“Oh please don’t go — we’ll eat you up — we love you so!” –Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are
Earlier this week, celebrated children’s book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak died at the ripe old age of 83. Sendak, for those of you not deeply familiar with his decades of work, was a unique iconoclast not dealing in the usual cute pabulum of children’s lit, but creating a body of work that was haunting, at times unsettling, and always profoundly beautiful. Two of his best known pieces of work where Where The Wild Things Are, and In The Night Kitchen, both of which were initially greeted with much disdain and disapproval when published in the 1960s and 70s (respectively) but have gone on to become, not just classics, but important milestones of illustrated literature.
Sendak, as I mentioned before, was a truly unique and dark character who categorically refused to sugarcoat anything for his young audience. Critics of Sendak said his work was too dark and sinister and revealed his lack of insight into what young children needed from the literature experience (some of this criticism having to do with the fact that Sendak was a childless gay man as well), but on the contrary, Sendak had a deep and profound understanding of the psyche of a child. This was something he had never lost from his own impactful, and rather sad childhood. Sendak was quoted in saying, “I refuse to lie to children,” he said. “I refuse to cater to the bulls**t of innocence.”
His most famous and celebrated book, Where The Wild Things Are, revealed a world where children, who are naturally out of control, exhibit control over their own destiny – a fantasy fraught with fear and pleasure. I wrote about this particular book some years ago for Care2 and said:
“One thematic aspect of the narrative, not to be overlooked, is the childhood (and some would say adult) need for monsters. While most adults would assume monsters are a source of fear for all children, they are only half correct. As the character of Max proves in Where the Wild Things Are, monsters fulfill the need of emotional surrogate as much as they embody the childhood desire for unmitigated and unadulterated power in a world where they often feel powerless. Max conquers the “wild things” and makes them into subjects, or pets, and then allows himself to engage in some truly joyful monstrous behavior. Max controls his ‘wild things’ as he controls his emotions, as well as his elaborate imagination.”
Sendak kept writing well into his 80s and some of his more recent books like Brundibar, and Bumble-Ardy deal with even more unsettling material, with dead or dying parents and Nazis. His books reflect the chaotic and dark worlds that children sometimes catch a glimpse of, and have an inherent need to address and process. A world where adults cannot fight their battles for them, where chaos and clamor ensue, and a place where liberation is in the hands of the child.
But Sendak was not all dark and shadows, he had a light musical heart that celebrated the whimsy and pleasure of childhood as well. This is plainly evident in his collaboration with singer Carole King with 1975s Really Rosie. So worth a view:
What are some of your favorite Maurice Sendak memories? Do you have a book that you keep coming back to? Have you shared these works with your own children?