Truth is, until the last few months I knew nothing about famed children’s book author Maurice Sendak. Well, not quite nothing. I knew his book, Where the Wild Things Are, a true classic that put me and many children (across a number of generations) to sleep many a night with dreams of a wild rumpus flickering on the backs of our eyelids.
Maybe it’s just me — to some extent, I’m certain it is — but I have this compulsion as an adult to rank and categorize all the meaningless little almost-nothings around me to which I attach importance. It’s all about organizing the world around me, I suspect. Point is, when I was 10 that compulsion wasn’t a part of me, and, by extension, I never really looked at Sendak’s name, scrawled in big bubbly letters below the Wild Thing on the cover, and registered it in that way. I was too busy worrying about Max, his wolf costume and crown and his imaginary friends.
Then, when I wasn’t busy worrying about Maurice Sendak at all, a film adaptation of his iconic book came out in 2009. (It was pretty good, by the way). Even more recently, he appeared in a two-part interview on The Colbert Report that truly showcased his irreverence and grumpiness and delightfully black humor.
Sendak, in case you haven’t heard, died on Tuesday at 83 due to complications from a stroke. In the wake of that interview with Stephen Colbert, which you can watch uncensored version of above, I was left feeling like I had looked right past a potential inspiration; very probably, I just wasn’t paying attention to Sendak the man because I was lost in his creation.
Sendak’s death has only enhanced that feeling. As such, I won’t bother trying to define his legacy or to provide any authoritative summation of his influence. Ostensibly, he had a tremendous impact.
Wikipedia has this to say about his signature work:
Francis Spufford suggests that the book is “one of the very few picture books to make an entirely deliberate, and beautiful, use of the psychoanalytic story of anger”. Mary Pols of Time magazine wrote that “[w]hat makes Sendak’s book so compelling is its grounding effect: Max has a tantrum and in a flight of fancy visits his wild side, but he is pulled back by a belief in parental love to a supper ‘still hot,’ balancing the seesaw of fear and comfort.” New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis noted that “there are different ways to read the wild things, through a Freudian or colonialist prism, and probably as many ways to ruin this delicate story of a solitary child liberated by his imagination.” In Selma G. Lanes’s book The Art of Maurice Sendak, Sendak discusses Where the Wild Things Are along with his other books In the Night Kitchen and Outside Over There as a sort of trilogy centered on children’s growth, survival, change and fury. He indicated that the three books are “all variations on the same theme: how children master various feelings – danger, boredom, fear, frustration, jealousy – and manage to come to grips with the realities of their lives.”
Again, I’m no children’s literature expert. All I can go on is the hazy inklings of my childhood. I think Where the Wild Things Are is, in a small, almost miniscule, way, responsible for any fit of imagination that zaps through the synapses of my brain, even today. I don’t think I would enjoy subversiveness or give in to impudence in quite the same way if it weren’t for Sendak.
There are many, many things that had a much, much greater impact on my personal development — parents, family, friends … you get the idea (and you know who you are). But Where the Wild Things Are is in the mix there somewhere, hovering in the background, and I’m far from alone in feeling that way. It’s quite the thing to leave behind.
Mischief forever, Mr. Sendak.