But the wild things cried, “Oh please don’t go – we’ll eat you up – we love you so!”
And Max said, “No!”
The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws but Max stepped into his private boat and waved goodbye.
When I woke up this morning and opened the Internet, I was immediately greeted with the incredibly sad news of Maurice Sendak’s passing. I know I was only one of probably millions affected by his life’s work, but every person I’ve talked to, every article or blog post I’ve read today, told me that each person was affected by his work individually, on a very intimate level. And that’s not something that happens every day. I don’t want to talk about his awards or body of work or anything sweepingly grand, because I feel like it’s more important to talk here about what he meant to me personally.
Perhaps my favorite Sendak book was Higglety Pigglety Pop!, Or, There Must Be More to Life. I can’t tell you how many memories I have of my mom and I reading it before my bedtime, laughing over Jennie’s antics and reading the voices out loud. I recently read that he wrote this book to deal with the death of his own Sealyham terrier, Jennie, which absolutely broke my heart. I have a dog who looks and acts exactly like Jennie (believe me, she would swallow a mop if she thought she could get away with it), and this story has stayed very near my heart for the last twenty-four years and I know it will be there for at least the next twenty-four. It speaks so much about how meaningful the little things are in life, and how the little things may turn out to be the big things, after all.
Maurice Sendak is one of the reasons I grew up loving to read, loving to write, loving to imagine. I’m certain he’s partially responsible for how I view the world and how I write my fiction, all because of how seriously I took his books growing up. I don’t write children’s books, but it would be a disservice to him to say that his characterizations did not influence my work.
In the language of children, I said anything I wanted. Because I don’t believe in children. I don’t believe in childhood. I don’t believe there is a demarcation. “Oh you must tell ‘em that, you must tell ‘em that”. You tell ‘em anything you want. Just tell ‘em if it’s true. If it’s true, you tell ‘em. I’ve had adult thoughts in my head. Experiences. But I’m never going to talk about that. I’m never going to write about that. Why is my needle stuck in childhood? I don’t know. I don’t know. I guess that’s where my heart is.
This is one of the most striking things about his work. Where some children’s books attempt to tell truths through incredible sugar coating, Sendak told truths as they were. Life is hard and scary sometimes, but if you’re honest with life and with yourself, you will always see it through. Yes, he masked them in fairytale and comedy, but I always remembered his books as being more serious than other books I read. Comedy entrenched in cynicism, or cynicism entrenched in comedy, one of the two, maybe both. Above all, Maurice Sendak taught me that life is hard, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth it and that it isn’t also wonderful.
As a quick sidebar, that’s one of the reasons I thought the 2009 film adaptation of WTWTA was flawless. I know it wasn’t well-received, but I’ve never been able to figure out why, because it perfectly encapsulated the isolation of childhood (especially as an only child). Every day, even as adults, we face our own Wild Things, the monsters we don’t understand and don’t know how to handle, and sometimes we fail and sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes other people move at different paces and don’t do what we want and a million other things, but we will always come out the other side of it. The characterization in this movie was perfect, and if you haven’t seen it, you should.
Sendak was a wry, cynical man, but a beloved genius as well. His work showed a belief in honesty above all, and for that alone, I have the utmost respect for him. He had strong opinions about a lot of things and gave many really, truly wonderful interviews. All of his interviews with NPR are available here, and Fresh Air has been reworked today as a tribute to him, so please tune in. Also, if you haven’t watched the interview he gave with Stephen Colbert earlier this year, please do so immediately.
One thing I know for sure is that when I read that he had died, I started crying and have been vaguely in tears since. I’ve teared up several times while writing this post. Maurice Sendak was a large part of my childhood, as I know he was for so many others, and the fact that he has affected so many lives over the last eighty-something years really speaks to how truly great he was. Never anything less than completely honest, his statement on death is lovely, and I wish him all the best.
I have nothing now but praise for my life. I’m not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more. … What I dread is the isolation. … 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.
Rest in peace, Mr. Sendak, and thank you for everything you’ve given me.