On May 8th, the literary world lost a wonderful storyteller and illustrator, Maurice Sendak. Alongside Roald Dahl, Sendak was the loudest voice of my childhood imagination. And like Dahl, he was often described as not only telling stories to entertain, but to be honest with children. He didn’t bullshit them. He once said,
I don’t believe in children. I don’t believe in childhood. I don’t believe that there’s a demarcation. ‘Oh you mustn’t tell them that. You mustn’t tell them that.’ You tell them anything you want. Just tell them if it’s true. If it’s true you tell them.
What better endorsement for a children’s book writer than that? Children can smell bullshit from a mile away and he would have none of that. I’ve been trying, since he died, to figure out how best to blog about the impact his work had, but I keep coming up short. Why is this?
I think most of the reason is that his words are so engrained that it’s hard to separate out and measure the loss. As an example, his short book, Pierre: A Cautionary Tale is part of the family lexicon. My mom and dad, my aunts and uncles, my cousins…we all know that if we dared to say, “I don’t care!” it would immediately be met with the response, “Do you know what happened to Pierre when he said ‘I don’t care?’ He got eaten by a lion!” I’m 28 and it STILL happens.
I cannot buy books for friend’s who are pregnant without including a copy of In the Night Kitchen (for boys) and The Sign on Rosie’s Door (for girls). In my mind they are part of the essential children’s library and I always make it my mission to include a copy no matter what else is on the shower gift registry. Inevitably, someone else will give Where the Wild Things Are, but I prefer the stories that are lesser known.
The Sign on Rosie’s Door is by far my favorite of Sendak’s work, and I even bought myself a new copy after I discovered my childhood copy had been given away to a younger relative. If you’re not familiar (or even if you are), I highly recommend watching this video of the incredible Meryl Streep reading the book (and doing ALL the voices) at Maurice Sendak’s 80th birthday tribute.
For me, Sendak’s genius, fully on display in Rosie, is the ability to juxtapose the power and transformative nature of imagination with the reality of being a kid. There is no threshold between the two and as Sendak once said himself, “Children do live in fantasy and reality; they move back and forth very easily in a way we no longer remember how to do.”
What is your favorite Sendak? Have you also been jonesing like I have to go buy up his whole catalog?
Also, how much do you love this Sendak story:
“Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”
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