In the past few years, when Maurice Sendak was in his 80s, he talked more than we had ever heard him talk about his views on children and children’s literature. In his lovely conversation with Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air, in his energized and honest dialogue about his own childhood with director Spike Jonze and documentarian Lace Bangs (captured in the HBO documentary “Tell Them Anything You Want”), and even in his irreverent comedic conversation with Stephen Colbert, he shared not only some of his own inspiration, but also some surprising ideas about what it takes to connect with children.
On the surface, Maurice Sendak’s works are about the freedom and fun of childhood: being wild, sailing away, exploring the city in the middle of the night. And of course, engaging in wild rumpuses of all sorts! But while his sentiments and his scenes of fantastic flight might seem like simple and sweet children’s dreams, Sendak’s secret was not about sugar-coating childhood at all – far from it. Instead, his uncommon insight was that children’s lives are full of dark corners and eerie events. They see the world as slightly askew, but, they see it. And importantly, they experience the world as complicated. And even more importantly, they, themselves are complex. In his interview with Colbert, he quipped, “I don’t write for children. I write and they tell me it’s for children.” Sendak did write for children, however, He just wrote for a child that was knowing and fragile at the same time. Who was neither an adventurer nor fragile, but was, in fact both. He wrote stories in which the tables-turned, and perhaps more telling, lent his drawings to quirky stories like Janice Udry’s Let’s Be Enemies, which acknowledged that children can be impetuous and self-interested, but that doesn’t always mean they are cruel. They can be angry one moment, and appreciative in the next. They can confront issues like death, without being frightened. He didn’t find everything that children said or thought to be adorable, but he did think it was important. He thought of them as human, and deserving of stories that treated them as such. And perhaps this is why his works continue to resonate with us, and take on different meaning as we re-read them for our children, or re-discover them in different stages of our lives.
Perhaps Sendaks’ closing line from his interview with Terry Gross is an appropriately complex sentiment for this sad day. “There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I'm ready, I'm ready, I'm ready."
See our blog on Maurice Sendak (among other literary luminaries) from late last year.