Maurice Sendak: A Fable-Maker for Our Times

Maurice Sendak (1928-2012).

A master dies, and everyone musters to analyse his contribution to children’s literature. Probably, it can be summed up by the way in which he tapped into childhood memories, dreams, dramas – awake and asleep; this ability makes Sendak’s work so influential. I don’t recall his most famous book, Where The Wild Things Are (1963) nearly so much as I remember the imprint of the much criticized In The Night Kitchen (1970) on my childhood recollections of reading.

Max, the hero of Wild Things, was just a naughty boy. I did not relate to him in the way that I found the intimidating and surreal landscape of Mickey’s adventures in the Night Kitchen more impactful. So, what that says about me I’m not sure! (Paging Dr. Freud!)

In any case, whilst Sendak’s work might ‘court controversy’ (yes, there were depictions of little boy nudity and some allege possible phallic symbolism in a children’s story book) they were at least honest in their acknowledgment that children had an inner life. Which, let’s face it, is the trademark of all the great authors who write for and about children. If you want to call Sendak controversial, well then, so is Dickens, L. Frank Baum, and anyone who recorded the tales of Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, etc. Sendak was definitely a ‘Grimm’ brother of the 20th century.

If the Victorians helped to create the modern child, and in the process the modern merchandising schemes for literature and playtime, then the 20th century did its best to dismantle innocence and inflict ideologically based suffering on children so as to darken human psychology for generations to come. Sendak acknowledged that some of his references were to the Holocaust. Bleak, appalling times require their interpreters and fable-makers to attempt an explanation.

It’s important to note that both Mickey and Max make it back. The allure and danger of strange landscapes dissolve and they return home – to milk and cookies and breakfast cakes. Sendak knew that comfort worked, after the danger.

His musical collaboration for children with Carole King Really Rosie will always stay with me. I remember the animated version (1975) and I love to sing ‘Chicken Soup with Rice’ to my sons – particularly because King performed the soundtrack for the cartoon and the blending of her voice and melodies with Sendak’s honest characters and lyrics has so much charm. It’s also worth mentioning that his writing and illustrative style translated brilliantly to operatic and theatrical forms, so that his adaption of Wild Things is considered an important addition to the repertoire.

He was a grown-up, who knew what it meant to be lost as a child, and he went on to create big art for little kids. R.I.P., Maurice Sendak.