There are only a handful of books that parents enjoy reading as much as kids enjoy hearing, and I think Maurice Sendak’s “Where The Wild Thing Are” is one of those books. It’s a nursery-room essential that many parents have on the bookshelf even before the baby is born.
Children and parents can recite the lines of Max’s great adventure across the sea and have burned into their imaginations the dark, yet beautiful images of horned monsters hanging from trees celebrating their wild rumpus. (That’s my favorite picture in the book.)
Parents will have to break the news to their kids tonight that Maurice Sendak died early Tuesday in Danbury, Conn., at age 83. He had recently suffered a stroke. (Here is a link to a list of many of his books available on Amazon.com.)
Sendak is credited with revolutionizing children’s book and how we think about childhood because he didn’t treat kids as all good. “His kids misbehaved and didn’t regret it and in their dreams and nightmares fled to the most unimaginable places,” according to an AP story.
“I like interesting people and kids are really interesting people,” he explained to The Associated Press last fall. “And if you didn’t paint them in little blue, pink and yellow, it’s even more interesting….”
“In plain terms, a child is a complicated creature who can drive you crazy” Sendak told the AP in 2009. “There’s a cruelty to childhood, there’s an anger. And I did not want to reduce Max to the trite image of the good little boy that you find in too many books.”
There are many levels to Sendak’s work. My 5-year-old describes “Where The Wild Things Are” as a story about a boy who visits monsters. My 11-year-old knows there’s more going on in those images and is scheduled to be studying the book in her gifted Language Arts class next year.
Ten years ago, Sendak worked with Atlanta’s own William Bremen Jewish Heritage & Holocaust Museum to create an exhibit about his work. According to Bremen staff, it has been at the Bremen twice and now travels the United States.
From an March 3, 2001 AJC interview with Jill Vejnoska:
“Mounted solely by and for the 4 1/2-year-old Breman museum, “Where the Wild Things Are: Maurice Sendak in His Own Words and Pictures” offers everything from handwritten manuscripts and preliminary pencil sketches to such kid-friendly displays as a life-size boat and giant pots and pans.”
“It also opens a window on an aspect of Sendak that his legions of fans, many of whom know “Wild Things” nearly by heart, may be less familiar with.”
“There are not many exhibitions of my work because I don’t approve of too many, ” Sendak, 72, said by telephone recently from his home in Connecticut. “In this case, it’s very specifically because of its subject matter — being a Jew in America who also happens to be an artist. When this earthly life is catching up with me, it’s a chance to do honor to everyone in the past.”
” ‘The Holocaust became part of my theme, ‘ said Sendak, who grew up surrounded by relatives who had survived Hitler’s purge and the knowledge of the many more who didn’t. The hulking monsters who threaten to eat young Max in ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ are homages of a sort to all those immigrant relatives who filled his house with their dark clothing, their brooding reminders, but also their intense love, during and after World War II. Tucked away in the corner of a sumptuous, two-page illustration in “Dear Mili” (1988) is a small group of singing children whose faces include those of Anne Frank and other less well-known youthful victims.”
” ‘I wanted to make it a book about children and how they are victims of holocausts of all kinds, ‘ Sendak said about ‘Mili, ’ based on an early 19th-century Grimm fairy tale of a little girl whose mother sends her into hiding in the forest during a war. ‘Not only did Jewish children die in the Holocaust, but so did Christian children die, and African children and Bosnian children die in holocausts.’ ”
“If any of this seems at odds with Sendak’s status as a creator of beloved children’s books, the first thing to understand is that’s not what he says he does.”
” ‘I don’t know how to write books for children, ‘ said Sendak, whose illustrations have also graced works of Tolstoy, Isaac Bashevis Singer and other ‘adult’ authors. ‘Even the (phrase) ‘children’s book’ is condescending, because it assumes they can only understand so much.’ ”
“In fact, though, Sendak says he believes children understand plenty. They know that what’s out there can be scary, dangerous, unpleasant or just unknown. Rather than shielding them from such realities, Sendak’s books acknowledge them in a creative, fun way that is ultimately cathartic. Instead of creating glorified picture books featuring fluffy clouds and perfect families, Sendak created Max in “Wild Things, ” a little boy who pokes the dog and yells at his mother and eventually is sent to his room without supper.”
“What ensues is page after gloriously illustrated page of Max cavorting in a sort of jungle paradise amid toothy monsters and other “Wild Things.” While some experts initially criticized the introduction of monsters and youthful anger into a so-called children’s book, kids adored it. Sendak simply points to its ending, where Max — having exorcised his ‘Wild Things’ — returns to his room to find his supper waiting.”
“Max takes a big risk yelling at his mother, but the food is waiting for him because, of course, she loves him, ” Sendak said. ‘Children have to be loved and protected, but at the same time, they need independence and to be allowed to grow amid all the dangers out there.’ ”
We covered the Bremen exhibit in our Living section and in News for Kids. As the NFK editor, I believe we asked kids to submit their own pictures of “wild things.” I believe the museum hung all of our wild things near the exhibit and then picked winners for museum passes. Parents, teachers and kids were all thrilled to be able to learn more the author and his work.
Did you read “Where the Wild Things Are” to your kids when they were growing up? Did your parents read it to you? What did your or your kids enjoy about the story?
Are you sad about Sendak’s passing? Will your kids be?
Did your kids like his other work as well? (Any time I wanted my kids to nap I would put on “Little Bear.” It was sooo relaxing to the kids.)