Can one even begin to count the contributions to kid lit, and later, to our adult lives, made by Maurice Sendak? He was an author, an illustrator of more than 100 books, and more broadly, a creator of compelling, magical worlds in which children could be themselves. Perhaps that meant they were running through kitchens in the buff, as nature intended them even if adults did not; not caring while facing off with lions; or gallivanting with monsters in far-flung foreign lands. Sendak has died at the age of 83 of complications related to a recent stroke. My first reaction to this news, reading it on Twitter Tuesday morning, was to shout "NO!"
A death at the age of 83 has not the inherently tragic impact of a death at 47, as we faced at the end of last week with the passing of another seminal figure to a generation. Nonetheless, death imports a finality that brings with it the need to revisit these figures, to mourn them, and to remember what they gave us, particularly when they gave us so much, without us even asking. It's been a tough few days for those of us of a certain age, in terms of role models and artists lost. Maurice Sendak offered up a complicated character—we loved his books, we devoured them, even. Yet he was hardly a kindly old grandpa, the kind of guy you'd comfortably cozy up to for a sweet little bedtime story tantamount to counting sheep. This is a man who once said, "Childhood is cannibals and psychotic vomiting in your mouth!" and "I hate people," placing him far more firmly in character with someone like Roald Dahl, "a misanthrope who loved children." They were both writers who brought dark, dreamworld-esque tales to kids, who gave kids more than the pat or easy or socially acceptable—Sendak's books often appear on banned lists, a credit to their popularity and resonance. And one big reason he was so popular with kids is that he refused to lie to them, as he told Terry Gross on Fresh Air in 2003:
"They trust me in a way, I daresay, possibly more than they trust their parents. I'm not going to bull- - - - them. I'm just not. And if they don't like what they hear, that's tough bananas."
The truth, from an adult, may be one of the things kids desire the most and yet rarely get. And we were some of those children. We checked his books out at the library. We wore "wolf suit" costumes for Halloween. Our younger brothers ran around chasing us and shouting "Let the Wild Rumpus begin!" We listened to the books on tape, over and over and over again. I can hear the narration to some of them in my head, 30 years later.
Remember Pierre, the boy who just didn't care? His mom coddled him, smothered him with love and affection, told him what to do. His defense was one now murmured passively by hipsters 'round the world, a declarative statement of ennui and apathy: "I don't care." This was kid-power! Faced with a lion, even, he remains defiant, and the lion eats him. But when his parents confront the lion, who's picked up Pierre's catchphrase, they realize PIerre is inside. A quick trip to the doctor releases Pierre, who, after all that, has learned to care. Elsewhere in the Sendak-iverse, in The Sign on Rosie's Door, a chapter book, the wonderfully imaginative Rosie gets to be someone other than what she is ("If you want to know a secret, knock three times," her sign reads). Would that we could knock, and have such a secret ourselves, and maybe some of us did. In The Night Kitchen took us to forbidden territory—a kitchen in the middle of the night, with allusions to Nazi Germany—where we, as ultimate heroes and purveyors of our own destiny, are able to escape, to wake up safe and warm and comfortable in bed, but with happy memories of our adventure, and cake, too.
As for The Wild Things, I can't read the opening lines of the book without getting chills: "The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind / and another / his mother called him "WILD THING!" and Max said "I'LL EAT YOU UP!" so he was sent to bed without eating anything."
The themes of rebellion, escape, and power in a world in which children have little are all key to this story, and to all of Sendak's works. Here, Max is made king of the monsters and declares his rumpus, but when he wearies of that, declares it over and sends the wild things to bed without their own supper. Subverting his own punishment, he is able to embrace home again—but on his terms. There were moral lessons in Sendak's books, but they put the kids in charge. And so, in the end, Max finds his supper waiting for him, still hot. He was bad, and he enjoyed it, and he has been forgiven.
As children, we knew less of Sendak the man than of his work, but beyond the books there was a complex, emotional life based in a desire to please his family while also living his life as an independent adult man. Sendak kept his homosexuality from his parents, a fact he revealed in The New York Times in 2008, following the death of his long-time partner psychologist Dr. Eugene Glynn in 2007. "All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew," he said. As well as a man, Sendak was an artist, with the deep feelings, insecurities, and struggles one would expect, writ on a backdrop of his Jewish heritage and his own story of child-to-adulthood. "That Mr. Sendak fears that his work is inadequate, that he is racked with insecurity and anxiety, is no surprise," wrote Patricia Cohen in that piece: "For more than 50 years that has been the hallmark of his art. The extermination of most of his relatives and millions of other Jews by the Nazis; the intrusive, unemployed immigrants who survived and crowded his parents’ small apartment; his sickly childhood; his mother’s dark moods; his own ever-present depression — all lurk below the surface of his work, frequently breaking through in meticulously drawn, fantastical ways."
He hated, he felt, he loved, he lived, he created, not with some adult sense of moderation and temperance, but with all that he had, unadulterated, releasing the id within, like Max, like Pierre, like Rosie, like Mickey.
After I yelled "NO!" this morning, I happened upon a tweet from Shaun Usher, or @LettersOfNote. He wrote, "Lovely Maurice Sendak anecdote: "He saw it, he loved it, he ate it." The attached Twitpic was of a conversation between Gross and Sendak about a letter the writer had received from a little boy, a fan.
At that, I burst out laughing. That is exactly what makes Sendak and his work so beautiful. Margalit Fox writes in The New York Times' obituary of the author, "Roundly praised, intermittently censored and occasionally eaten, Mr. Sendak’s books were essential ingredients of childhood for the generation born after 1960 or thereabouts, and in turn for their children." Not only did we love what he did, what he gave us, we actually wanted to eat it. And it tasted so good.
Where were the Wild Things? They were in all of us. Sendak was one of the few who gave us a chance to let them out for a while.