Thursday, May 10, 2012

Mash Day: Fare-thee-well, Maurice.

The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind...and another...

Sound familiar? That's the beginning of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, arguably the strangest yet most tender children's book ever written. Sendak wrote dozens of books, and all those stories share a common thread- They respect their audience. Sendak insisted that he didn't write children's books, he just wrote books that children happened to adore. He didn't talk down to his audience, and he insisted that kids can handle the gritty topics, in fact they do every day, and adults need to stop underestimating a child's resiliency. Just as important, adults need to start paying attention. Kids are constantly confronted by situations that they take on alone, because they feel they must or because they have no other option. If adults would just take the time to notice, they can help kids through traumatic situations, just by conveying their love, admiration, and support for these smart, incisive, courageous, honest and somewhat short people. Sendak didn't believe in the myth of childhood innocence. To him, kids know it all, can handle anything and tell it like it is, to use a few trite cliches.

Sendak's books were astronomically popular, but they were also controversial. In the Night Kitchen, for instance, has been repeatedly banned or challenged. Those who have challenged it have sited several reasons why they don't believe it is appropriate, including, most often, nudity. My favorite justification for its banning is that, according to some, it's just too weird. Nothing can recommend a book to me more than hearing that it's too weird. Thus, I love Mickey.The milk is in me too!

Adults seem to find Sendak's books alarming, and I understand that. His stories distress me because they inevitably involve children on their own dealing with dangerous and impossible situations. The thing is, Sendak is holding up a mirror, and that is what is making us uncomfortable. The fact is, kids do deal with impossible and dangerous situations every day without the guidance of adults. Either out of neglect or necessity, grown-ups may not even notice while kids triumph over or struggle with challenges that seem way beyond their developmental skills. Sendak's books remind us to pay attention, be impressed, and help when we can.

So, now that our Maurice is gone, the memories are flooding the Internet and the daily discourse of us library types. I don't think any kid who's grown up in the past 50 years had escaped his influence, and I don't know why they would want to. Here's a collection of some of these lovely thoughts and a few of Sendak's intense and honest contributions:

Stephen Colbert interviews Maurice Sendak for the Colbert Report, and yes it is genius:

A collection of artistic tributes to Where the Wild Things Are
(Via, along with the next link, Bookshelves of Doom)

A PG-13 conversation between Sendak and Art Spiegelman, illustrated by the latter:

A heart-felt tribute from Carson Ellis

And what about you? Please share your memories of Maurice in the comments.

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