Without a pop but with a whisper, Maurice Sendak packed his valise of sadness and crossed the ocean to join the place where his Wild Things were born.
To say I grew up with Sendak is to say I grew up within the sphere of his influence, as the books he both wrote and illustrated were published as I was becoming a reader. I was always slightly behind each new publication, discovering titles a few years after they were published, though they were and still are ever-fresh to my young eyes. The strongest, oldest memories would be of the books in The Nutshell Library (“Alligators All Around,” “Chicken Soup With Rice,” “One Was Johnny” and “Pierre,” 1962) but also there were the older books he illustrated for Ruth Krauss’s books “A Hole Is To Dig” (1952) and “Open House For Butterflies” (1960). In all these there is the whimsy of childhood but also the darkness that haunted much of Sendak’s work, a darkness that is a part of childhood more often excised by overprotective parents (and lately publishers). This very darkness, this undercurrent, is what anchors Sendak’s illustrations in a world instantly recognizable by children.
Why do his books stand the test of time? Look at the pictures.
The touchstone, of course, is “Where the Wild Things Are” (1964), a deceptively simple and subtle exploration of childhood play and anger management. It was and is the birthplace of much modern American children’s literature, much the same way that “The Great Gatsby,” “Winesburg, Ohio,” or “Main Street” could be argued as the beginning of a 20th century American literary tradition. Though for all Sendak’s cantankerousness, his outspoken disgust with being labeled a “kiddie book” writer, I think of him more as the Hemingway of children’s books. Without becoming too Freudian (is this possible with Maurice Sendak?) he simply is “Papa” to the world of children’s books. Seuss may have taught us all to read and think, Sendak taught us it was okay to feel.
Everyone has their favorite, but the Sendak book for me is “Higlety Piglety Pop!” (1967), a longer story featuring Sendak’s beloved dog Jennie who explores the world and discovers her true passion as an actress. Based ever so loosely on a nursery rhyme, the key to this story comes in its subtitle “Or, There Must Be More to Life.” Jennie has everything she could want as a dog – a warm bed, plenty to eat, loving caretakers – but as with all children she must go out into the world and find out who she really is. That she ultimately becomes an actress spoke to a younger version of myself wondering about the life of a creative person out in the world, gaining experience. School, home, these were safe places, comfortable enough, but they didn’t speak to my spirit and they didn’t help me understand my place in the world or how to get there. While I certainly didn’t set out to model my life over that of a dog in a children’s book, I did need to leave home and put myself in some uncomfortable life-changing situations in order to learn about myself and what I wanted to do. I only wish those lessons could have been learned as quickly as Jennie learned them.
“Higlety Piglety Pop!” is an odd book of Sendak’s, more of an intermediate reader and to my knowledge the longest work of fiction he published (he wrote plenty of essays published as “Caldecott and Co: Notes on Books and Pictures,” 1988). While the book does end with the titular nursery rhyme acted out in picture book fashion, what I always loved was that Sendak took the time to flesh out the backstory to the drama. He probably could have illustrated the ditty as a picture book and told the same story, but just this once he wanted there to be more to the story, just as Jennie had wanted more to life. I did not know that this was Sendak’s valentine to his beloved terrier until many years later; it read to me, a young reader, like a fairy tale about a life. If it was nonsense it had the sense of what life looks like to a child, full of adults making rules and decisions arbitrary to a child’s eyes. There was danger and adventure and a mop made of salami. What’s not to like?
Recent interviews with Sendak around the publication of his most recent book “Bumble Ardy” (2011) showed his as a sad and tired man. He had lost too many loved ones and it seemed obvious that his art no longer brought him enough happiness to counterbalance the sadness.
Maurice, thank you for the wild rumpuess, the journeys through night kitchens, and all that chicken soup with rice.
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