Wild Thing: Maurice Sendak made incomparable art from childhood's monsters

Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak at his home in Ridgefield, Conn., in a Jan. 31, 2006 file photo. (Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times / May 8, 2012)

For every kid with a scraped knee, a skinned elbow, a bumped head and a torn shirt — the inevitable result of being very determined not to learn from one's mistakes — Maurice Sendak was your man.

For every kid who builds forts out of old sticks, crafts sailing ships out of cardboard and concocts adventures out of nothing more than the intense and feverish longing for them, Sendak was your guy. If you routinely leave muddy footprints across the kitchen floor, grimy handprints next to the light switch, and dirty clothes in the general vicinity of — but never inside — the hamper, he was your hero.

If there is no hope for you, if adjectives such as "incorrigible" and "willful and disobedient" cling to you like burrs to a dog's back, Sendak ruled your world.

The author and illustrator who died Tuesday at age 83, following a stroke late last week, was the Bad Boy of children's literature — but not because he was rude to interviewers or notorious for driving too fast or scandalously fond of barroom brawls. His was a soul-deep, not a superficial, contrarianism. In his work, including his breakthrough book"Where the Wild Things Are"(1963) and "In the Night Kitchen" (1970), he had the audacity to tell the truth: that kids have a wilderness inside them, a lush and spreading forest of untamed zeal and benign selfishness, and that the day the forest is razed and a metaphorical strip mall is put in its place — i.e., the day kids become adults — the world gains a few straight lines and neat corners but loses a lot of its poetry, a lot of its joy.

A lot of its wildness.

"We're animals," Sendak insisted to an interviewer in 2004. "We're violent. We're criminal. We're not so far away from the gorillas and the apes, those beautiful creatures."

And childhood, he opined, with its annoying ambiguities and its frustrating contradictions, is "a monstrous confusion." But instead of trying to civilize it, to control it, to bring it to heel, he let it off the leash. He gave it space. He let it roam.

Books weren't the only vessels for Sendak's sumptuous imagination. He was also a stage designer, and several of his works were adapted for theatrical, television and film productions, including opera and ballet. In 1975, Carole King wrote the music for "Really Rosie," a show based on Sendak's "The Sign on Rosie's Door" (1960), which subsequently played off-Broadway in 1980. He collaborated with playwright Tony Kushner to create the book "Brundibar" (2003). All told, Sendak illustrated some 80 books and wrote and illustrated 20 others, including "Outside Over There" (1981) and "Bumble-Ardy" (2011). An illustrated poem, "My Brother's Book," is scheduled for publication next year.

"He had an enormous range," said Janice Del Negro, assistant professor of Dominican University's Graduate School of Library and Information Science in River Forest. "He was a great artist who managed to make art on his own terms for his whole life. When you look at the arc of his work over time, it's astonishing."

Still, "Where the Wild Things Are," which follows an unruly boy named Max as he discovers a world of prancing, befanged monsters in his midst after being sent to his room, is the work by which most people know Sendak. Max beholds these creatures as they "roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws, until Max said, 'Be still,' and tamed them with the magic trick of staring into their yellow eyes without blinking once. And they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all and made him king of all wild things."

"It changed books for children forever," Del Negro said. "He wrote for the child — not for the adult who was buying the book or reading to the child." The book was controversial when first published because "people thought it was too scary," she noted. "They said, 'The monsters are too scary. They will give children nightmares.'

"But Max is the hero of the story and he wins. He wins everything. He is the conqueror in the tale. The idea of the child being able to conquer the fear was something that little children really got. Children love it. They identify both with Max and the wild things."

Yet it wasn't the tale alone that captivated readers, Del Negro added. "The design of the book, the vibrance of the art, changed the energy in picture books. The book is as fresh today as when it first came out. And it will last forever."

Sendak had great respect for children, Del Negro said, despite his reputation for being a sort of artist's version of W.C. Fields, grousing about nosy rug rats. "He admired children. He thought they were scrappy and astonishing survivors. And when he talked about his work, he talked about always telling children the truth and never lying to them. He said it was impossible to tell children anything because they already know everything."

The author was born in Brooklyn to parents who had immigrated to the United States from Poland before World War I. Many of his relatives died in concentration camps, and Sendak believed that the shadow of the Holocaust fell across his life, imbuing it with a melancholy he was never quite able to shrug off. His partner of more than 50 years, psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn, died in 2007. He listed his literary influences as Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson.

His books won all the important prizes and sold millions of copies, enabling Sendak to live as he wished — deep in the Connecticut woods — and to create what he wanted to. But even with fame, adulation and monetary success, he never lost his affinity for the wild things that breed in the dark. He was drawn to them — to the raw, dreamlike part of life, to the fantastical elements that wait at the edge of consciousness, their teeth bared and their eyes aglow.

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