With his passing, we hear and read again about his rough childhood fighting sicknesses, stuck in a room by himself, with only his imagination for company and the fear of death. His family were immigrants, just luckily avoiding the Holocaust; living with the grief that they were not able to save many of the people on his father’s side of the family. Yes, it was a childhood filled with death and the possibility of it around every corner. So it is not surprising that there is that darkness always someplace in his work, lurking and waiting.
In In the Night Kitchen, Mickey is almost baked in a cake by three heavy set individuals with Hitler mustaches. He emerges when he is put in the oven. When I first shared this book with my son, I was floored, and my belief about the sequence was confirmed when I investigated it the next day. Yes, that moment was inspired by the Holocaust.
To think parents and libraries were annoyed by the naked boy in the illustrations, there was a whole other secret message about evil they were too blind and ignorant to even see! Even in Sendaks’s childhood dreams, darkness is near.
The older I get the more Maurice Sendak makes me think in his stories. It almost makes a reader wonder if his stories were really for kids, adults, or those of us who exists between the two in maturity. That location is usually my own happy home.
You would not believe some of the deep philosophical discussions I have had with my wife regarding his work. We could teach a college course if we had to. My wife is a dance teacher and she has used his work in teaching movement to children. How cool is that?
What I have always loved about Sendak is his ability as an illustrator to capture so many different styles. It is hard for me not to get distracted in readings with my kids by his art. For example, I find his work in the Little Bear series almost hypnotically beautiful. It is not our natural world, but wouldn’t it be great if it was like that?
At the end of 2011, Maurice Sendak gave one of the most heartbreaking interviews I had ever heard on Fresh Air. Even, at one point, Terry Gross offered to end the interview, but Sendak refused. Sendak was facing his own mortality and dealing with the loss of his life partner. He spoke about how he knew he would never see his loved ones again (he was an atheist) and he just missed them so much. He actually wept on the show and to hear this person who had impacted my own creativity so much weep, was almost hard to listen to.
Maurice Sendak understood endings. He didn’t sugarcoat life. He also in his stories recognized how beautiful, special, and fragile love can be, whether it is a dinner left in a room that is still hot or the parents that may have left their son Pierre to be eaten by a lion, still rushing him to the doctor to set him free; teaching the importance of caring.
Where the Wild Things Are
While the wild things may have been smiling in Where the Wild Things Are, they are not friendly or tame. They each look like they can turn in a second, which they do when Max leaves the island.
For my son, I could tell that for him he found the book empowering. He, even in his toddler years, would shout with Max: “No.” It was his line in the book to read, and in his young voice I could hear that for him he was making a declaration to the monsters, the darkness.
This is his world now!
He also enjoyed the fact that Max had no problem leaving the monsters back on the island, not scared in their least by their terrible eyes and claws. I have even caught him waving back at the page. Max is strong.
One of my friends recently expressed his opinion that Where the Wild Things Are is a metaphor for a temper tantrum. It grows (like the pictures do on the page), the child is sent to their room, they are overwhelmed by the tantrum, then they come down piece by piece. Until in the end, they are being comforted by their parents, feeling peace, whispering that they are loved and it is all okay.
It is all okay.