A Soliloquy for Sendak

Wtwta-2Cara/Andrea here, As you may have noticed, the Wenches have been talking a lot about books lately—those we remember from childhood, those “classic musts” we haven’t read, those we loved, those we loathed. Which in turn got us talking among ourselves about  those authors who struck a special chord within us that resonates to this day. Last week Anne did a beautiful piece on A.A. Milne.

And today I’m going to talk about Maurice Sendak, who passed away on May 8.

“Let the wild rumpus begin!”

Wild-thingsAmong the myriad of glowing tributes to this remarkable man was a column in the New York Times calling him “the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century, who wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery and plunged it into the dark, terrifying and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche.” Powerful words indeed. But then, Sendak’s word and pictures have had a powerful and profound influence on countless people around the world, both young and old. Including me.

"There must be more to life than having everything!”

WtwtaThe essence of his genius was his honesty. He wrote and drew about the things we all knew were true—that childhood is not an idyllic time of warm and fuzzy happiness. Kids have terrible fears and anxieties. (Did you worry about monsters under the bed? For several years after a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I was seven, I was terrified that a mummy was going to come strangle me in the middle of the night. There were times I made my father check the playroom to make sure it wasn’t lurking there before I could go to sleep.)

"I'm in the milk and the milk's in me."

Sendak-Naked-MickeySendak captured those fears and anxieties brilliantly, with a wit and wonderfully evocative drawings. Max and Mickey are so appealing because they embody a little of all of us. They’re not goody-two-shoes. They’re brash, defiant  and “bad” (weren’t we all as kids?)  And they are adventurous, despite being just a little bit afraid of the unknown. Sendak showed that it’s fun—and okay—to be angry and to want to blow off steam. He also showed that ultimately it’s also fun to come back to a safe place. Simple stuff, really. But he opened up a whole new world of children’s literature by pushing into the dark side.

Sendak-Cat drawingI’m now going to wax a little personal here, because I was fortunate enough to study with Sendak at Yale. An English professor had arranged to have him come teach for a semester through a special seminar program designed to bring professionals in a variety of fields, rather than traditional academics, to come share their expertise with the students. (It’s the same program that brought Lauren Willig and me to New Haven to teach a course on Regency romance.) There were eighteen spots available and I got one of them.

Lucky me.

ITNKI’m not sure who was more nervous at the first class meeting—us or Sendak. We were all, of course, in awe of this amazing genius. Well, it turns out he was intimidated by the idea of being at Yale.  At first he sat there, silent and solemn while the English professor went over the “housekeeping” details of how the class would meet and what the work requirements would be. Dark hair, dark beard, dark-framed glasses, dark brooding eyes—he looked, well, grim . . . or perhaps Grimm is a better description, as the famous German fairy tales were a passion of his. (His illustrated version is not to be missed.)

Sendak-noteWhen it came time for him to say something, he regarded us for a moment more with his penetrating gaze and then his mouth slowly curled into the wryly impish signature Sendak smile. I wish I could quote exactly what he said to us, but it went something along the lines of that all he could think of was the absurdity of a Jewish kid from Brooklyn who had never gone to college coming to teach at Yale . . . and that he was so terrified he could hardly speak.

We all let out nervous little laughs.

His smile grew a touch wider, his voice a little louder, as he went on to say that he try to muddle through it and hoped that we would all have some fun in the coming months.

Fun doesn’t begin to describe the experience. Sendak couldn’t have been a kinder, more encouraging teacher. He spent a lot of time one-on-one with us, looking at our paltry efforts at storytelling and drawing, offering gentle suggestions on how to dig deeper and let the emotion within ourselves come out on the page. It was incredibly inspiring.

H-P-Pop
From Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or There Must Be More To Life

    H-P-POP COVER“You have everything . . .” The plant continued. “Two pillows, two bowls, a red wool sweater, eyedrops, eardrops, two different bottles of pills. A thermometer and your master even loves you.”
    “That is true," said Jennie, chewing more leaves.
    “You have everything,” repeated the plant.
    Jennie only nodded, her mouth full of leaves.
    “Then why are you leaving?”
    “Because,” said Jennie snapping off the stem and blossom, “I am discontented. I want something I do not have. There must be more to life than havin
g everything!”

    The plant had s nothing to say.
    It had nothing left to say it with.

Sendak-Mickey-drawingJust as inspiring was listening to him talk about his own work, his own influences, his own aspirations. Sendak felt very good about his two most well-known books, “Where The Wild Things Are” and “In the Night Kitchen” (he was still perplexed on why a naked Mickey had stirred such visceral reactions. But when pressed, he said considered “Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or, There Must Be More To Life” his most satisfying work. (It was written in homage to his beloved Sealyham Terrier, Jennie.) He told us that he would  have loved to write the Great American Novel, but when he sat down to do it, it came out as “a dog talking to a pig about swallowing a mop.” That was his typical self-deprecating sense of humor. But within that wryness was a profound message. All through the semester he challenged us to be true to our own individual voices and tell our stories and draw our pictures from the heart.  That message has stuck with me, and when I’m struggling with a story, it’s one of the first things I think of  to help me find my way.

“Oh please don’t go! We’ll eat you up we love you so.”

Sendak-HPP-3Maurice Sendak may be gone from this world , but he’s left an extraordinary gift for children (of all ages) to enjoy for generations to come.

So what about you? Do you like his books, and do you have a favorite? Mine are “Where The Wild Things Are” for the sheer, exuberant fun of the drawings, and “Higglety Pigglety Pop!” for the universal truths embodied in the short, simple prose.