Maurice Sendak’s imagination took him into the wild, and beyond

May 8, 2012

The child is bathed, dusted with bath powder, snug in cotton pajamas and, finally, tucked into bed.

“Read to me, Daddy.”

Which book?

“You know the one.”

Of course, I do: I reach for the familiar volume, pause over the cover, then turn to the first page: “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. . . .”

Many people think that creating a children’s book must be easy. After all, it’s just for kids, can’t be all that hard, right? In fact, the text of a great picture book calls for the skills of a poet. When you’re telling a story in a couple of hundred words, every one of them must be exactly right.

And when you’re also telling that story in a dozen or so pictures, every one of them must be a miniature masterpiece. For one artist to manage to do both equally well doesn’t happen very often. Dr. Seuss managed it for a whole series of Early Reader classics. Chris Van Allsburg created a holiday favorite in “The Polar Express.” But if you were to ask anyone — man, woman, child or grandparent — to name the best children’s picture book of the past 50 years, the winner would be Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.”

“Where the Wild Things Are” would also be the winner if you asked people to name their favorite picture book.

Unless, of course, they preferred “In the Night Kitchen.” I actually do.

In our time, no major picture-book artist has been quite so daring, so utterly insouciant about pushing hard against the limits of his genre as Maurice Sendak. One might safely say that virtually all of his finest books were initially criticized, and sometimes gleefully savaged, as being wholly inappropriate for children. The minotaurs and giant, muscle-bound roosters of “Where the Wild Things Are” looked like kiddie nightmares come alive; Mickey of “In the Night Kitchen” offended with his nudity and his story, which in part suggested a bizarre allegory of the Holocaust; in “Outside Over There” the text and the almost Masonically symbolic pictures seemed too literary, too inbred, too complex, too adult.

But, of course, that was the point. There’s darkness and violence and complexity throughout Sendak, just as there is throughout the fairy tales of Grimm and Andersen, just as there is in life. Sendak’s work allows children to come to terms with their fears and nightmares. The Wild Things can be tamed, turned into big teddy bears, no longer frightening monsters of the id.

It’s hardly an accident, then, that Sendak’s major works so often take the form of quests. The story opens in the “real” world, but the heroes or heroines soon journey into a strange fantasy realm populated by bizarre creatures; there they perform a daring act of courage and eventually return to where they began. Such tales clearly image aspects of “growing up.” But they are always initially unsettling.

For Sendak’s major dream-books prefer to hint at complicated truths rather than sink us, unthinkingly, into easy pleasures. One can, consequently, return again and again to their eerie pictures and texts, slowly puzzling out ever richer meanings and implications. That sense of risk and danger never wholly disappears. Mickey, of “In the Night Kitchen,” is baked in the oven. Ida’s baby sister is stolen by goblins in “Outside Over There.” The protagonists of “We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy” know homelessness, hunger, bureaucratic knavery and child abuse. The book might even be an allegory about AIDS. For some children, as Sendak reminds us, there isn’t always a cozy place where supper will always be hot and there is cake every morning.

Nonetheless, much of Sendak’s early work can be delightfully charming — see “Chicken Soup With Rice”— although already in his little chapter book, “Higglety, Pigglety Pop! Or, There Must Be More to Life,” the canine protagonist Jennie runs away from home simply because “There must be more to life.” As Sendak grew older and more confident, his transgressiveness grew bolder. He seldom tempered his imagery, not even when providing — as he frequently did — decorations to other people’s books, generally using variants of his chubby manikins and dreamy peasant lasses.

Just look, for instance, at all the Freudian wish-fulfillments displayed in the pictures for the schoolyard rhymes collected in “I Saw Esau.” To illustrate one punning chant that begins, “I one my mother, I two my mother” and concludes “I ate my mother,” Sendak shows a bawling infant who, given a breast to nurse on, gradually sucks up Mom altogether and then, fat and happy, dances a little jig on a stool — a simple play on words thus becoming an all-too-accurate parable of mother-child relations.

Maurice Sendak was always much more than just the creator of “Where the Wild Things Are.” Still, that is the masterpiece. Everything in it works in perfect harmony, even the margins and white space. We first see Max in a small framed image, but as the book progresses, the pictures grow bigger and bigger, eventually bleeding over from the right-hand page to the left. At the book’s climax — the Wild Rumpus — the illustrations fill the double-page spread entirely; there are no margins, no words for this orgiastic abandon. Then the whole process reverses itself.

These days, I no longer have small children to read to every night. Yet, from time to time, I still pick up Sendak’s albums, and always find something new to marvel at in them. They are true classics. His best books are so rich that they can be read again and again and again. Even a 5-year-old knows that.

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