I’m sure that this will not be the only tribute to Maurice Sendak that you read today and in the days to come. That’s okay. Sendak’s books reached so many of us, and meant so much to all who read them — he deserves to be praised and eulogized by all he touched with his brilliant work.
My daughters grew up with Sendak’s Nutshell Library, which consisted of Alligators All Around (An Alphabet), Chicken Soup With Rice (A Book of Months), One Was Johnny (A Counting Book), and Pierre (A Cautionary Tale). Both girls had my wife and me read them over and over, and when they began to read themselves, they would take all four books onto a couch or chair and read to themselves, delighting in Sendak’s rhymes and wonderful illustrations.
For me, and for others in my generation, Sendak is best known and utterly beloved for Where the Wild Things Are. I LOVED that book. I remember trying to take it out from my elementary school library, and having to wait for it for weeks at a time, because others wanted it too. I would get it, read it, return it, and get my name back on the waiting list so that I could take it home again.
It seems to me that for today’s children, Where the Wild Things Are does not occupy the same unique place in the pantheon of kid’s literature. It is one of many children’s books with fanciful, slightly dark imagery. It is lovely to look at, and has a marvelous cadence that is both musical and poetic without being overbearing in either sense. But the book does not stand out today as it did when I was a child some forty-plus years ago.
Back then, there was nothing else like it. Nothing at all. This was a book about a child’s anger, about his disobedience, about the trouble he gets in for NOT being a perfect angel. And, of course, it is about his magical voyage to a land where he can dance among monsters, and act out in ways that normal society just would not allow. Reading the book was liberating; it allowed me to see that my own moments of anger and disobedience and wild behavior were normal. And it showed me that imagining places that were untamed and uncivilized was normal, too.
When I am asked about the books that influenced me, that set me on the path to becoming a professional fantasy author, I usually site the work of Tolkien and Donaldson and Guy Gavriel Kay. Today it occurs to me that it all began with Sendak. I had read (or been read) fairy tales; we all had. But it was Where the Wild Things Are that introduced me to the notion of alternate world fantasy. Maybe that was because I found the book on my own in my school library. Maybe it was because the book was such a revelation. Maybe it was because I was a little boy, and Max’s adventure spoke to me as no other book every had.
Whatever the reason, on this day, as the world mourns the death of Maurice Sendak, I find myself wishing I had found a way to thank him while he was still alive. The gift he gave me with his illustrations, his words, his stunning imagination, has lasted a lifetime.