Maurice Sendak’s death has generated a wave of reflection, celebration and musing over the work of this remarkable artist. Sendak’s prolific career spanned writing, illustrating, teaching and set designing. His work held a very particular tension, between finding the world remarkable, curious and exhilarating, whilst at the same time utterly terrifying.
It’s difficult to revisit Sendak’s work without remembering the impact it had on you as a child. Where the Wild Things Are strikes the adult reader with its directness, danger and cruelty – as well as fun, beauty and sense of adventure. For Sendak, childhood was a “terrible thing” in which he discovered the trauma of death and mortality – his extended family being killed in the Holocaust. This sense of danger permeates his work. Max, the disobedient protagonist (dressed as a wolf) gets sent to bed without dinner, only to find his bedroom turn into a jungle and he sails away to become king of an unruly monster island. While Mickey, from In The Night Kitchen, nakedly rollicks in batter creating the ‘morning cake’, both Mickey and Max end their troublesome adventures with a safe return home. When asked what he viewed as his most important work, Sendak replied that for him, it was Outside Over There – a dark tale in which a baby is stolen by goblins, with big sister Ida embarking on a hero’s quest to rescue the kidnapped child. In true Sendak style, they return to the safety of home.
Sendak was Jewish and gay. The Holocaust and the Great Depression marked the backdrop to his youth; his writing reflects these experiences which were certainly not a sugar-coated version of childhood. Sendak’s grandparents were killed in the Holocaust, news of their death arrived on the day of his Bar Mitzvah; his entry to adulthood marked by the awareness of this trauma. For him, The Holocaust was a human tragedy, not just a Jewish one. His Jewish identity was at times expressed in an irreverent manner; telling the New York Times (2008) that Jews were the ‘chosen people,’ chosen to be killed?” Certainly, the influence of Sendak’s cultural heritage and childhood experiences fed into his work. Most notably Sendak drew upon his experience of growing up with Polish Jewish immigrants to create the ‘Wild Thing’ monsters, from his childhood perception. “They were unkempt; their teeth were horrifying. Hair unravelling out of their noses”. The grotesque characters proclaim that they’ll eat Max up, images of overzealous aunts and uncles pinching cheeks spring to mind, as well as the clichéd affections of a stereotypical Jewish mother.
Sendak’s work will leave a lasting legacy, he marked out a space for children to venture into the unknown, and most importantly, to make it back again in one piece. And for this, his wild rompus will be remembered!
Sendak’s Legacy: The Top Five
1. Zero tolerance of fluffiness – Sendak’s work standouts for it’s no nonsense approach. There’s no patronising, no compromising and no shiny glossy coating over the difficulties and ambiguities of growing up. His work reveals through complexity and avoids clear cut, neat and tidy answers.
2. Mover and shaker in children’s literature – in fact Sendak never considered that his work was for ‘children’. He would challenge the very notion of categorising work based on bracketing the reader’s age, posing the challenging question, “What is children’s literature anyway?” Given the current surge of contemporary performance, arts and writing that raises the same question, we might look to Sendak as a pioneer of this innovative approach to creating work for young audiences.
3. He inspired – Sendak’s work has been of great inspiration to generations of visual artists, musicians, writers, performers and film makers. Adaptations of ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ have been seen on stage and screen, with the notable full length feature film directed by Spike Jonze (2009) with soundtrack by Karen O.
4. I’m not ‘bad’, I’m just misunderstood – Sendak’s Monsters are lonely, vulnerable and searching for guidance, Mikey from the night kitchen is playfully explorative rather then a trouble-maker and naughty behaviour is never harshly
punished. Traditional boundaries of ‘good and bad’ are dissolved in Sendak’s world, a world where everyone has a right to play in with the darker side of their character.
5. His work was purposeful – Sendak said that drawing pictures helped him “find his way” through some of life’s tougher times. For him vulnerability was a key theme:
“Because if life is so critical, if Anne Frank could die, if my friend could die, children were as vulnerable as adults, and that gave me a secret purpose to my work, to make them live. Because I wanted to live. I wanted to grow up.”