“Children surviving childhood is my obsessive theme and my life’s concern.” Maurice Sendak
Maurice Sendak turned an important page in children’s literature. He didn’t agree with many of the common ideas of what a children’s book should or shouldn’t be. He thought it was a disservice to kids not to “show the little tattered edges of what life is like.” While he has won several prestigious awards for his work, including a Caldecott Medal for Where the Wild Things Are, many of his books have been controversial. Some find them too frightening, too shocking, too offensive, or too accepting of bad behavior. But his books found enduring love and success because his aim wasn't to shock or frighten; he simply wanted to create art that was honest and true to the human condition.
In his books, relationships can be complex and messy, and both children and parents can be unpleasant or unreasonable (without as thorough a resolution, lesson or apology as some might wish). He didn’t write down to children; he wrote for complex people in a complex world. "You cannot write for children,” he said. “They're much too complicated. You can only write books that are of interest to them.” In the Night Kitchen, a book about a boy's dream, is often banned because the boy is shown naked in his dream. To Sendak, any controversy surrounding his books is silly and speaks to the problem. Children have to deal with life’s difficulties, just as adults do; people aren’t perfect; and it's perfectly natural to be naked in a dream.
While in some aspects, he felt children should be spoken to at a more adult level, he also understood that they were not adults, and he was easily able to view the world from the perspective of a child. He didn’t like to do book signings because he didn’t feel that children understood this social construct. All they knew was that they were holding a favorite book, and they were told to hand it to a stranger who was going to write in it… and they were told not to write in books, as that would ruin them. In an NPR interview with Terry Gross, he told about one child who screamed, “Don’t crap up my book!” Sandak’s reply: “It was the bravest, the bravest cry I've ever heard. I nearly wept.”
As a child, he lived with illness, and a horrifying early memory of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, and parents who were suffering from devastating family losses to the Holocaust. He also recalls his parents as having been terribly—though unintentionally—hurtful to him as a child. Throughout his stories are glimpses of a boy looking out at the world through his window, his relationships with his brother and sister (whom he loved dearly), the Lindbergh baby, and even his aunts and uncles, who were monstrous and funny looking to him as a child, and who said such wildly odd things as, “I love you so much, I could eat you up!” Beyond any child’s particular circumstances and surroundings, Sendak described childhood as “a mess of missed signals and missed cues.”
What happens after we survive childhood? We have to survive adulthood. Sendak has also spoken about his struggles and his salvation as an adult. “We all have to find our way,” said Sendak. “If I can find a way through picture making, book illustration or whatever you want to call it, I’ll be okay.” (TateShots: Maurice Sendak, 2011) He drew upon his art for his own survival and, in doing so, he broadened the scope of children’s literature and became an enduring source of wit, wisdom and beauty for generations of children and adults.
“I think what I've offered was different but not because I drew better than anybody or wrote better than anybody but because I was more honest than anybody. And in the discussion of children and the lives of children and the fantasies of children and the language of children, I said anything I wanted because I don't believe in children I don't believe in childhood, I don't believe this demarcation. Well, you mustn’t tell them that and you mustn’t tell them that. Well you tell them anything you want. Just tell them if it's true. If it's true, you tell them.”
- Maurice Sendak (Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak, an Oscilloscope Laboratories documentary, 2009)
Following are some favorite links and tributes:
Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak
(2009 documentary by Oscilloscope Laboratories; free streaming here)
"Over the course of his career, his children's books received numerous awards, including the 1964 Caldecott Medal for Where the Wild Things Are. Playwright Tony Kushner later called Sendak 'one of the most important, if not the most important, writers and artists to ever work in children's literature. In fact, he's a significant writer and artist in literature. Period.'" - Terry Gross, Fresh Air Remembers Maurice Sendak, May 8, 2012