Wrapped in a feather boa, clomping in heels, my five year old self wanted nothing more to be a performer. I could never dance. Even then I had none of the grace that comes with the lack of self-consciousness of body that only a young girl more enamored with make-believe and dress-up than with how she looks to others possesses.
But I could sing. I owned the floor, my very own stage, belting out the lyrics to “Really Rosie.” “You’d better believe me,” I sang at the top of my lungs, projecting the to very back of the imaginary packed auditorium. “I’m a real big deal!”
I didn’t know at the time, but Maurice Sendak was already forming my early childhood. I was never really one for “Where the Wild Things Are.” In fact, I’m almost positive I never really noticed that book until I had children of my own.
But the imaginary world of Sendak, with Rosie the star of the show, that I knew and loved. I loved Pierre, the sad little boy who cared for nothing and was eventually eaten by a lion for his indifference. I never noticed the blunt violence of the stories: “And he cried cause he died of choking on a bone.” It was eerie and scary, but so was the every day world I lived in, where witched hunted children in fairy tales and monsters lurked under my bed, only held at bay if I kept my head covered with a blanket at night.
It was a world where you ate Chicken Soup with Rice every day, and where the alphabet song wasn’t “ABCs” but “alligators all around.”
It was also a world I grew out of, but which I once more got to explore once my daughter was born. It was my husband who got her the copy of “Where the Wild Things Are,” and I realized reading it that if it made little impression on me as a child, maybe it was because it was written for parents instead. After all, who better than a parent truly can understand ferocious emotion behind the sentence “I’ll eat you up I love you so!”
Soon after, she was introduced to the rest of Sendak’s world. A copy of “Chicken Soup With Rice” from the local library taught her the months of the year (and gave us another food she was willing to eat). I soon showed her videos of the Nutshell Kids cartoons so she could learn some of the other stories we couldn’t find right away.
Then there was The Night Kitchen. As I read through it with her in my lap, I finally realized how frightening the dream world of Sendak could be. The chefs trying to bake the naked boy into bread, shouting “Milk! Milk for the morning cake!” while the boy eventually flies away in an airplane made of dough. I was aghast.
She loved it.
She still carefully shapes her dough into an airplane when we bake bread together, intent on flying away from the night kitchen and back to her bed, her family and safety. Because in the end, that’s what almost always happens in a Sendak book — the child, plagued by terror, calamity and chaos, always overcomes, and always returns safely home, where he is loved.
I couldn’t appreciate it when I was young. Now, I understand.
Rest in peace, Maurice Sendak.
Photo credit: Jane at Tuesday Music files