The literary world suffered a blow today with the news that beloved children’s book author & illustrator Maurice Sendak is dead. Insert sad face here.
I’m a big fan of Sendak, always have been. Long before I became a parent, I had an affinity for children’s books. Years in advance of adding a crib, glider rocker, and Diaper Genie to my decor, I had an extensive library of children’s books. Even if I’d never had kids, I’d still have kid books. One of my most prized possessions is a set of four teeny, tiny books by Sendak. “The Nutshell Library” was published nearly a decade before I was born, but the stories are timeless. Alligators All Around, Chicken Soup With Rice, One Was Johnny, and Pierre A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and a Prologue may be tiny, but these stories pack a punch. I am physically unable to serve chicken soup without hearing Carole King’s song version of Sendak’s story in my head. “Sipping once, sipping twice….”
Sendak’s characters have been described as bossy, headstrong, and borderline obnoxious. Perhaps that’s why I like them so. In Pierre, the title character is a stubborn boy whose stock reply to everything is “I don’t care.”
Pierre learns to care, albeit the hard way, when a hungry lion enters the scene and tells Pierre that he will eat him up. When Pierre replies with his usual “I don’t care” the lion follows through on his threat. Some may consider this harsh for a kids’ book, but it’s a great lesson in (a) caring; (b) following through; and (c) karma. All important life lessons, in my opinion. The consequences to Pierre’s bad attitude are also foretold in the opening paragraph of the book:
“There Once was a boy named Pierre,
Who only would say, “I don’t Care”
Read his story my friend,
And you’ll find at the end,
That a suitable moral lies there.”
Lesser-known but equally charming are Sendak’s illustrations for Else Holmelund Minarik’s “Little Bear” series. When my kids were tiny, there was a Little Bear cartoon that was a favorite in our house. I’ll never forget the day that Payton was at preschool and I turned Little Bear on anyway, because it was such a mainstay of our everyday routine. The books are another series with which I will never part. Perhaps one day I will pass them on to some special little children in my life. Perhaps. No promises.
Similarly, I cherish my copy of In the Night Kitchen. Not because it’s as special to me as Pierre and Little Bear; frankly, the story never grabbed me like the others did. It’s precious to me, though, because of the controversy surrounding main character Mickey’s nudity. Librarians were known to draw a tiny diaper on little Mickey’s bum to cover his nudie-bits. The book was subsequently banned and roundly criticized, which of course made it all the more appealing to me. Betcha the closed-minded book-banners would really get riled up if they knew that Mr Sendak lived an alternative lifestyle. Not that it’s anyone’s business. Long live Mickey and the Night Kitchen. “Stir it! Scrape it! Make it! Bake it!”
Sendak is of course best known for Where the Wild Things Are, the book that defined his career and blew the doors off the genre. No longer would “See Dick run” suffice as prose for the wee set. Published in 1963, Wild Things set Sendak’s career ablaze and upped the ante for anyone who wanted to succeed as a children’s book author. Although he claimed he was not a children’s author; he wrote stories “about human emotion and life,” as he told People magazine in a 2003 interview.“They’re pigeonholed as children’s books but the best ones aren’t — they’re just books,” he said. That’s what I’ve always loved about them. They’re just books. Some children’s books have much more complex storylines and deeper character development than many bestselling grown-up books (Twilight and 50 Shades, this means you).
The genre of children’s books would never be the same after Wild Things. Gone was the puffy-cloud, happy-endings arena, and Wild Things depicted a defiant child, Max, in a scary place populated by giant monsters with big teeth (“And the wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.”). In 2006, Sendak told NPR: “The idea of an American children’s book where the child is not perfectly safe was something that was new. I didn’t know it was new, I didn’t set out to break any new ideas. I was just doing what was only in my head.” Sendak reportedly modeled the monsters after his relatives — “who, in his memory at least, had hovered like a pack of middle-aged gargoyles above the childhood sickbed to which he was often confined,” per The New York Times. Somehow I’m picturing Sendak yelling “How ya like me now?” to those relatives.
Sendak’s illustrations are as stunning as his prose is riveting. What’s most amazing to me is that he was largely self-taught, which lends credence to the idea in my head that people who are great at something don’t become great by rote. It’s just there, it’s in them. Greatness is cultivated, refined, and harnessed, but it’s there. That greatness transfers seamlessly onto page after page of Sendak’s words and drawings. He defined generations of childhoods with his signature style: crosshatching, larger-than-life characters, not-always-happy endings. Countless kids learned to love the power of a good story after reading Sendak. The author received heaps of mail from kids, writing on their own or as part of a class project. In a NYT interview, Sendak told of one letter from an 8-year-old boy that stood out in his mind: “Dear Mr. Sendak,How much does it cost to get to where the wild things are? If it is not expensive, my sister and I would like to spend the summer there.”