I was sitting on the couch last night in tears after learning that Maurice Sendak, at 83, had finally left us. My sister-in-law was giving me sympathetic but slightly funny looks, and I explained that it felt like one of the pillars of children’s lit had crumbled. He changed the way we all felt about something as basic and vital as words and pictures and stories. You have to think of someone bigger than life, I said, someone iconic–like, say, Hemmingway. But imagine a Hemmingway whose personal life was not an alcoholic, cat-infested disaster; Mr. Sendak was by all accounts something of a curmudgeon, but a perfectly functional curmudgeon. And then you have to imagine a Hemmingway who stayed creatively productive and disciplined enough to produce strong, original work into his eighth decade. That’s who we have lost.
So it seems appropriate on a blog about monsters to say farewell to the man who let the monsters of children’s books out. And who also let them in to our deepest selves.
That’s the thing about Where the Wild Things Are. It shook up the world of children’s lit by its stark honesty about children’s emotions. Many people have pointed out, over the years, how it was one of the first books to acknowledge that children get angry–furiously angry, angry enough to shout “I’ll eat you up!” and mean it–at their parents. Last night it occurred to me that the book also acknowledges the rage that a parent feels toward a child who has gotten on her (it’s Max’s mother in the book) last nerve. “Go to your room!” really means “Get out of my sight before I lose it!”
And it’s true. It’s shocking how quickly impatience and frustration can tip over into anger, over something as small as bucking a child into a car seat or getting a sock on a foot. And no one has ever been mad enough to scream at me at the top of her lungs–except my girl. Because I said she needed to eat her jelly beans upstairs and not downstairs.
But it was not only anger that this book opened up–it was also escape. The intense desire that every child has to get away from even a loving, caring, nurturing family. Max wants to leave so badly that the walls of his room dissolve and he sails away “through night and day, and in and out of weeks, and almost over a year” (in one of the loveliest lines ever written) to live with (and eventually control) the monsters of his rage.
(It’s the same desire that, on a much lower level of poetry, J.K. Rowling tapped into with Harry Potter. Many people have commented that Harry Potter is, at heart, a boarding school story, just like those written by Enid Blyton for another generation. Few people have noted that one of the reasons the boarding school story, in all its formulaic glory, is such a hit with kids is that it provides an escape. As intensely as kids want to be loved and cuddled and kept safe, they also want to flee. It’s not a comfortable truth for the adults who write and illustrate and edit and publish and buy the children’s books, but it’s still true. The boarding school motif just provides a convenient cover.)
Sometimes we would rather be with the monsters than when the parents who love us so dearly. That’s such an honest and frightening truth that it puts any vampire story to shame.
But then we come home and we find supper waiting for us and it is still hot. That’s true too.
Thank you, Mr. Sendak. And rest well.