‘Let the wild rumpus begin!’: A tribute to Maurice Sendak

Avi Small, Columnist

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Since 1963, American parents and children have been reading Maurice Sendak’s brilliant picture book, Where the Wild Things Are. This book remains a classic in American children’s literature; President Obama even chose this book to read for children attending the 2012 White House Easter Egg Roll. When Sendak died on May 8, he was lauded as a giant of children’s literature. Though Sendak’s Wild Things is well loved, it’s been years since most college students have read it.

In retrospect, it’s clear why this book was such a hit. For children, it’s 48 pages of pure escapism. The main character, Max, journeys to the land of the wild things where he conquers monsters and becomes their king, but is eventually lonely and returns home. The prose is clear and accessible. Sendak’s illustrations fit the book perfectly, simple enough for children to understand yet still full of terrifying creatures and wondrous landscapes. Together, the plot, prose and illustrations merge to create a near-perfect bedtime story, adventurous and child-centric.

However, the book’s longevity is also due to its popularity among parents, which may in fact be larger than its popularity with kids. While younger children may enjoy the simplicity and repetition of Goodnight Moon, I know of at least two parents (this critic’s) who were ready to throw out the book rather than recite that litany of goodbyes one more time. Wild Things, in contrast, remains compelling even to adults. Max lives in a dark world, colored by Sendak’s own troubled childhood. He struggles to conquer the wild things but yet feels troubled and empty once he gets what he wants. He is well loved, yet lonely. Though Max is still young enough to wear footie pajamas (with super cool ear flaps), his experience is universal.

Sendak himself was simply brilliant. Where the Wild Things Are is just one part of a spectacular body of work that includes the book In the Night Kitchen and a restaging of the Holocaust-era children’s opera, “Brundibar.” Though he rarely allowed himself to be interviewed, the rare cases in which he did were marvelous. On the one hand, he was startlingly funny. In January 2012, Sendak appeared as a guest on “The Colbert Report” where he displayed his acerbic personality and sharp wit, bemoaning the state of contemporary literature and skillfully mocking Colbert’s pretentious on-air persona. On the other hand, his interview with NPR’s Terry Gross in late 2011 is a sharp contrast, nostalgic rather than acerbic and wise rather than witty. He talks about the successes and challenges of old age and his admirably calm attitude towards his impending death.

In that 2011 NPR interview, Sendak spoke poignantly about the death of friends: “I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more.” As many former children revisit Sendak’s books after he has left us, we, too, grow to love him more.