Facing the Frightful Things
These Days, Maurice Sendak's Wild Creatures Are
Homelessness, AIDS and Violence--Big Issues for Small Kids
by Pamela Warrick
From their first "Rock-a-bye baby," children learn two important facts of life: 1) The bough will break, and 2) the baby will fall.
Maurice Sendak is 65, but he still knows what children know--that life is risky business, that there is trouble in the world, and sorrow, fear and violence--especially violence.
From his 1963 book, Where the Wild Things Are, to his newest offering, Sendak--a slightly wild looking man with imposing eyeglasses--has given young readers generous credit for what they know.
In doing so, he gives children a respect they rarely receive from more traditional children's writers. And it is a gift, he says, that empowers kids to protect themselves, to fight back, to survive.
But never has he assumed more about what children know than with his latest book, a book even author-illustrator Sendak calls "an in-your-face book about homelessness." And if that weren't shocking enough for the faint-of-heart, the book, We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy, also touches on such '90s issues as AIDS, starvation and the horrors of life on the street.
Such subjects make grown-ups cringe even when they are not lavishly illustrated in a children's book. (Grown-up guilt, Sendak believes, probably has something to do with this.) But it's a different story for children. What most interests them, it seems, is how the kids win out in the end.
And that's what interests Sendak. In the world of children's publishing, he has been everyone's favorite enfant terrible, always causing a rumpus over this or that.
"Solving the problems of homelessness, or any other social problem, isn't the real purpose of this book," he says. The purpose of this book is the purpose of all Sendak books, he says: To examine how children get through, how they get by.
"These are difficult times for children.Children have to be brave to survive what the world does to them. And this world is scrungier and rougher and dangerouser than it ever was before. . . . "
Maurice Sendak grew up in the Brooklyn of the 1930s, an era when mothers leaned out second-story windows and children played jacks on the stoop. It was a time of lost family fortunes and death at an early age from measles and pneumonia.
For Sendak, the third child of a Jewish couple from the Warsaw shtetls , it was an especially difficult, though artistically fertile, time to be alive. That he was alive seemed a matter of constant surprise to his parents and older siblings, who worried often and loudly about his "imminent" death.
While the trials of Sendak's "sickly, spindly" childhood were many, there is no question that he was born into the right family--a family of storytellers. "My father told stories that would now be deemed inappropriate for children. My brother wrote weird stories and my sister bound the weird stories into beautiful books which we sold on the streets."
It was a family of intense emotions and colorful characters who were never more colorful than every Sunday afternoon when the Sendaks' "hideous, beastly relatives" arrived for dinner.
"They would lean over you with their foul breath and squeeze you and pinch you, and their eyes are blood-stained and their teeth are big and yellow. Ahh! It was horrible, horrible," he says.
These frightful creatures, of course, went on to become the wild things in Sendak's classic Where the Wild Things Are, the award-winning tale of a pajama-clad boy named Max who travels to a land of huge, hairy monsters and subdues them.
("At first," says Sendak, "the book was to be called 'Where the Wild Horses Are,' but when it became apparent to my editor I could not draw horses, she kindly changed the title to 'Wild Things,' with the idea that I could at the very least draw 'a thing'! So I drew my relatives. They're all dead now, so I can tell people.")
But for young Sendak, school was more frightening than any imaginary monster. To him, grammar school, high school, even his brief visit to art school were nightmares of corporal regimentation and intellectual abuse.
Still, he devoted himself, monk-like, to his art. And following the publication of Wild Things, Sendak became an established, if still outrageous, illustrator of children's books. Or "books that children like," as the author is quick to correct. "I don't write for children. I don't write for adults. I just write," says Sendak, weary of defending his occasional choice of "serious" subjects for "innocent" children.
From his retreat in a Connecticut forest where Sendak, a lifelong bachelor, lives with his dog Runge, Sendak has watched the world react to his work. More often than not, the world has thrilled to its visual poetry and brave messages.
Wild Things, among the top 10 best-selling children's books of all time, has changed the way teachers and parents view childhood while offering young readers a whimsical affirmation of what they have known all along.
Long before reviewers saw his latest book--a 26-pager with the title page on the back--Sendak's rule-breaking was making grown-ups edgy. "Rules?" snorts Sendak. "I never saw any rules. I never accepted the idea that a children's book was a limited thing, (so) every time I did a book I strained the limitations, and people were annoyed at me."
After the 1970 publication of In the Night Kitchen, a tale about a boy named Mickey who falls out of bed into a vat of cake batter, Sendak was amazed at the fuss over the naked Mickey's penis. "Librarians in some places actually drew diapers on Mickey!"
When the ending of another Sendak story seemed too sad to some adult readers, some parents solved the problem by gluing together the last two pages of the book. "The people who are frightened by my images and stories are adults, not children. It is grown-ups who are scared to death of death, it's grown-ups who banish unpleasant thoughts to the back of their minds."
Most reviews for "Down in the Dumps" have been enthusiastic--especially from educators. Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children's Television, predicts children will cheer Jack and Guy's adventure but expects parents to weep "as they discover how Sendak ties this tale to today's headlines."
Moved by the aching stories of street children in Rio de Janeiro, Sendak optimistically gave the book a hopeful ending. But not every reviewer has seen the light, Sendak says. When a USA Today writer suggested that his image of the starving Somalian baby would offend African-American parents, Sendak was stunned.
Until then, Sendak says, his most hurtful review was a 1988 piece in the New York Times that attacked him for "coming dangerously close to imitating himself" in pictures he made for a Grimm fairy tale. That review was written by Salman Rushdie.
Critics or not, adults are not nearly as popular with Sendak as children.
"I find children on the whole more direct and honest, but being a child doesn't automatically make you superior. Although usually it does. On the whole, children are better and more touching. They aren't racists and liars."
In the three decades he's been laboring under the label of children's author and illustrator, Sendak has become an outspoken champion of children's rights. He defends their personal rights--"I love it when kids go to court to take control of their lives, to even divorce their parents!"--and he is a tireless advocate for their rights to decent literature and films.
He has attacked the Home Alone movies for their brutality and described The Little Mermaid as a vapid film about "getting married, having cupcakes for bras and going to live in White Plains, New York, forever and ever."
Over the past decade, Sendak has become increasingly involved in producing theater and films for children and, he says, the experience has made him "a more social, political animal."
During a recent speech at a symposium sponsored by the Friends of the USC Libraries, Sendak explained that the world is a difficult place for him sometimes, just as it is for children.
"It's 1993 and children get shot on the way to school, children contract AIDS, children are in the most vulnerable position imaginable. . . . If we don't look, and if we don't listen, and if we don't do something, kids will be lost."
Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times, 1993.