I was incredibly sad to read this morning of the death of Maurice Sendak at 83. It’s hard to imagine that anyone here hasn’t encountered Where The Wild Things Are, whether as the object of a reading of Sendak’s most enduring classic, a reader of it to a child in your life, or even only through the strange, wonderful in its own right, movie adaptation of the book. But Where The Wild Things Are was only part of Sendak’s legacy: as both a writer of his own work and an illustrator for others, he brought new worlds to life and made our own seem a marvelous, even miraculous place.
One of the reasons Sendak’s work is so enduring is that it treats children like children rather than turning them into tiny adults, and captures the real sense of fear and smallness that children often experience. Max enjoys his time with the Wild Things because it lets him flout his mother’s rules, but the intensity of their emotions and the thought of being responsible for them is intimidating. The supper his mother’s kept waiting for him seems a feeble light to drive back the darkness, but it’s enough. Small certainties, which children are still sussing out even if their parents think they’ve been clear, can defeat amorphous terrors. Outside Over There, in which a girl rescues the baby sister she’s been caring for from goblins, is also about being overwhelmed by responsibility and a sense of parental abandonment. In The Night Kitchen may be a perpetual subject of controversy, but it also captures how unsettling our dreams can be, particularly at a time when we aren’t yet experts in our waking world.
Sendak lent his skills as an illustrator to other authors as well, among them Dutch children’s author Meindert De Jong, poet Randall Jarrell, and Ruth Krauss. Whether he was illustrating a young girl’s effort to lure a stork to her village or helping Krauss bring the natural world to life, Sendak made huge contributions to creating the visual world of children’s literature. Whether they know it or not, Sendak is the first artist many children are repeatedly exposed to.
And as a gay man and a Jew, Sendak was particularly aware of how frightening the world could be, even after children grow up and grow into adult power and responsibility. Though it’s a later work, I’ve always particularly loved Sendak and Tony Kushner’s collaboration on Brundibar, an adaptation of a children’s opera first performed in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. The story, about children who team up to chase a wicked organ grinder out of the town square so they can sing to raise the money to pay a doctor to attend to their sick father, is both an anti-Hitler allegory and in keeping with Sendak’s view of children as confronters of a large and sometimes frightening world. The opera’s survival is also a testament to the power of art in arming children for that fight, as fitting a summary of Sendak’s work as I could imagine.