Wednesday, May 9, 2012

RIP Maurice Sendak

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Last September, Terry Gross interviewed Maurice Sendak on her show, Fresh Air on NPR. I started streaming the interview as soon as the audio was available on NPR's website, and I cried through half of it. In my mind, Maurice Sendak was synonymous with childhood, and I guess part of me just assumed that Maurice Sendak, Eric Carle, Robert McCloskey, and the other members of my stable of favorite picture book authors would be young forever. The old man in the interview who was contemplating his mortality couldn't be the Maurice Sendak who created Max and his wolf suit. Even his new book, Bumble-Ardy, included some references to shuffling off this mortal coil. While discussing it made for an interesting interview with Terry Gross, a lot of the reviewers on Goodreads seem to feel it did not make for a fun picture book.
Even if Bumble-Ardy was a miss, I can forgive Sendak just about anything because he gave me Max when I really needed him. In his own life, Sendak struggled with self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy in a way that only artists can. Yes, I know. We all feel inadequate sometimes, but there's a special type that goes with doing work that other people see as "fun" even though it's incredibly difficult. For me, Where the Wild Things Are was entertainment, but for Sendak, it was a work of art. Based on his interview with Terry Gross, it didn't sound like he ever really wrote or illustrated with children in mind. He just had something he needed to express, and that raw energy is what makes his best work so resonant. The monsters might be imaginary, but the feelings are real, and children can recognize that better than anyone.

What I needed from Where the Wild Things Are was permission to be a wild thing instead of the adorable little child. It's annoying having everything you do be dismissed as cute. Of course, the responsibility that comes from being taken seriously is more frightening than dancing around a fire pit with monsters howling their terrible howls. The opportunity to make a difference, to leave a mark on our world, is something we want so badly, but it's also terrifying, and reading about this tension presented in such a sweet, elegant, and nonjudgmental way made it alright somehow. Oh yeah, and since the message was carefully hidden, I knew my parents would never catch on.

It feels unfair that artists and entertainers get so much attention when they die. Good people pass away quietly all the time, and some of them have made contributions that have made the world a better place in a more concrete way. Unfortunately, artists just have that ability to create something that reaches inside you, and you go, "Wow. How does he know me so well?" That strong emotional connection with someone you may never meet is hard to shake.

Anyway, I will close out this rambling post with a word to Maurice Sendak, in case his ghost is surfing the inter-webs. Mr. Sendak, you are missed. You gave me a wonderful gift in your stories, and children in future generations will appreciate you work too. Wherever you go next, I hope you are crowned king of your tribe, and have the little girl you always wanted.