsh sunlight and the crows to the original next where they welcome the arrival of night, the moon, and the owl they call “Mother” against whose breast they nestle making brooding sounds.

Once the owl has told the bedtime story she accompanies David home where he wakes to sunlight and forgets. Twice David struggles to remember, to link night and day in a simile: “the owl looks at me like . . . like . . . –“ but before he can remember sunlight streams into the kitchen and “his mother looks at him like his mother.”

Where David lacks the power of “like” Sendak is gifted. When the book ends, for example, we might expect an illustrator to provide a picture of David’s mother in the kitchen preparing him pancakes. Instead, Sendak gives us her likeness: the cat on the kitchen table and, in the window behind her, a fledgling swallow struggling to fly by day. It is the same brooding cat that eyed the “dancing mice” and whose eyes and stripes recall that of the owl pictured before, the owl that held the small fish in its claws.

Sendak illuminates Jarrell’s nocturnal hallucinations of “the owl’s white world” with the same power he brought to the Grimms in his Juniper Tree and Other Tales. Sendak’s David is pubescent and flats always by the light of the moon. The two-page picture that follows the bedtime story is lunar brilliance: David floats against the mammoth brooding eyes of the owl, above paired ducks and rabbits, above a mother and child and above a shepherdess and her flock between whom is a small plank carved with the name “Angelina.”

David lives in the same superstitious and myth-filled world where angels are made. It is a world where “like” carries no force and invisible passions or emotions must be wholly made over into visible and physical shapes: gods, and angels, wise owls. And it is a world of strict separations of night from day, child from companions, mother from child that become other separations: “dancing mice” and frightened mice, unfeathered owlets and loveable offspring, hardnosed literality and what is figured in dreams.

Fly by Night will be read by dreamy youths like David, those same youths who in their tree houses have read about others that were ordinary too but, like Tarzan or Superman or Peter Pan, were gifted with aerial mobility. It is a gift of the artist of In the Night Kitchen and the author of The Bat-Poet to youths in love with night and the creatures that, like Batman or Dracula or Zorro, are vivid then but grow anemic at daybreak.

And it is a book that speaks to their parents, to those youths’ fathers nested in their easy chairs with books that transport them to the knightly world of detectives. It speaks to their mothers, knees under their chins, reading of the possessions that were Salem’s lot, who have gone with the wind and wish to go again to moonlight trysts on mansion savannahs. Fly by Night is for us, Davids, hardnosed and slow to “like,” for whom fantasy provides what we cannot find at daybreak: a way to be in dreams awake

This essay originally appeared in The New Republic (January 1 & 8, 1977). I discuss “Fly by Night” and Jarrell’s other children’s offerings more extensively in my study “The Children’s Books of Randall Jarrell” (University of Georgia Press, 1988).

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18. November 2016 by
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