Remembering Maurice Sendak

American illustrator and author Maurice Sendak died this week. His book, Where the Wild Things Are, was a favorite of mine from childhood and remains so today. After watching this brief interview with Sendak (via David Dark), I now understand why.

Not a children’s author

Maurice Sendak didn’t write stories for children. His work was less doe-eyed from that of his contemporaries and sometimes described as “dark,” which may be the reason for his success. He was writing from the place where all good art comes from: the dark.

Raised in Brooklyn during World War II, young Maurice grew up quickly. Both his parents were European Jewish immigrants whose families were killed in the Holocaust. This knowledge shaped Sendak’s life and art in more ways that his readers probably understand:

It forced me to take children to a level that I thought was more honest than most people did… Because if life is so critical, if Anne Frank could die, if my friend could die, children were as vulnerable as adults, and that gave me a secret purpose to my work, to make them live. Because I wanted to live. I wanted to grow up.

Small grownups

Sendak’s protagonists are real — selfish and demanding, while still sensitive and insecure. His monsters are no different.

As a child, I gravitated to these stories of Pierre insisting on his ambivalence (“I don’t care!”) and the brave, but immature, Max who would rather tame wild beasts than eat his dinner. As an adult, I can still relate to them, because their struggles are no different from my own.

There is a rebellious streak in Sendak’s work (and life) that exemplifies this tension we all live in: the challenge of being our weird and wondeful ourselves while still being cognizant of the broken world around us. We must both grow up and remain innocent.

Where the Wild Things Are
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

A scene from Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are illustrates this when one of the monsters asks Max, “Will you keep out all the sadness?” Of course, the answer is no. No one can keep out all the sadness. What we can do is what Sendak chose to do: refuse to give in to despair and create honest beauty instead.

Memorable quotes from Maurice

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the five-minute interview:

  • “Why is Wild Things so much the book of my life? Who knows. I don’t know. People want to ask, ‘What’s there?’ A mystery is there. Maybe you like mysteries.”
  • “…[A]rtists have to take a dive. And either you hit your head on a rock, and you split your skull and die. Or that blow to the head is so inspiring that you come back up and do the best work you ever did. But you have to take a dive, and you do not know what the result will be.
  • “I don’t know how to write a children’s book.”
  • “The magic of childhood is the strangeness of childhood — the uniqueness that makes us see things that other people don’t see.”

What will you remember about Maurice Sendak? Share in the comments.