A world where monsters rule

May 17, 2012

Jim Ramey celebrates the life of Maurice Sendak, best known as the writer and illustrator behind Where the Wild Things Are.

IT'S ENTIRELY plausible that people reading this will have learned how to read from a book written or illustrated by Maurice Sendak, who died last week at the age of 83.

Along with Theodor Geisel and Shel Silverstein, his works shook up the staid world of children's books, helping to create an honest children's literature that educated and entertained at once. His illustrations, particularly the Wild Things and his animal drawings, were a direct influence on Jim Henson when he created the Muppets and helped create Sesame Street, which revolutionized television and childhood learning.

But this new way of looking at children's education and involvement was born out of Sendak's own childhood, full of melancholy, sickness and horror. More than anything else, Maurice Sendak was a product of the Nazi's Holocaust against Jewish Europeans.

He insisted throughout his life that his household was haunted by relatives who did not, like his mother and father, make it to the U.S. before the U.S. government effectively closed the borders to Jewish immigrants. Some estimates say that simply lifting the bureaucratic regulations and letting Jewish refugees into the U.S. could have saved 200,000 people who instead became victims of the Holocaust.

Maurice Sendak
Maurice Sendak

Sendak reflected on his childhood in several touching and enlightening interviews on NPR's "Fresh Air," where he said pointedly:

I came up late for dinner, my mother howling from the window about Leo and Benjamin and the other children my age who could never come up for supper, who were good to their mothers, but now they were dead, and I was lucky...I hated them. I hated them for dying. Because all they brought were violent scenes in my house between my mother and father. My mother pulling hair out of her head, my father diving onto the bed.

Sickness also struck Sendak, keeping him in bed reading and drawing for days on end. On one occasion while healthy, he was tossing the ball around with a neighborhood boy he called "Lloydie" when he overthrew him. Lloydie ran out into the street and was struck and killed by traffic. Decades later, Sendak would still say that he was responsible for Lloydie's death.

SUCH TRAUMAS are, of course, unique to Sendak's life. But they are elementally a part of growing up for everyone. The loss of friends, the burdens of family and beginning to understand one's mortality are seminal moments that happen in childhood and affect us deeply. They were nearly always shuffled to the side in children's literature, if approached at all.

Sendak's work stood opposed to such etiquette and obfuscation. Even in his earliest works, there was a darkness that was only half hidden with humor. For instance, his pre-Wild Things tetralogy Nutshell Library consists of rote learning parodies like Alligators All Around, in which alligators take us through the alphabet--where F is for forever fooling, P is for pushing people, Q is for quite quarrelsome and S is for shockingly spoiled.

Also contained in this collection is One was Johnny, a counting book that was dedicated "FOR GENE." It is believed this is a reference to Sendak's life partner of more than 50 years, Dr. Eugene Glynn. The book has Johnny's quiet time interrupted by, among other things, a tiger, a monkey, a turtle and a burglar.

It ends with the line: "1 was Johnny who lived by himself. AND LIKED IT LIKE THAT!" The question that leaps out to readers is: Why would you dedicate a book that ends like that to your boyfriend? Sendak only officially came out of the closet in 2007, after Gene had died--so that his mother could have a straight son, he said. His words play as a justification to the straight world for why he chose to "be alone"--and including Gene in it must have been an important act of love in a society that rejected their relationship.

These were his minor works, though. The books that will define his legacy came between 1964 and 1981, and were in order: Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen and Outside Over There. He called these a trilogy because they dealt with many similar themes.

In each of these books, the child characters come up against a defining moment and meet the challenge as best as they are able.

Also interesting is that each main character is illustrated at the end of the book in the same place they were in the beginning, indicating that the changes are not obvious to the world at large or permanent to the characters themselves.

Max in Where the Wild Things Are is sent to bed without supper because of his temper. Mickey in In the Night Kitchen investigates an unknown noise at night. Ida in Outside Over There has to rescue her little sister, who has been kidnapped to become a goblin bride. In each, the children make mistakes and do very little that's spectacular to the adult eye--but ultimately, the children's courage and arrogance hold out and get them out of messes that are largely of their own creation.

The controversy caused by these books is hard to imagine living decades after they helped to change children's books, but they were very real at the time. Opponents of Wild Things said of it, "This is not a book you leave in the presence of sensitive children to find in the twilight."

This statement is actually the best illustration of what Sendak's life work achieved. Wild Things was precisely the kind of book a sensitive child would eat up in the twilight, fright and all. It gives a truer sense of the power that a child has within themselves than any parental lecture possibly could.

The controversy surrounding Outside Over There was in the same vein, though lessened because it was released well after Sendak had become an award-winning author and household name.

In the Night Kitchen, however, remains among the most banned books in the U.S. because of the nudity of the main character Mickey. But Mickey's nudity was part of his defining moment--part of finding your voice and the courage to defend what's yours.

Sendak called the controversy pure idiocy and reaction. Had concerned citizens truly been concerned, they may have decided to take on the most subversive element of the story, which was a rugged defense of eating cake for breakfast!

THOUGH THESE three books tower over everything else he wrote, Sendak's work continued up until his death. Books like We're All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, about homeless children living on the streets with people who have AIDS; Bumble-ardy, about an orphaned pig who didn't have a birthday party until he was 9; and Brundibar, his collaboration with Tony Kushner based on an opera performed by Jewish children in the Nazi Theresienstadt concentration camp; showed his continued commitment to his guiding ethic of treating children with respect and giving them art that was not didactic, but invigorating.

With the rash of celebrity children's books by the likes of John Travolta (Propeller One-Way Night Coach: A Story) and Jay Leno (If Roast Beef Could Fly) Maurice Sendak's death leaves a vacuum in an important genre that is being filled by unmitigated garbage.

Years ago, during a speech for the Friends of University of Southern California Libraries, Sendak said, "It's 1993, and children get shot on the way to school, children contract AIDS, children are in the most vulnerable position imaginable...If we don't look and if we don't listen and if we don't do something, kids will be lost."

With the suicides of bullied gay children and the murderous rampage of racist thugs, both in and out of uniform, we can see why children would seek comfort and courage in Sendak's land, where horn-headed, fanged, wild monsters rule. After all, it's so much like home.

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