MAURICE SENDAK'S "Where the Wild Things Are" is now 26 years old. Which means Max, the book's hero, is about 30.
And what's Max up to these days?
"He's still in therapy, and he still lives with his mother," Sendak said.
Like Max in his wolf suit, Sendak is still making "mischief of one kind and another," challenging assumptions about how children see the world. His fantasies sometimes are lost on adults, but that's OK. Sendak has created some of the best children's books of our time, and he shared a bit of his mischief last night, speaking to an audience of about 600 at Towson State's University Union.
"I seem to be blessed and cursed with a kind of vivid, or livid, sense of childhood," said Sendak, 62. "You're not supposed to have that at my age. Freud says that past a certain age, this little valve turns off and we have what is called childhood amnesia, which is to protect us from all the awful things that happen to us in childhood. Well, for me, the valve didn't turn off."
And it still hasn't. Although he has spent much of the last decade on other projects -- such as producing an opera by Mozart that "the critics hated," he said -- Sendak maintains that vivid sense of childhood. He's now working on the Night Kitchen Theater, a not-for-profit endeavor he described in broad terms last night.
"There's this ghastly idea that certain things are appropriate for kids and certain things aren't," he said. "Everything is telescoped down to them. A lot of television is humiliating to children and degrading to them. So my idea is that you trust them.
"In many ways, they're much more open-minded than we are as adults. They're still learning. They're still taking in. They're not skeptical -- yet. I want to catch them then. I want to present a theater that is wide open in scope. It could be a play, it could be an opera, it could be a movie, it could be a book, it could be anything that has to do with their lives."
Sendak has written 19 books of his own, including "In the Night Kitchen," and "Outside Over There," and he has illustrated more than 60 books by other authors. The son of Jewish immigrants, he grew up in a lower middle class home in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he hated school and loved to draw.
Most of his books connect to events of his childhood. Last night he captivated the audience with tales of how some of his stories came to be. "Outside Over There" includes his traumatic memories of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and his fascination with the Dionne quintuplets. But the monsters in "Where the Wild Things Are" hit closer to home.
"The book was going to be "Where the Wild Horses Are," Sendak said, "until I made the terrible discovery that I couldn't draw horses." So how did he come up with the fantastic Wild Things?
"I was spending one evening with my brother and sister, and we were recollecting the horrible things we had to endure as children," he said. "One of the things we endured were the Sundays when my mother's relatives would come over and eat our food.
"They ruined the entire day by talking to us, by pinching us, by breathing in our faces. The only pleasure we took was in staring at their garish faces, with their hair pouring out of their noses -- I mean children are wicked. So Wild Things are Jewish relatives."