Making the monsters bearable: Maurice Sendak dies at 83
- Kevin Bloom
- 09 May 2012 07:08 (South Africa)
The author and illustrator of more than a dozen children’s books – including the all-time classic Where the Wild Things Are – died in Connecticut on Tuesday. His enduring gift to the world will always be his facility for allowing kids to confront the monsters in their own souls. By KEVIN BLOOM.
Last September, Maurice Sendak published his first book in 30 years. The title was Bumble-Ardy, and it concerned the story of a pig who’d never celebrated a birthday party.
Early on in the text, after the porcine protagonist’s parents were eaten – in Sendak’s words, “they gorged and gained weight… and got ate” – his Aunt Adeline kindly baked a birthday cake as compensation.
But that didn’t cut it for Bumble, who wanted a real wild time, so he invited around the craziest pigs he knew. The revellers arrived in make-up and human masks and polka-dotted jumpsuits, and soon things got suitably out of hand.
Naturally, since it was Bumble’s ninth birthday, and since Sendak was supposed to be a children’s author, the complaints from parents of real kids were not long in coming. Had they done a bit of research, they might have noticed that Sendak’s 1970 picture book, In the Night Kitchen, had been frequently banned (its offending item was a naked boy who scampered through a surreal kitchen on a dream quest). Then again, maybe such parents were fooled by the fact that the New York Times had Bumble-Ardy on its children’s best-seller list for five weeks.
But what’s a lot more revealing than how some adults reacted is how Sendak himself conceived of the book – and how, by implication, he managed once again to insinuate himself into the fertile minds of his target audience.
“What kind of hero is Bumble?” asked The Paris Review in an interview with Sendak in December. “He’s courageous in a way but he isn’t the King of the Wild Things, and he’s not quite in control of the mayhem.”
“Bumble is battling with a basic sense of confusion – ‘I don’t know how old I am.’ He gives up when his aunt says, ‘You’ve had your party. Never again!’ He replies, ‘I promise, I swear, I won’t ever turn ten.’ It’s my favourite line in the whole book. It’s both comical and terrifying. It’s this self-annihilating moment. There is a sense that he is frozen. He doesn’t progress.
“But, you see, Bumble is my less mature self. He is the little boy who wasn’t sure he’d live, let alone grow up. I’m not afraid of annihilation. I’m not afraid of death. But I just want to know more. I want to know more before I go.”
Sendak “went” on Tuesday, 8 May, in Dannbury, Connecticut. He was 83, and the cause of death was complications that had arisen due to a recent stroke. As many of the obituaries are now pointing out, Sendak’s childhood in Brooklyn, New York, was beset by suffering and an early confrontation with mortality. His father was a Polish Jewish immigrant, and numerous members of his extended family perished in the Holocaust. The link from his early experiences to the answer he provides above is obvious.
What’s maybe less obvious, if no less cited by the critics, is the fact that Sendak’s inner world never really progressed beyond the psyche of the pre-adolescent. As his more than a dozen picture books have demonstrated, his imagination was always perfectly attuned to the darkness that exists inside the mind of a 12-year-old. Published in 1963, the greatest of those books, Where the Wild Things Are, now stands at around 17 million copies sold.
“To his millions of readers,” wrote Emma Brocke in the Guardian last October, “Sendak will always be young, a proxy for Max in Where the Wild Things Are, who runs away from his mother's anger into the consoling realm of his own imagination. There are monsters in there, but Max faces them down before returning to his mother for reconciliation and dinner.”
Sendak's own exile took rather longer to resolve. The monsters from Wild Things were based on his own relatives. They would visit his house in Brooklyn when he was growing up (“All crazy – crazy faces and wild eyes”) and pinch his cheeks until they were red.
Looking back, he saw how desperate they all were, these first-generation immigrants from Poland, with no English, no education and, although they didn't know it in 1930, a family back home facing extinction in the concentration camps. At the time, all he saw was grotesques.”
Entire generations of children have since been responding with deep hunger to those same grotesques, to the correlation between Sendak’s monsters and the monsters within their own souls. This is a testament not only to the fact that children are less sweet than their parents would like to believe, but to the fact that Maurice Sendak was an instrumental force in making those monsters bearable. DM
- Maurice Sendak on Bumble-Ardy, in the Paris Review.
- Maurice Sendak: 'I refuse to lie to children' in the Guardian.
Photo: Actor Catherine Keener kisses author Maurice Sendak as director Spike Jonze (R) and actor Forest Whitaker (L) look on before the premiere of the film "Where The Wild Things Are" in New York October 13, 2009. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson.