Maurice Sendak died yesterday. I have always been a fan of his literature, but I didn’t appreciate the man behind the books until I watched Stephen Colbert’s interviews with him this year.
Their mutual appreciation for each other is charming. They would both be at my fantasy dinner party, especially because having a lovable old crank would lead to some authentic, entertaining conversation, perhaps comments like this: “I can’t believe I’ve turned into a typical old man. I can’t believe it.” Then he smiles, his face lighting up mischievously, “I was young just minutes ago.”
His obituaries laud him as the preeminent children’s author of the 21st century. That’s interesting when you consider how dark and unsettling his stories truly are. But then again so are the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. However, what separates the writers besides 200 years is their perspective on children. The brothers’ stories were didactic, intended as “warning tales.” The maiden doesn’t kiss the frog; she throws him against the wall. Snow White’s wicked stepmother dies, forced to dance at the young couple’s wedding in iron-hot shoes. Cruelty, violence, and deviancy lurk in the forest, kept at bay by simplicity, modesty, and hard work. Sendak, thankfully, doesn’t view children as future citizens who need to be inculcated with the state’s value system. Instead, he recognizes a child’s inherent desire to understand the world. He knows that children don’t want their fears mollified; they want to learn to live with them. As he explains, “I refuse to lie to children. I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.” His stories reflect that honesty: children long to be wild, to be naughty, to explore the truth, to defy authority, but, in the end, to be loved.
His famous book Where the Wild Things Are is actually a deeply sad and honest story. Sent to bed without his supper, Max travels to an untamed world full of strange monsters whose feelings of anger, boredom, and anxiety lie open on the surface. Determining if Max should rightfully be the “king of all wild things,” they ask him, “Will you keep out all the sadness?” Max tries, but ultimately, of course, fails. The monsters’ own weaknesses prevail, and they hurt each other physically and emotionally. The wild world is just as sad and broken as our own, and no one individual can fix it all.
That’s the general theme in much of Sendak’s work. Consider the exchange between Kenny and a rooster outside his window in his book Kenny’s Window:
“Can you draw a picture on the blackboard when somebody doesn’t want you to? asked the rooster promptly.
“Yes,” answered Kenny,” if you write them a very nice poem.”
“What is an only goat?”
“A lonely goat,” answered Kenny.
The rooster shut one eye and looked at Kenny.
“Can you hear a horse on the roof?” he asked.
“If you know how to listen in the night,” said Kenny.
“Can you fix a broken promise?”
“Yes,” said Kenny, “if it only looks broken, but really isn’t.”
The rooster drew his head back into his feathers and whispered, “What is a very narrow escape?”
“When somebody almost stops loving you,” Kenny whispered back.”
Sendak doesn’t pretend to know life’s truth because, as he says, “What the hell is that?” Instead, he explains that his strength and success as a writer lies in his “fierce honesty, to not let the kid down, to not let the kid get punished, to not suffer the child to be dealt with in a boring, simpering, crushing-of-the-spirit kind of way.”
I think children are trying to tell us something through their love of Sendak’s works. One of Sendak’s favorite memories is of a little boy who wrote him a letter to tell him how much he enjoyed Max’s tale. Sendak wrote him back, drawing a picture of a wild thing on the card. The boy’s mother wrote back, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” Sendak revels in that response, especially that the boy didn’t prize the letter as an original Sendak, “He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.” That’s the way kids are, and, as Sendak hopes, they should remain.
Some of his final words, shared in an interview earlier this year, express a joyous acceptance of the sadness: “I have nothing now but praise for my life. I’m not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more … What I dread is the isolation … There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.”
“And [he] sailed back over a year
and in and out of weeks
and through a day
and into the night of his very own room
where he found his supper waiting for him
and it was still hot.”