Good-bye to a master.
Normally on a Tuesday I would take time out to review a couple of things out my enormous backlog of pending review items. Today I’m not going to do that. Today I’m going to talk about Maurice Sendak and his legacy.
You may already know by now that Maurice Sendak has died at the age of 83. I was not aware that he recently had a stroke and the cause of his death was complications arising from that stroke. Given how alive he was during a recent interview with Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report, it’s hard for me to believe he was even unwell, let alone dying.
Granted, 83 is a good, long run and I hope I can hang on that long, myself. I also hope that I can be as prolific and influential as he was.
Everybody knows Where the Wild Things Are and rightly so. I remember very distinctly as a child wanting that book read to me again and again. Like many, I visualized myself in the lead role, slipping into a world of monsters and amazing things. I had a terrible childhood in pretty much every respect and the idea of escape, of empowerment, made a real impact on me.
But Sendak was so much more than one book. Sure, none of his other works reached the universal recognition and stature of Where the Wild Things Are, but that hardly seems to matter at this point. I’m sad to say that I haven’t even read all of his books and when the New York Times ran his obituary, I saw a couple of titles I’d never even heard of before. I will have to rectify this.
Just as he was more than one book, he was more than just a writer of children’s stories. Sendak did not write long-form fiction, but he built a tremendous amount of emotional and psychological sophistication into his work all the more remarkable because he was doing it in picture books. With very few exceptions, nobody was doing that kind of thing before Sendak came along and, judging from the things I read to my son when he was much smaller, they aren’t doing it now, either.
I once dated a woman whose ex-husband was an artist and he had painted the woods and monsters of Where the Wild Things Are on his son’s bedroom walls. I would have loved to have been able to do that for my son. I wish I had done more to expose my son to Sendak’s work. Maybe he would not have understood its sophistication relative to his other favorites, but it would have been a good thing to do regardless.
I hope that, now that Sendak is gone, more writers of picture books attempt to pick up his mantle and create new works in his image. Not imitations, but rather books that stretch the boundaries that have been collectively established for children’s books. Sendak didn’t seem to be the kind of guy for whom flattery made much of a difference, but I’m sure he would appreciate being the instigator of a kind of gentle creative revolution.