One of the Kings of Childhood

Elizabeth Bluemle -- May 8th, 2012

So much will be written about the amazing gift to children’s literature that was Maurice Sendak, and by people who knew him. I can only add a few fragments about his contributions to my own life.

Where the Wild Things Are was my favorite book at age six. I read it hundreds and hundreds of times. I inhabited that world, its jungles and its prickly hero, its rounded, mirthful monsters and solid sinking sailboat, in the way only a child can truly enter fully into a picture book. The book haunted me, in the best way—and, after all those readings, that supper—that grace note of an ending—was still hot. I think that, for me, and for so many of us, this is the book that encapsulates everything universal, compelling, unavoidable, and promising about being a child. (It also brilliantly exemplifies those elements Jerry Griswold talks about as essential to classic children’s literature in Feeling like a Kid: Childhood and Children’s Literature: snugness, scariness, smallness, lightness, and aliveness. Yes, oh, yes.)

I was almost equally fascinated by Hector Protector, especially by the crow with the pebble or crumb in its beak, and the short stubby sword Hector brandished. It’s a funny thing, what catches the attention of a reading child. Why was it the bird, with its alert, alarming eye, and that crumb! such a focus of my interest? I’ll never know, but I’ll bet Maurice Sendak would have had at least a subterranean understanding of it.

Fast forward to my adult life. A wonderful 1970 interview with Sendak by Virginia Haviland, “Questions to an Artist Who Is Also an Author,” gave me a piece of truth that forever informed my teaching, writing, and recommending books to young people. I must paraphrase here, because I don’t have at hand my copy of The Openhearted Audience: Ten Authors Talk about Writing for Children, a tremendously rich and delightful book edited by Haviland. But somewhere in this– or perhaps another–interview, Sendak basically says, when asked why he takes on such dark-ish themes, that “the children know. The children have always known, and they protect us from the knowledge that they know.” That resonated so strongly with me, someone who had been an overly observant little girl who needed to protect her parents from what she understood, and it has been a constant reminder never to stoop to condescension with children, as readers or people.

I’m writing quickly, because the deadline for this post is upon me. So I’ll share just two more tidbits. First — if you have not seen the amazing documentary Last Dance, about Sendak and Yorinks’s collaboration on Brundibar with the Pilobolus dance company, it is a must-watch. One of the most interesting (and often contentious) creative collaborations I’ve ever seen, with some truly extraordinary dancers.

And finally, one of my former writing teachers from Vermont College, Louise Hawes, posted this on Facebook this morning, and it seemed such a fitting send-off that I want to end with it myself. It’s a little snippet from Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or, There Must Be More to Life:

“Hello,
As you probably noticed, I went away forever. I am very experienced now, and very famous. I am even a star. Every day I eat a mop, twice on Saturday. It is made of salami and that is my favorite. I get plenty to drink too, so don’t worry. I can’t tell you how to get to the Castle Yonder because I don’t know where it is. But if you ever come this way, look for me.”

Thank you, Maurice Sendak, for being one of the great, obstreperous geographers of childhood — and a true adventurer.

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