Sendak's wild rumpus will live on
Written by DAVID DUPONT Sentinel Arts & Entertainment Editor
Wednesday, 09 May 2012 13:28
In a world of categories, Maurice Sendak had to be put in his place: Children's book author.
|Maurice Sendak at his Connecticut home last September (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Though the artist and writer's work extended well beyond those boundaries, he, in his own grouchy way, accepted this category. As he told the Associated Press in 2003: "So I write books that seem more suitable for children, and that's OK with me. They are a better audience and tougher critics. Kids tell me what they think, not what they think they should think."
Still, the man, who died Tuesday at 83, knew his worth.
I interviewed him once about 20 years ago by telephone.
Then a reporter for an upstate New York newspaper, I sought his comment on a story he knew too well. A parent in rural school district had objected because when Mickey falls out of bed and out of his clothes in "In the Night Kitchen," he's revealed to have genitals.
"Cock-a-doodle doo," as Mickey exclaimed, to be sure.
"In the Night Kitchen" was often a target of those who wanted to shield tender young minds from feelings those minds were aware of. Sendak's most popular book "Where the Wild Things Are" was deemed by some protectors of youth as too scary.
Sendak articulated those nascent understandings, and in doing so created classics, tormenting small-minded adults in the process.
The artist did not suffer fools gladly, and I remember feeling as I talked to him back then that I was straddling that line. The limits of his patience were obvious from the time he answered his telephone. Still, he answered his telephone, and he answered my questions, however exasperated he was. He didn't shy away from summoning the example of Michelangelo's David to defend his depiction of Mickey.
Sendak was an artist, and as an artist he pushed limits. His books grew darker as time went on, more and more shadowed by the Holocaust that had shadowed his own Jewish family in Brooklyn as he grew up.
I'm old enough not to have grown up with his work. Yet I remember as a child who'd outgrown picture books finding his illustrations intriguing and vaguely troubling. These were the dark children of the city, full of secrets, not the cheery blonds of the suburbs.
Over the years, I learned more about his work, and probably read about a few attempts at censorship, and enjoyed Carole King's musical adaptation of the stories in his "Nutshell Library," including Pierre who didn't care and the self-assured Rosie.
So when my first son was born, Sendak's books were among the first my wife and I added to his library. All three of my children were inundated with books - that comes from having a librarian and writer as parents. Sendak's were among the most prized.
He was also a storyteller in the most compact, profound and comic way. His books were always a joy to read aloud. In the right mood the wild rumpus section of "Where the Wild Things Are" could extend into a couple minutes of vocal percussion.
Yet I also remember long discussions with adults about whether the subtext of "In the Night Kitchen" was the Holocaust or Mickey's subconscious discovery of sex. Sendak scattered plenty of evidence for both throughout the book.
He told public radio's Terry Gross in 1986 such issues were not his concern. He only wrote his books to "amuse, entertain and distract" children, and they did all of these.
When his latest "Bumble-Ardy" came out there was a tinge of regret that I had no young one to buy it for, and share it with.
Sendak told Gross that the book was written during and after the death of his life partner of 50 years, Eugene Glynn. "I did 'Bumble-Ardy' to save myself," Sendak says. "I did not want to die with him."
It reflects, he said, that confrontation with death but his continued love of life even as he neared its end.
"I'm ready. I'm ready. I'm ready," he told Gross
Sendak was a freethinker who did not believe in religion or an after life. He said his gods, the ones who got him through troubled periods, were John Keats, Shakespeare, Herman Melville, Mozart and, at the top, Emily Dickenson.
He is survived by his books, and thousands of readers young and old who have been touched by them, so Max, Mickey, Pierre, Rosie and the rest will live on.