Anyone who loves children’s literature is sad this week learning of the death of Maurice Sendak. I know I am.
Sendak is probably best known for “Where the Wild Things Are,” but I can remember treasuring “The Nutshell Library,” four tiny books in a box that I pored over again and again as a child, and that still have a prized place on my bookshelf.
His other most well known books, though, are “In the Night Kitchen” and “Outside Over There.”
As a child, I was enamored of Sendak’s drawings and the richness of his stories. As an adult, I am even more in awe of his work because he dared to reflect children in the whole of their experience, not just as happy jolly creatures in an almost-perfect world. Kids are, of course, often joyful, but they are also sometimes angry, bored, prone to tantrums, frustrated as they try to grow and try to take control of their own lives. Sendak didn’t hide from all of this, and even in his most imaginative flights of fantasy, he understood that children are complex individuals.
If you haven’t read “Where the Wild Things Are” for a while, you should pick it up, or if you’ve never read it you’re in for a treat. Max is sent to his room for having a tantrum, and in a rebellious fury he imagines himself on the island of Wild Things where he alone is in control and leads the monsters in a “wild rumpus.” However, he gets homesick and so returns home to find his dinner still hot and his mother loving, reassuring and attentive. Max ends up with a greater sense of himself both as potentially an independent person and in the context of the family.
The story is as powerful for parents and caregivers as it is for children. For children, it is the power of the imagination that liberates them and provides a chance to explore and grow while still in the safety of home. For parents and caregivers, it is a simple lesson in the power of love and patience and learning to balance the desire to control every aspect of a child’s life to understanding that children must make their own discoveries about the world and themselves.
Ironically, because the book was such a departure from the traditional children’s literature, it was originally dismissed by librarians and even banned. But children and families discovered it, and over time, the book has become a classic with more than 10 million copies sold in the U.S. as of 2010.
To me, the book has significance far beyond children’s literature—little of which has been as daring as Sendak was half a century ago. Sendak was quoted repeatedly as saying, “I refuse to lie to children.” At the same time, he couched truths in ways that children could relate to, never scaring them but reflecting who they are. It is this level of honesty children relate to, and for all of us it should be an inspiration to be equally honest, yet careful and loving, with all the children in our lives.