Maurice Sendak, who died last week, was one of those very few people working outside of major corporations who produce artworks that become part of the shared knowledge of millions.
He wrote and drew Where The Wild Things Are, a book that has become known all over the world.
Children have been fascinated by it ever since its first publication in 1963. But it is also a book that adults who come across it for the first time find intriguing, odd and troubling.
It tells the story of a boy who is making “mischief”. He threatens his mother and is sent to his room, from where he embarks on a journey to where the Wild Things are.
The boy is able to tame the Wild Things and they make him their king. But he yearns to be where he is loved “best of all” and sails back to his room, where he finds that his dinner is “still hot”.
In this book and in several others, Sendak explored the kinds of feelings that might engulf us—rage, fear, jealousy and the like.
These books don’t simply invite us to be spectators. They ask us to talk, debate and question. In doing so, they take these feelings out of the private into the social.
Many people accused Sendak of wanting to frighten children when the book first appeared—probably because it disrupted the central untruth foisted on children, the notion that they lead untroubled lives in the best of all possible worlds.
Sendak’s own life told him otherwise and he was blowed if he was going to go along with this.
He was accused of obscenity for his 1970 book “In the Night Kitchen”, which shows a naked child in what some took to be a kind of reverse birth scene. Sendak, who had developed a curmudgeonly style, told his accusers to get lost.
He was born in 1928 in Brooklyn, New York, the son of very poor Polish Jewish immigrants who worked in the rag trade.
As a child he was frequently ill and seems to have grown up fearful of his own mortality—fears that were deepened as news of the Holocaust and the deaths of many members of his wider family filtered through.
He found comfort and purpose in drawing. He illustrated some 90 books as well as being a celebrated theatre designer and theatre worker. He had a lifelong partner, Eugene Glynn who died in 2007.
Sendak developed a style where people and creatures appear to be very physical, often with exaggerated heads or eyes and full of a stocky strength. It is perhaps derived from European traditions of the grotesque that you see in church gargoyles and the like.
His work lets dangerous or uneasy feelings into the world of the children’s book. All of us who work in this field owe Sendak a huge debt for showing us how to do this.
Michael Rosen is a writer, poet, broadcaster and former Children’s Laureate. His latest book, Even My Ears Are Smiling, is available from Bookmarks—phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk
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