Okay, first. My favorite Maurice Sendak memory:
I was a new children’s librarian, in Chicago, and during the summer we were showing movies to camp groups. One day I had a huge group of kids in our auditorium– probably more than 100 kids. They were all squirrely and hot. One of the counselors asked me a question and I had to write down the answer–didn’t have a pen–so I hit ‘play’ on the DVD player and dashed out of the room. I’d never left a room during a library program. We had strict rules about supervision. But I figured, I’ll be gone 30 seconds, what could possibly go wrong? Then, coming back to the auditorium, I heard screaming. Children’s screaming. What sounded like a LOT of children screaming. Panic hit and I started to run, wondering what could have possibly happened, would I be responsible—
And then I threw open the door and saw a giant projected naked Mickey, falling out of his diaper and into the Night Kitchen, his little penis flopping in the air and a hundred kids screaming while eight camp counselors laughed their heads off. Then I laughed too.
I’m so grateful Maurice Sendak wrote one more book,* the first book he both wrote and illustrated in thirty years, Bumble-Ardy, because it made us** all stop and think one more time about how great his work was while he was still living instead of waiting until he’s dead and wishing we could hear just a little bit more, like we*** usually do with the people who’ve shaped our lives. And he has shaped mine. I wish I could tell you how much of my daily life is influenced by Maurice Sendak. Wait, why don’t I:
-7am, I wake up, put the coffee on, and sink onto the couch for a few more minutes of stillness. Facing me on the shelf is a tiny little brown book—it’s Chicken Soup with Rice, one of the Nutshell Library volumes. I read this book when I was little; I can still hear my mother’s voice saying “sipping once, sipping twice, sipping chicken soup with rice,” and I think it was one of the earliest books I learned to read on my own. Pierre… another Nutshell book. How distressing and disturbing that one was to me. So the kid was a brat–just for that he got eaten by a lion?! I was often a brat. I didn’t want to get eaten by a lion, and here I will note that the book that most terrified me in childhood was Andy and the Lion, which used to send me out of the Wheaton Public Library sobbing, and I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
-9am, I arrive at work, and Sendak’s work surrounds me: in the S’s in picture books, also in the K’s (Ruth Krauss), in the M’s in easy readers (Else Holmlund Minarik’s Little Bear series). When I worked at the Main Children’s Room, I could not have counted the spots I would find him—folk tale collections, nonfiction, pop-ups; he was everywhere.
-Tomorrow, 10:30am, I’ll have four preschool classes in for storytime, and I will read them Where the Wild Things Are. Sorry Mr. Sendak if it bored you to talk about it, but this book has stunning resonance with children, and I have yet to meet a child who didn’t love it. It was the first book I read aloud in Spanish, when I moved to California and did bilingual storytimes in Hayward. Now that I’m in East Oakland, I think often about how I wish it were true for everyone, every child who misbehaves, goes on a rampage even, that they will come home to find an adult has kept supper hot for them. Wasn’t it just two nights ago another was slaughtered? Sunday, 12:05am.
-11am, I finished putting up a memorial display in my library. I point it out all day. No one recognizes the name, but when I say Where the Wild Things Are, their eyes widen, their mouths open slightly.
-3pm, the wild rumpus starts. The local kids arrive at my library, no parents in sight, to Max it up. My day is challenging from here on out; rule reminders, rule breaking, so-and-so’s been perfect but has a low trigger point, whozits is a time bomb today, remember X Y and Z’s father just died. Giggles just had a cousin shot; Snorts is off suspension for now. Some of these kids might not reach adulthood. That’s a thought I can’t let myself have too often.
I guess you don’t have to grow up in a neighborhood where there’s a murder a week to understand that childhood is hard, scary stuff. In one of Sendak’s Fresh Air interviews (which I highly recommend) he comes right out and says that childhood is awful; you have no money, no power, no ability to escape from things that menace you in your daily life. It is so important to respect that in children. Kids have the quiet dignity of a prisoner, to me, it’s what I always feel when I talk to them. If I say something sweetly, I can see their eyes call bullshit on me. If I say it in a normal voice and unhalting cadence, I have to endure their judgment, and I know they are honest judges. Whenever I sugarcoat something for a kid, I find it’s for my protection, not theirs.
Thank you, Maurice Sendak, for honoring the nobility of these little monsters, for acknowledging that life may eat us up and our parents may die and we may have to throw our own ninth birthday party, and it may be a nightmare–but god, it can still be okay, we can still get through it, if we have that hot supper on the other side. Even if the other side is very far away. Thank you, Maurice.
*Two, apparently; his NYT obituary mentions a February 2013 posthumous release.
I read WTWTA to the preschoolers yesterday. Mixed results. About half said they’d never seen it before. Of those, some were mesmerized with delight, and some looked terrified. Of the rest, about half were all squirmy and didn’t pay attention. Talking, not keeping their hands to themselves!! I thought about delivering their first “you don’t appreciate great art” lecture but nah.