I heard about Maurice Sendak‘s passing today while listening to NPR’s Morning Edition.
I have to say that it broke a little piece of my heart.
A tiny piece that still believes I’m a seven year-old sitting in the floor of the library at Webster Elementary listening to Mrs. Gonce reading Where The Wild Things Are for about the fortieth time.
I was a pretty voracious reader and could easily spend hours lying on my bed and devouring anything I could get my hands on.
Almost every weekend I would either check-out books from the school library, or if we were out on summer break, I would go to the public library and get books for the summer reading program.
Between playing with my sisters, tromping through the woods with neighborhood kids and the lure of a brand new Nintendo, I still found time to read.
Call me a dork. I don’t mind.
To me, reading was this sort of sacred time when I was able to be alone with my thoughts and absorb these magical words on a page that turned into movies in my head.
I became the characters and felt their emotions, embarking on their journeys of discovery and awakening, and learning more about myself in the process.
Besides Shell Silverstein, Madeline L’Engle, Roald Dahl and C.S. Lewis, Sendak was one of the most-read authors from my childhood.
I appreciated these writers for not feeding me the simplified drivel that fills most children’s books. They gave me difficult words, uncomfortable concepts and disturbing mental images — and I loved it all.
Sendak’s illustrations from Wild Things are something that will always stick with me.
I would stare at them for hours, taking note of the colors and lines and the playful-yet-terrifying personalities of the monsters.
I liked the idea that Max could get so close to these grotesque things but still remain strong enough in his own mind to avoid being eaten. He was able to assert his own will (unlike a in his real life) and still be loved.
When Spike Jonze began work on his movie adaptation of Wild Things it was almost more than I could stand. I would scour the internet for photos and interviews, patiently waiting for the day when I would get to see one of my favorite childhood memories come to life.
I was not disappointed.
It’s amazing how beautifully the original 10 sentences were interpreted into a full-length movie.
It was much darker than I anticipated but then again that’s really what is at the heart of the book.
At an early age, Sendak became acquainted with death and loss, as his extended family was killed during the Holocaust.
His brother Jack, however, understood Sendak’s creative imagination and helped him retain his own sense of self, even as his parents longed for him to be different.
As Sendak well knew, children feel the same emotions as adults.
They feel the same love and joy.
They hurt the same and feel betrayal, loss and despair, just like their parents.
“I said anything I wanted because I don’t believe in children. I don’t believe in childhood. I don’t believe that there’s a demarcation. ‘Oh you mustn’t tell them that. You mustn’t tell them that.’ You tell them anything you want. Just tell them if it’s true. If it’s true you tell them.”
Mr. Sendak, you will be forever cherished by me and countless generations who demand truth, imagination and a certain darkness in their bedtime stories.
Thank you for believing that kids deserve more from their literature than a freshly-scrubbed hero who always does well in school, says “thank you” to his mother and father, and happily eats his broccoli before going to bed without a fight.
That’s an adult’s idea of what a “good” child should do.
That’s an adult giving a moral treatise to an eight year-old and it’s simply not true or real.
Children want to see themselves in their books.
They want honesty.
They want to know that life isn’t all ice cream and puppy dogs and rainbows but that we’re all in it together — and we’ll all survive — even with a few scars and bruises to serve as trophies of experience.
That is truth.