Most book-lovers will probably now know that Maurice Sendak, author of Where The Wild Things Are, has died, aged 83, as a result of complications after a stroke on Friday 4th May 2012. From what I’ve read of him as a grown-up, he was a funny, sharp, cantankerous old curmudgeon, deliberately awkward and critical, as well as incredibly intelligent and perceptive, and determined not to patronise or talk down to children in his books.
He is best known for his picture books – Where The Wild Things Are (1963), In The Night Kitchen (1970) and Outside Over There (1981) – all wildly different in style and, well, wild in nature. They are dreamscapes, fantasy spaces where children’s imaginations can run…wild. The thing about these books is that they’re not “safe”. In Where The Wild Things Are, Max has been bad – he’s worn his wolf suit and done wolf things, naughty things. So he’s sent to his room without dinner. In his sulk, he sails away to the island where the Wild Things are. These are scary monsters but Max is the wildest of all, becomes their king and they celebrate him. But soon, Max realises it’s time to go home again. The Wild Things are sad – they roar their terrible roars – but they wave goodbye, and when Max gets back, he finds dinner awaiting him. “And it was still hot”. It’s a wonderful metaphor – what child (or grown-up) hasn’t felt like having a wild rumpus once in a while? The illustrations are stunning; no wonder hundreds of imaginations were captured by this story.
In The Night Kitchen and Outside Over There are less well-known, but equally amazing. Mickey can’t sleep so he plays (or dreams he plays) in a fantastical over-sized baker’s kitchen. And in Outside Over There, Ida goes on a quest to rescue her little sister from goblins who stole her through her open window, and replaced her with a baby made of ice. Creepy! I also really like Higglety Pigglety Pop!, Or: There Must be More to Life (1967), in which a grumpy little dog makes her way through fairy tale settings, meeting Mother Goose characters, just trying to find somewhere she fits. These are also ‘dangerous’ tales – there’s peril, scary characters and situations, just as there are in childhood dreams and make-believe games. Children need to know there is danger but it can be coped with and vanquished. Max, Mickey and Ida all manage this. It even works out for Jennie the dog.
These books formed such an enormous part of my childhood; I was really shaken when I heard the news. I’d never considered how old Sendak might have been, as his books just seem timeless. I’ll certainly be sharing them with future generations if I get a chance, and I’ll be reading Caldecott and Co.: Notes on Books and Pictures, Sendak’s collection of essays on fairytales. Let’s all take this opportunity to recognise a real genius, who made such a positive contribution to the world of young people over so many years.
10th June, 1928 – 8th May, 2012
Kate Neilan @Magic_kitten