Now that Maurice Sendak has passed away, who will scare our children?
The question may sound facetious, but is wholeheartedly meant and perhaps all the more so with Mother’s Day tomorrow, Sunday, May 13. In Sendak’s books, mothers get mad at their (misbehaving) children and are sometimes just not around.
These can be the stuff of childhood bad dreams. The New York Times‘s obituary of Sendak, who died May 8 at the age of 83, indeed dubbed him the “author of splendid nightmares.” In a 1993 NPR interview, Sendak described “children surviving childhood” as his “obsessive theme” and “life’s concern.” While the children in his books undergo terrifying experiences (kidnapping, being baked into a cake), amid terrifying, monstrous creatures (who are sometimes, as in Where the Wild Things Are, real monsters), Sendak’s young characters return home and even to a “still hot” dinner made by the mother they had rebelled against. They are ingenious, turning bread dough into airplanes. Like Jennie, the terrier who runs away from her comfortable home knowing that “there must be more to life,” they yearn for adventure beyond the snug, safe boundary of their front door.
Sendak’s work is certainly closer to the original Grimms’ fairy tales than the sanitized versions offered by the likes of Disney. His stories capture the cruelty, arbitrariness and terror of the world for children without candy-colored animations accompanied by upbeat melodies and friendly mice. Consequently, librarians (the New York Times notes) have been known to nervously draw diapers over the naked hero of In the Night Kitchen, Mickey. What kind of bad mother sends her little boy to bed without feeding him? Can children handle reading about how the pig Bumble-Ardy is orphaned? (His parents become, um, pork.)
“I’m Really Rosie” and The Juniper Tree
Growing up, I particularly loved the cartoon of Really Rosie, which was based on Sendak’s 1960 The Sign on Rosie’s Door. I read, reread and memorized the four little volumes of the 1962 Nutshell Library, thrilled that months could be reeled off according to how you took your chicken soup and the alphabet recited with such phrases as “looking like lions,” “ordering oatmeal” and (yikes! something I knew you never did) “pushing people.”
But the Sendak books that truly gave me a taste of something beyond the safe confines of my driveway in a brand-new tract home in 1970s Contra Costa County in California were Higglety Pigglety Pop! or, There Must Be More to Life and The Juniper Tree. Both were given to my sister and me by one of our aunts, who often gave us books (including, the time that I had the chicken pox, some about Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, as well as a stuffed white cat).
I pondered how the mop-like terrier Jennie could want to leave her home which had “a round pillow upstairs and a square pillow downstairs” for fame on the stage of the World Mother Goose Theatre by eating a mop made of salami (which was itself a huge conundrum to me). I didn’t know what I read in The Juniper Tree, including the title story which involves a mother dying and a stepmother decapitating and cooking up her stepson. (Plus, whatever was a juniper tree?) These stories, and Sendak’s cross-hatched, monotone, were frankly scary, eerie and fascinating. While Really Rosie doesn’t have such fairy-tale psychic darkness, Sendak’s drawings in the cartoon gave me a glimpse of a world of stoops, brownstones, alleys and endless apartment buildings, a Brooklyn landscape far removed from the stucco blocks where I lived.
Image via katerha
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