The beloved and controversial children’s author Maurice Sendak has died at 83. With him has gone his gorgeous and unrepentant assault on parental coddling.
Sendak may have worked in an under-appreciated genre, but he was a literary giant, from his subversive “Where the Wild Things Are” in 1963 to his most recent, the chilling “Bumble-Ardy,” (Harper Collins)
The son of Polish immigrants whose family was devastated by the Holocaust, Sendak was not one to go for cuddly animals and happy endings. His library spoke honestly to children about the raw feelings they most assuredly felt.
He was also a pretty cranky character. In a classic interview with Newsweek in 2009, he said parents who found too scary the movie adaptation of “Wild Things” can “go to [a place too hot to name in a family newspaper blog].”
He also said children who found it scary could “wet your pants. Do whatever you like. But it’s not a question that can be answered.”
Mister Rogers he was not.
And, though I adore Mister Rogers, Sendak may have been just as necessary for both children and parents.
With books that touched on greed and rivalry and jealousy, he respected children’s humanity. He acknowledged what they already knew. The world was rarely as easy and cute as other books suggested.
For parents, he gave us a glimpse into those feelings. Our children feel as deeply as we do. He let us know that we would not change this fact by ignoring it.
Last September, Sendak explained the origins of his literary attitude to the New York Times:
“Essentially, there is no protecting children. None. I grew up at a tough time. With the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. There was this invasion of childhood in the air. In my neighborhood, a little girl died. No mention was made of it. We children had to meet in the backyard to imagine what it meant. What’s happened to Rita? It was a world that darkened. The Holocaust demolished my family, my parents. I saw that, I was there, I was a child. I had to bear it even though I didn’t have any idea what it meant. What language was there to tell a child? None. That has stayed with me all my life.
“I was very much afraid when I was a child. But all my books end safely. I needed the security in my soul of bringing these children back. Ida comes back safe. Max finds his meal waiting for him. It means his mother loves him. The rough patches between them are solved. Mickey gets safely back in bed. We want them to end up O.K., and they do end up O.K. Unlike grownup books.”
In that same Times interview, he described the iconic hero of “Wild Things” this way:
“Max, to me, was a very average normal kid, but he upset a lot of people at the time. He yelled at his mother, he talked back to her, she deprived him of food and then gave it to him. Children who fight back, children who are full of excitement are the kind of children I like.
Max was a little beast, and we’re all little beasts.”
Do you read Sendak books to your children? Why or why not?