Maurice Sendak lit up dark corners of childhood

May 09, 2012|Susan Reimer

Not everything in childhood is bowls of mush and little old ladies whispering "Hush," and Maurice Sendak understood that.

Our children understand that, too. Instinctively. That's what makes his books, like "Where the Wild Things Are" and "In the Night Kitchen" such a delicious experience for them. They could feel that frisson of fear and adventure without ever leaving the crook of Mommy's arm.

This was especially true for our sons, who found kindred spirts in the unruly little boys of Sendak's stories.

Sendak died this week at the age of 83 of complications from a stroke, and he was a giant of children's stories and their illustration.

A sickly child born to Polish immigrants at the beginning of the Depression, he might have been Max or Mickey or any of the characters in his books, longing to escape his bedroom and have an adventure.

Around him, adults lied and whispered about kinsmen lost to the Holocaust in Europe. And in this country, the Lindbergh kidnapping alarmed parents and terrified children. The famous photo of the ladder up to the Lindbergh baby's window would eventually find its way into one of Sendak's illustrations.

So it makes perfect sense that Sendak would find himself among the children's authors who exorcised the dark side of childhood for children. An orphaned pig whose parents were eaten. A child carried off by goblins. Homeless children in the age of AIDS. A child wandering through a crowd of monsters looking for his mother.

They are all the cousins of Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit, nearly split open by Mr. McGregor's hoe. And Alice, who fell out of a tree and down a hole, where she met the characters of her dreams and her nightmares. And they share the world of Dr. Seuss, where there are no adults — only crazy creatures who beguile children. And his characters talk in poetry, like the poetry of Shel Silverstein, who took children to the strange place beyond the end of the sidewalk.

Why pretend that childhood is warm and cozy when it is not? "I didn't set out to make children happy," Sendak often said. He was invited by children into their bedrooms, where he spent many hours, "and I didn't want to bull---- them," he said.

In Max, who defies his mother, and Mickey, who sneaks out at night and Pierre, who keeps repeating "I don't care," Sendak created boys our sons could like, with temperaments not unlike their own. Their adventures tempted our reluctant readers, who would rather charge into the woods than sit for a story.

This was a man who once said that he would like to have had children — he was gay and lived with his partner for more than 50 years — but that it would have to be a girl. He would have left a boy, he said, in the A&P, where someone nice would have found him and taken him home.

Because that's what happened to kids in Sendak's books.

"Childhood is a tricky business," he once said to National Public Radio interviewer Terry Gross. "Usually, something goes wrong."

Maurice Sendak let loose the brave children and the strange characters and the wild things that inhabited his imagination. But he offered some reassurance to our children, too. If Max can return from where the wild things were to a hot supper waiting for him in his room, they, too, might arrive home safely.

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