“Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”
— Maurice Sendak
Maurice Sendak passed away on Tuesday. He was 83.
The world suddenly feels a great deal older.
What has startled me a great deal in recent months is how much more people care about the deaths of musicians and children’s book authors than those of almost anyone else. It is the people who gave us toys and tunes to hum and painted colorful dreams for us each night at bedtime who earn real mourning. Jan Berenstain. Adam Yauch. Even, to a certain extent, the great toymaker Steve Jobs.
Politicians and dictators and the people who came up with devices to prevent your sinks from attacking you in the middle of the night are noted and remembered, surely. But Jan Berenstain of the Berenstain bears goes, and the nation mourns. Maurice Sendak passes, and Facebook and Twitter are plastered with tributes.
They say that a creative adult is simply a child who has survived. Sendak survived a great deal, losing relatives in the Holocaust and struggling through a childhood that he remembered as “a very passionate, upsetting, silly, comic business.”
And his books captured this — never talking down, yet always reassuring.
The best writers are the ones who trust their audiences. Sendak did. And we trusted him right back.
Sendak did not lie to children. He did not attempt to say that the world was more or less difficult than it was.
“It’s passionate, it’s personal, it’s marvelous and it’s cuckoo,” is how he described another writer’s work, but the same words could apply to his own.
But what a difference between the colorful didactic tomes of most children’s books and Sendak’s dreamscapes!
So many children’s books teach tolerance by introducing you to characters you can’t stand. They are lousy with passive-aggressive trees who give and give and take nothing back. You can see the moral barreling down on you from miles away.
Sendak’s books do not have anything that could be strictly described as a moral. What they have is a return to safety. The misbehaved Max comes home from “Where The Wild Things Are” and supper is waiting for him. Mickey makes it back to bed from the “Night Kitchen.”
He was a pioneer, in many ways. For years, as Sendak remembered, there were no children’s books. There was “Alice In Wonderland.” And there were Boys’ Books. Sendak remembered reading “Arrowsmith,” of all things, and the “Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” This changed after World War II. But with the advent of the Children’s Book as a genre came an insistence on sanding off life’s edges and crafting a squishy and spurious innocence, where no one does anything dangerous or stupid or curious and, of course, no one will get hurt. And Sendak knew there was no reassurance in safety that is never called into question.
“If there’s anything missing that I’ve observed over the decades it’s that that drive has declined. There’s a certain passivity, a going back to childhood innocence that I never quite believed in,” Sendak told the New York Times.
The best writers for children understand that writing for children is simply writing.
Insofar as we have anything that can still be described as a monoculture, it’s in our children’s books. Unbeknownst to each other, we all read the same ones. The person who works down the hall heard the same Wild Rumpus in her own mother’s lap.
So we mourn together.
Only some people read Great Books. I have a copy of “Infinite Jest,” but mainly I use it to iron shirts. But everyone read Maurice Sendak.
Children’s books are one of the few voyages we all still take together. For those few blissful pages, our imaginations all pointed the same direction, and we sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks to where the Wild Things are.
We loved it. We ate it up.
Melissa Bell on Sendak’s passing and Where The Wild Things Are