Maurice Sendak’s Brooklyn childhood was filled with monsters. Big ones with bad teeth, hairy noses, foul breath and grabbing, prodding paws who’d lean into his little face and say all sorts of threatening things, perhaps the scariest being: “You’re so cute I could eat you up!” As the youngest (and sickliest) of three children later recalled: “I knew that if my mother didn’t hurry up with the cooking, they probably would.”
The monsters, of course, were the young Maurice’s relatives, well-meaning Polish-American Jews who’d show up pretty much every Depression-era Sunday for a meal from his mother Sarah and a lot of loud, vigorous conversation. Harmless stuff, really, loving even – but when filtered through Maurice’s impressionable imagination, their appearance and behaviour took on a frightening and threatening cast.
Good thing, too. Because without that spark of terror, that sense of menace in the mundane, the world would have been a poorer place and Sendak likely a poorer man, and not the lionized illustrator-writer who, at his death Tuesday in Connecticut at 83, had tens of millions copies of his books in circulation around the world.
No Where the Wild Things Are, in other words, no In the Night Kitchen, no The Sign on Rosie’s Door, no ... well, pick your own touchstone: Sendak illustrated more than 100 books in his lifetime, both his own classics and for-hire projects like Else Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear series, deploying a self-taught style that was part William (Blake and Morris), part Cranach (the Elder), part Bruegel, all Maurice.
Sendak did much else in his long life besides children’s stories, including set and costume design for opera and film, illustrated books for adults, theatre production, even the occasional acting job (as a rabbi in the HBO television version of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America). Still, it’s the children’s stories that are the man’s enduring legacy.
Or should that be so-called children’s stories?
Sendak himself saw the prefix as more marketing category than accurate taxonomy. As he told The New Yorker in 1966 (in a lengthy profile where he was described as “a bachelor” rather than gay): “I don’t believe … that the kid I was grew up into me. He still exists somewhere … And the pleasures I get as an adult are heightened by the fact that I experience them as a child at the same time.”
Before Sendak, “the purpose of children’s books was to model good behaviour,” wrote Parenting Inc. author Pamela Paul last year. “They were meant to edify and to encourage young readers to be what parents wanted them to be.” By contrast, Sendak brought “the shock of subversion to the genre,” updating the non-bowdlerized fairy-tale tradition “to defy the notion that [such books]shouldn’t be scary, silly or sophisticated.”
Often his characters – Max ( Where the Wild Things Are), the pantless Mickey ( In the Night Kitchen), Pierre ( A Cautionary Tale) – are wild rumpuses of resistance and disobedience, self-interest and sweetness, slovenliness and obsession, fun and fear, their flights of fancy as likely to lead to visions of “cannibals and psychotics vomiting in your mouth,” as Sendak memorably told Maus creator Art Spiegelman in 1993, as to wispy yearnings for puppies and chocolate fountains.
Initially derided by some as transgressive and hurtful, the Sendak oeuvre is now part of the larger warp and woof of Western culture. Lest we forget: Where the Wild Things Are made its debut in 1963, the same year as John F. Kennedy’s assassination, mere months before the Beatles’ North American bow on The Ed Sullivan Show and more than a year after the release of Bob Dylan’s first record.
Since then, the book’s become a staple of virtually every generation’s upbringing – probably (hopefully?) even for the children of Mitt Romney. Certainly it had to have been for director Spike Jonze (b. 1969) and writer Dave Eggers (b. 1970) who, in 2009, finally brought the book to the big screen, with Sendak’s blessing.
Yet as familiar as Sendak’s imagery is today – familiar, it seems, to the point of sometimes being nostalgic fodder – it retains the power, the oddity to, if not shock then at least perplex and give wonder. Jerry Garcia used to sing about getting “shown the light/in the strangest of places/if you look at it right.” For children past, present and future, Maurice Sendak still has this knack.
Maurice Sendak’s first professional assignment as an illustrator occurred in 1947 when he was 19. It was for a book on physics. The first book Sendak wrote as well as illustrated was Kenny’s Window, published in 1956. A rooster asks the boy Kenny, “Can you fix a broken promise?” Kenny answers: “Yes, if it only looks broken, but really isn’t.”
Pierre: A Cautionary Tale (1962): About a boy whose favourite refrain to any question is “I don’t care,” until he gets eaten by a lion.
Where the Wild Things Are (1963): The story of Max, who throws a tantrum, gets a time-out, goes on an adventure in his bedroom, then returns for dinner. Sendak’s most famous and popular work.
In the Night Kitchen (1970): Controversial not just for its nudity – Mickey the hero loses his PJs – but for its purported phallic imagery (check out the milk bottles) and Holocaust subtext (Mickey being baked in an oven by bakers who some say look like Hitler, others Oliver Hardy).
Higglety Pigglety Pop! (1967): An inveterate dog lover, Sendak wrote this story after the death of a favourite pooch. It’s about Jennie, a Sealyham terrier who believes there’s more to life than being a pet.
Bumble-Ardy (2011): The last book Sendak published while he was alive, it was also the first book he had both written and illustrated in 30 years. About a pig who, on his ninth birthday, throws a party.