Where wild things are

2012-05-11 00:00

MAURICE Sendak didn’t think of himself as a children’s author, but as an author who told the truth about childhood.

“I like interesting people and kids are really interesting people,” he explained to the Associated Press last autumn. “And if you didn’t paint them in little blue, pink and yellow, it’s even more interesting.”

Sendak, who died early on Tuesday in Danbury, Connecticut, at age 83, four days after suffering a stroke, revolutionised children’s books and how we think about childhood simply by leaving in what so many writers before had excluded. Dick and Jane were no match for his naughty Max. His kids misbehaved and didn’t regret it, and in their dreams and nightmares fled to the most unimaginable places. Monstrous creatures were devised from his studio, but none more frightening than the grownups in his stories or the cloud of the Holocaust that darkened his every page.

“From their earliest years, children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions. Fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, and they continually cope with frustrations as best they can,” he said upon receiving the Caldecott Medal in 1964 for Where the Wild Things Are, his signature book.

“And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming wild things.”

Rarely was a man so uninterested in being loved or adored. Starting with the Caldecott, the great parade marched on and on. He received the Hans Christian Andersen award in 1970 and a Laura Ingalls Wilder medal in 1983. President Bill Clinton awarded Sendak a National Medal of the Arts in 1996, and in 2009 President Barack Obama read Where the Wild Things Are for the Easter Egg Roll.

Communities attempted to ban him, but his books sold millions of copies and his curmudgeonly persona became as much a part of his legend as Where the Wild Things Are, adapted into a hit movie in 2009.

Sendak’s other books, standard volumes in so many children’s bedrooms, included Chicken Soup With Rice, One was Johnny, Pierre, Outside Over There and Brundibar, a folk tale about two children who need to earn enough money to buy milk for their sick mother.

Sendak also created costumes for ballets and staged operas, including the Czech opera Brundibar, which in 2003 he put on paper with his close friend, Pulitzer-winning playwright Tony Kushner. He designed sets for several productions at New York City Opera and he wrote the libretto for composer Oliver Knussen’s opera adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, which premiered at Brussels’ Theatre de la Monnaie in 1980 as Max et les Maximontres.

None of Sendak’s books was a memoir, but all were personal, if only for their celebrations of disobedience and intimations of fear and death and dislocation, sketched in haunting, Blakean waves of pen and ink. “It’s a Jewish way of getting through life,” Kushner said. “You acknowledge what is spectacular and beautiful, and you don’t close your eyes to the pain and the difficulty.”

“He drew children in a realistic way, as opposed to an idealised way,” children’s books historian Leonard S. Marcus said on Tuesday.

His stories were less about the kids he knew — never had them, he was happy to say — than the kid he used to be. The son of Polish immigrants, he was born in 1928 in a Jewish neighbourhood in Brooklyn. The family didn’t have a lot of money and he didn’t have a lot of friends besides his brother and sister. He was an outsider at birth, as Christians nearby would remind him, throwing dirt and rocks as he left for Hebrew school.

Sendak didn’t go to university and worked a variety of odd jobs until he was hired by the famous toy store FAO Schwarz as a window dresser in 1948. But illustration was his dream and his break came in 1951 when he was commissioned to do the art for Wonderful Farm by Marcel Ayme. By 1957 he was writing his own books.

Claiming Emily Dickinson, Mozart and Herman Melville as inspirations, he worked for decades out of the studio of his shingled 18th-century house in Ridgefield, Connecticut, a country home reachable only by a bumpy road that seemed designed to keep away all but the most determined. The interior was a wonderland of carvings and cushions, from Disney characters to the fanged beasts from his books to a statuette of Obama.

Sendak spoke often, endlessly, about death in recent years — dreading it, longing for it. Work, not people, was his reason to carry on.

“I want to be alone and work until the day my head hits the drawing table and I’m dead. Kaput,” he said. “Everything is over. Everything that I called living is over. I’m very, very much alone. I don’t believe in heaven or hell or any of those things. I feel very much like I want to be with my brother and sister again. They’re nowhere. I know they’re nowhere and they don’t exist, but if nowhere means that’s where they are, that’s where I want to be.”

— Sapa-AP.

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