Maurice Sendak died today. The news, as I type this, is so fresh that Wikipedia still has a mix of “is” and “was” in its article about him. I bought Where the Wild Things Are for N on one of my first trips away from her, when I was in Winnipeg, on the jury for an arts council grant. It became a favourite in our house for many years, with its toothy, hairy monsters and its forest-room, and Max in his wolf suit, making mischief of one kind and another. When his mischief lands him in his room, supperless, his imagination takes flight.
Sendak’s muted illustrations are gorgeous here, and the story’s rhythm makes it feel like a poem, lovely to read aloud. The long sentences are carefully placed, so that you’re forced to pause at just the right moment, in order to turn the page. The monsters are scary and wild, but the words flow gently.
That very night in Max’s room a forest grew
and grew —
and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around
and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max and he sailed off through night and day
and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.
The book was controversial when it was first released in 1963. But it was a lasting hit with children. According to Sendak, an eight-year-old boy once wrote to him to ask, “How much does it cost to get to where the wild things are? If it is not expensive, my sister and I would like to spend the summer there.” What treasures such letters must have been for a man many describe as melancholy.
In an interview last year with The Guardian, Sendak spoke plainly about his sadness. When Eugene Glynn, his partner of 50 years, died in 2007, he “caved in … life is pretty dreadful most of the time. Even in the country that’s so pretty with the flowers and leaves and sunshine. And I was abandoned when he died! I’m alone. I feel like an old bubba. And I’m not kind all of the time, I’m not nice all the time.”
But what a body of work he has left behind. The New York Times obit says he trusted “the essential rightness of children’s perceptions of the world around them,” and perhaps this was what gave his work its lasting quality. Like Roald Dahl, he didn’t talk down to children, and he didn’t make their world seem easy. And yet Sendak apparently loathed Dahl: “The cruelty in his books is off-putting. Scary guy. I know he’s very popular but what’s nice about this guy? He’s dead, that’s what’s nice about him.” Nevertheless, Sendak felt strongly that children’s books today are “too safe … I’m not always sure if they’re truthful or faithful to what’s going on with children.”
I wonder if he felt proud, by the end, of the work he’d accomplished? It seems to me I often read of children’s authors and illustrators who feel their work is less respected because it’s made for children. “I have to accept my role,” Sendak told The Guardian. “I will never kill myself like Vincent van Gogh. Nor will I paint beautiful water lilies like Monet. I can’t do that. I’m in the idiot role of being a kiddie book person.”
And yet when I read about Sendak (or PL Travers or AA Milne, who had similar complaints), I see reams of respect. So is it just a case of being human, and feeling small in the grand scheme of things? Do we respect children’s writers enough? After all, they give us our first taste of books, and we remember our favourite ones forever — if not the stories themselves, then the feeling the stories gave us when we first discovered them.