Once upon a time there was a famous writer and illustrator named Maurice Sendak. Although his books were loved by millions of children, he was not cute, or cuddly, or constantly charming. And he did not live under a big toadstool like some do-gooder elf.
No, Sendak was hard-eyed and sharp-tongued. He was more like Rumpelstiltskin than Prince Charming. If Sendak had lived under a mushroom, it would not only have been poisonous, it would have been booby-trapped.
One day, in his late middle age, Sendak came to Los Angeles, a curmudgeon released from his Ridgefield, Conn., lair long enough to celebrate the paperback issue of his illustrated version of “The Nutcracker,” the E. T. A. Hoffman tale that has become a Christmas staple. (The book contained a memorable self-portrait of Sendak as the Nutcracker. Spread across two large pages, the portrait was slightly sinister, dominated by huge eyes and teeth that could chomp coconuts.)
And let it be known that while he was here, Sendak actually sat under something that sprang from the ground. In this case a tree on the patio of a hotel restaurant. There was even one sweet moment--when he ordered from the dessert menu.
At 62, Sendak had pretty much earned the right to say what he pleased. His successful string of children’s books included “Where the Wild Things Are,” “In the Night Kitchen” and “Outside Over There.” Still in print after nearly 30 years, “Where the Wild Things Are” was one of the top 10 best-selling children’s books of all time. This story of a boy named Max who travels to a land of hairy monsters and subdues them won the Caldecott Medal as the best picture book of 1964.
Sendak also had branched out into the performing arts, designing sets for operas and ballets, two of his artistic passions. Recently, too, he had been laying the foundations of “The Night Kitchen,” a national children’s theater that would produce original plays, musicals, ballets and operas.
Despite his success in the children’s market, lifelong bachelor Sendak did not particularly like children, at least as a concept.
“I think I like as few children as I like people in general, because often they are as tedious as their parents, even at an early age,” he said. “There’s nothing magical about children. Well, there is, but they all don’t have it.”
Sendak’s perspective on children was caused in part by their reactions to his books. He got tons of mail, and not all of it was flattering. While some young readers told him they took their books to bed with them, others sent notes laced with four-letter insults. The extremes, he noted, paralleled adult responses to his work. In reviews, he had been pilloried for illogical and disturbing plots, a too-fevered imagination and putting in too much anatomical detail, such as Mickey’s penis in “In the Night Kitchen.”
Anyway, Sendak could not abide the cloak that popular culture, especially the movies, threw around kids--around their runny noses, around their fears, around the reality that they often got hurt by adults.
“Think of the crappy, stupid movies this silly city makes about children that totally resist the reality of real children,” he said.
“They (the children in movies) are cute. They’re also psychotic, they’re baby Charlie Mansons. . . . We’ve either had Shirley Temple, who was so marzipan you could throw up, or we have demonic ‘Home Alone’ kids now,” he added, referring to a recent movie about a child left behind by his parents who fends for himself against burglars.
Yet, paradoxically, Sendak was committed to writing and illustrating stories that “empowered” children.
“I like kids to be heroes,” he said. “I am conscious of wanting to do that. . . . I believe in empowering children because they are not empowered in real life. We all know that because they’re so easily abused, tossed out of windows and shoved into the microwave.
“So if you write books for them, you want to remind them that they have courage, they can have courage in the face of adversity. Sometimes adversity is your mother and father, sometimes it’s society, sometimes it’s school, sometimes it’s a handicap. You really owe them that, to be on the side of their strength.”
Sendak may have put so much emphasis on courage because his own Bronx tenement childhood was etched by fear. He was “a sickly child” whose immigrant parents worried constantly and loudly that he would die. Moreover, as an adult, he was both blessed and cursed by an amazing memory that recalled very early childhood events.
Together, fear and memory made a lasting mark on Sendak.
“My mother prayed to God that he wouldn’t take me, and she cried because I was a child who might not live . . . ,” he said. “They (his parents) didn’t expect me to live. You shouldn’t know about that, that soon.”
Furthermore, Sendak was haunted by the 1932 kidnaping of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s son. Because he and the “Lindbergh baby” were 2 years old, Sendak the toddler was mesmerized by the other child’s fate. His child’s brain was inscribed with radio broadcasts and newspaper headlines and pictures about the famous crime.
“Probably about the most famous baby in America gets took, and he’s my age . . . ,” Sendak explained. “So in fact my life hung on the return of that baby, whether that baby came back.”
Of course, the baby was murdered.
When he was 50, Sendak sat down to fix the scars from that death. The result was “Outside Over There,” the favorite of all his books. A complex and disturbing story about a baby snatched by goblins, “Outside Over There” has the happy ending that the Lindbergh kidnaping did not. The baby is rescued by an older sister.
“I had to change history,” Sendak said. “I could not live any more with having that baby not come home alive.”
Sendak’s formidable childhood memories also contained a funnier side--if you weren’t related to him.
While he was creating “Where the Wild Things Are,” Sendak had a hard time figuring out exactly what a wild thing was.
Let him tell it from there:
“First they looked like unicorns, then they looked like conventional Medieval animals, which I felt uneasy with because they were not from my personal history . . . and when I knew what it meant, it was easy. They were relatives. . . . Once I knew that, it was fun. Then I knew who Uncle Joe was and who Aunt Hester was and what they looked like to me when I was a kid. You know, they lean over you and they’re foul-breathed and hair is gushing out of their noses and blood-stained eyes.”
The moral of the story: Be kind--and brush your teeth--around children who might grow up to be Maurice Sendak.