Remembering Maurice Sendak and the Wild Things He Brought to Life

by:  Courtney Rust

Maurice Sendak, award-winning and widely beloved author and illustrator of children’s literature, passed away on Tuesday, May 8th at the age of 83 as a result of complications from a stroke. Sendak was a revolutionary figure in the world of children’s literature, having diverged from producing the type of works typical of children’s lit, where everything sparkles with a Purell-scrubbed sheen, danger and worry do not trouble the good and innocent protagonists, and there is always a moral to be learned. Sendak’s tales are not sugarcoated or condescending, but depict the complex reality of childhood in which children aren’t always perfect and struggle to navigate the confusing and oftentimes frightening world they inhabit.

A melancholic, wise, frank, curmudgeonly, enthusiastic, creative, and indisputably unique man, Sendak infused his own understandings and experiences into his works. Sendak grew up lower class and struggled with feeling marginalized due to being Jewish and gay. As a child, he experienced the Great Depression, World War II, the loss of extended family in the Holocaust, and the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s son. Sendak quickly learned that the world isn’t safe for anyone, and that there are indeed horrors lurking in the dark. “I remember my own childhood vividly,” he said in an interview. “I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.” Sendak firmly believed in the rightness of children’s perceptions of the world around them, and wrote with an honesty rarely found in works read by children.

Sendak authored 16 books and illustrated countless others during his lifetime. A final work of his will be posthumously published in February. The most popular and acclaimed work of Sendak’s is Where The Wild Things Are, released in 1963.

Where The Wild Things Are is the Sendak story I am most familiar with, and it has been a part of my life for the majority of the time I’ve been living it. WTWTA was included in the very first batch of books I was presented with as a child, and it has remained on my bookshelf ever since it first became necessary to have a bookshelf. I have viewed the animated short of the story, would flip through the book when I came across it in libraries and have read it to the kids I’ve babysat over the years. I was deeply impacted by it again when I experienced the 2009 film adaptation released during my senior year of high school, a time when the world once again became bigger than I’d previously thought and I had only my imagination to attempt to make sense of it and prepare for what was to come.

I remember WTWTA with a mix of the thoughts and emotions I’ve had as I’ve grown up with it. I remember that I always found the story tantalizingly frightening and I joined main character Max in his voyage to the land of the Wild Things with a mixture of apprehension and curiosity. Max astonished me, for he misbehaved, acted impulsively and independently, scowled often and even threatened to eat up his mother. Max was a protagonist I was quite unused to. When he met the Wild Things, he so stunned and frightened them with his own wildness that he was crowned their king.

The style of WTWTA was also unlike anything I encountered during my career as a connoisseur of children’s books. The story was full of simple, yet affecting descriptions that brought the illustrations to life. He used only 358 words of text, but Sendak made each word count. In introducing the Wild Things, Sendak writes, “They roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.” I’d never known the word “terrible” to imply such ferocity, and the power of Sendak’s descriptions was imprinted forever in my mind. The textured, muted illustrations of the work were quite the contrast from the Technicor palate used in most images I encountered. After Max yells, “Let the wild rumpus start!” Sendak devotes six pages to full-page illustrations, making the scenes seem to spill off the page, unable to be contained between the covers of the book.

With a seamless blend of text and illustration Sendak weaves a tale that is itself a wild rumpus, full of extreme and raw emotions. It features the wonder, frustration, loneliness, energy, confusion and vulnerability experienced by one less-than-perfect boy. In the dreamscape created by his imagination, Max can attempt to make sense of his emotions and of a world in which a child can oftentimes feel lost. Said Sendak in his acceptance speech for the Caldecott Medal, “From their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can. And it is through fantasy that the children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.”

Where The Wild Things Are tells us that Wild Things lurk inside of all of us, and they love to be expressed. At the heart of this story is the conflict and tension Max experiences with his mother and with his own anger. He gives life to his anger in the Wild Things of his imagination. But he eventually leaves their world, putting his anger aside when the smells of home reach him across the ­­­­lonely void he’s created. The Wild Things gnash their teeth and roar to Max, “Oh please don’t go—we’ll eat you up—we love you so!” The wild parts of us could consume us if we give them the chance. But there is a time to be wild, and there is a time when we must take off our wolf costumes and ­­­­­rest up until it is time again to sail out into the boundless possibility of our imaginations.

Courtney Rust is an undergraduate student at Loyola University Chicago pursuing a major in English and minors in Psychology and Women’s and Gender Studies. She leaves her room every now and again to take part in Advocate, Loyola’s LGBTQA organization, where she serves on the advisory board. She is continually attempting to learn what it means to be a good ally to the LGBTQ community. Courtney moonlights as a barista, and has a strong love for musicals, coffee shops, big cities, exploring,Doctor Who, the internet, and most everything else in life. She hates olives though. With a fiery passion.

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