"TODAY IS my bar mitzvah," announced Maurice Sendak at lunch on Feb. 11, the day chosen by the mayor of New York to salute him for his cultural contributions to the city over the past 30 years. The bar mitzvah boy, trim and very young looking despite the gray in his hair and beard, was as nervous as bar mitzvah boys always are, and he conned his haftorah all the way down to City Hall in the taxicab. Rain was gushing out of a sulphurous sky and Maurice was not certain whether to be happy or sorry that the downpour would keep people away from the ceremony.
He needn't have given it a thought. The sizeable Board of Estimate chambers were packed, standing-room-only in the aisles. Friends, relatives, admirers, colleagues, editors, theater people crowded in to watch the City of New York honor one of its own, a Brooklyn boy, son of immigrant parents, the first American to win the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Medal, winner of the Caldecott Medal for children's book illustration, author of beloved books too numerous to enumerate, creator of Little Bear and the Nutshell Library and Max of Where the Wild Things Are , Mickey of In the Night Kitchen , Jennie of Higglety Pigglety Pop , Rosie of the smash hit TV special and long running musical Really Rosie . Even the kids from Really Rosie were there to sing and dance. It was some bar mitzvah, although there was no Manischewitz or sponge cake. Cheese, fruit, and white wine do not a bar mitzvah make.
Among those paying tribute to Sendak were John Donovan of the Children's Book Council, who said, "This is the first time that one of 'our crowd' has penetrated this chamber. Maurice, after your self-described long apprenticeship, when you received the Caldecott Medal for Where the Wild Things Are you showed us that there is something to be said for apprenticeship. You went on to explore the craft and art of making books in a way that makes everybody nervous . . . with anticipation. Your fame rests on your works as an illustrator, and what astonishing pictures you've made! It seems to me that your pictures are language; you have made vocabulary visual. You have introduced us to so many people whom we have come to know; Kenny, and Pierre, max and Mickey, Rosie -- especially Jennir -- and others -- afraid, fearful of being eaten, snatched away and snatched away again. Terrors abound, but so does rescue. You have told readers there is someone to hold onto. You have asserted that if there is a purpose to the children's books you make, it is not to socialize the people who read them, but to humanize them, to make them flip over the astonishing things that can and will happen in their lives. You made it, kid, not only in Manhattan but to Manhattan."
After Donavan, Sendak's colleague, the author, illustrator and poet Karla Kuskin, said: "Both New York and Maurice have been nourished by very many dreams and demons, and have been a haven for demons and dreams. Maurice's memories of the city, his feelings for it, are very much in his work, in the search for essences he is always pursuing. He's found essences of dogs and monsters just wild enough to tame, of babies about to be monsters, monsters about to be monsters, the essence of childhood, Brooklyn. In this city, which was formed by foreigners, founded by foreigners, in which many of us are rooted in something foreign, Maurice is a very special foreigner. He sees everything with the eyes of a foreigner with an unaccustomed view, seeing things in a new way, charming to us, bringing a gift that an important artist brings, helping us to see things anew. Under everything he does there is energy, an edge, a life that makes it important. Under the funniest scenes -- and there are certainly wonderfully funny scenes -- there is a serious bedrock of art. In that fine, elegant, delicate, floating, extraordinary line that the angels wish they could draw too, there is sweat and struggle and discipline and the knowledge of failure and above all a belief in his work, a serious ferocious devotion to what he's doing. And that shines through, it persuades us and it draws us in." After solemnly assuring us that "Where the Wild Things Are is not, repeat not a book about city hall," Mayor Edward I. Koch presented a certificate of appreciation.
Sendak took a standing ovation with obvious pleasure and a bar mitzvah boy's shy pride. "Perhaps I shold resist saying the obvious but it is irresistible. I wish my mother and father were alive and could be there. It would have meant so much to them, more I suspect than any other award that has come my way. This is a New York City event, and New York was their adopted home town . . . . A very kind gentleman from the mayor's office put me at ease by saying this event would be simple, warm and very much like any occasion in a typical family living room." Maurice gave a significant look around the vast high-ceilinged chamber and his audience broke up.
"This is so," he said. "This room puts me very much in mind of the cozy living rooms my family had back in the old Bensonhurst-Borough Hall days. We moved every third year to avoid the painters. I seem to recall such generally large groups of hungry relatives on Sunday afternoons. Perhaps in my memory I exaggerate the number but there seemed as many people. And what was alarming was the terrible fact of all of them being so very hungry. When dinner was late -- my mother was a slow cooker -- their affectionate pinchings and pawings took a rather ominous turn. With their eyes bulging, huge teeth bare and my blackened cheek permanently trapped between giant forefinger and thumb, I swore I was a goner. If Mama didn't hurry with the chicken fricassee, I'd be the chicken fricassee.
Childish imaginings but they are preserved in my memory, and when children today ask me who the Wild Things are, I can only honestly say, Jewish relatives. My childhood wish of growing up and forever making books has in fact come true. Thirty years have disappeared in the twinkling of an eye and I am grateful for this occasion and for the honor of having all the important people in my life -- my family, my colleagues, and very best beloved friends -- to share this moment with me. So thank you very much." And the bar mitzvah boy smiled.