VIENNA, Va., May 9, 2012 — Once upon a time long ago, before computers and x-boxes, when iPads didn’t exist and television was just an infant, there was a man, a very quiet and private man, who knew how to do two things very well. He knew how to write and he knew how to draw fascinating pictures. He knew how to go “Where the Wild Things Are.”
“And the wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.”
His was a world of imagination, of monsters with big teeth and long claws, where little boys played in their beds and then escaped to worlds afar. He had the talent for telling a very scary story to a little child and bringing the child just to the edge of being scared, when it would turn so funny, so robust, so enchanting that any sense of fear was gone as fast as the character that created it.
Fortunately, he wrote a lot of books, some 70 of them through the years, which were read until the pages were worn and frazzled, and re-read until the child could repeat the words with the reader. And that is a good thing because they will live forever, but the author, the magician, the wordsmith par excellence – his voice is now stilled. Maurice Bernard Sendak has died at the age of 83, and children of all ages will miss his talent and his magic.
Since I happen to have a grandson named Max, maybe the books hit home more. Every little boy knows that there is a monster in the closet and maybe another one under the bed…it makes bedtime a little worrisome. But reading Sendak’s book makes the monsters almost lovable with their cry of “let the rumpus START!” and all fear is gone.
Every little boy, and some little girls also, want to be able to escape their bed and find a forest appearing just beyond the footboard. They want to romp and run and fall down and run again as they seek and are sought by the “wild things” which Sendak so artfully brought to life. And just when it gets scarier, they are somehow brought back to bed and safety.
Strangely enough, Sendak often said that he really didn’t like children, except few and far between. He never married and said that he never revealed his non-traditional lifestyle until his parents were dead. In many ways he seems to have lived a quiet life, one of introspection and solitude, and maybe it was that solitary life that allowed his imagination to run wild, as wild as his creatures were. Restrained by no particular rules of life or love, they could grow and expand endlessly.
“Where The Wild Things Are” was published in 1963, and sold over ten million copies, being translated into 13 languages including Afrikaans. It did not take long for critics to launch their arrows at him. Why, Max yelled at his mother, they said. Parents and teachers were not sure such rebelliousness should be the subject of a story, much less enjoyed.
But too many children and their parents, and even their teachers, realized that Sendak had gone more than skin deep into childhood. He had pictured children as they really are. The next year, 1964, he was recognized with the Caldecott Medal, for the “most distinguished American picture book.”
He didn’t mind testing the waters a few years later with “In the Night Kitchen,” where a young boy named Mickey slips down into his mother’s kitchen for adventures, including falling naked into a bowl of cake batter. Good heavens – the critics arose again, and in England it was said that many copies of the book had diapers carefully painted over the offending portion of young Mickey,
Young Maurice was only four when the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped, though it seemed to make an impression on him and apparently put into his fertile mind the concept that childhood might not be all safe and sweet. Thus his forays into forests and creatures were his answer to normal fears.
In 1967, he experienced two traumas, which left a lasting impression: he had a serious heart attack and his beloved Sealyham terrier, Jennie, who he called “his friend” died. It seemed a light went out for awhile until he was able to overcome the stress produced by both events.
“And [he] sailed back over a year
and in and out of weeks
and through a day
and into the night of his very own room
where he found his supper waiting for him
and it was still hot.”
As long as there are little children who love books, and whose lives have not been so suffused with television and inane movies to serve as babysitters so that they have no imagination, no creativity, and merely learn robotically that which is fed them by a technological instructor, then the art of Maurice Sendak will continue to capture the whimsy and fantasy that is childhood’s gift.
“But the wild things cried, ‘Oh please don’t go- We’ll eat you up- we love you so!’”
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