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Maurice Sendak

May 8th, 2012 | 4 Comments

Today, the internet is filled with posts and post-mortems and obits and love-letters to Maurice Sendak, who died this morning. My friend Charles Hatfield wrote a particularly good one:

RIP Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), one of America's great cartoonists, her preeminent picture book artist, and one of the most articulate and impassioned author/critics in the children's book field.

Sendak was a genuine Renaissance man, an artist whose interests could not be neatly corralled into one tiny box (genre, style, medium). But for me the heart of his achievement will always be his picture book children, those squat, feisty urchins, full of vinegar and fire: feisty, anti-authoritarian, and, yes, wild. He paid tribute to their imaginations by unleashing his own fierce imagination, untrammeled, boundless, and free.

Sendak pursued his interests in defiance of pinched, hidebound ideas about what children's book could be (and children's authors could do). He is that rare artist whose pursuit of self-indulgence liberated and humanized an entire field, extending its horizons and enriching its emotional palette. And he was a genuine scholar of his field too: his understanding of the picture book form was so complete, and his reverence for its history and greatest practitioners so genuine, that he became the great practitioner-critic of children's books. (Who else would accept his Caldecott Medal by giving a speech praising Randolph Caldecott?)

Farewell, Mr. Sendak, one of our bright, burning stars.

There's not much I can add, since I'm not so good about putting these kinds of thoughts down on a blog or Facebook or whatever. What I can say is that Sendak always scared me. I had stacks of great books — Scarry, Seuss, I'll Fix Anthony, Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, etc — and I read these books all the time, even when I was "too old" for them. But Where the Wild Things Are was kind of like the monster under the bed. There was something harder about that story, something scarier and dark and true that I didn't understand when I was a kid. Max was angry. At his mom. He left home (or at least imagined he did). The monsters were chaotic. Did he control them? It didn't seem possible. The safety net was gone.
Of course in the end Max returns home, but the line had already been cut and the truth revealed. It's like the fence in your backyard where the woods begin. The yard is safe, sure. But once you've seen things move in the woods, once you know there is something more out there, nothing seems right any more.

Later on, Sendak's drawings themselves, apart from the stories, were what led me back to the Where the Wild Things Are. His crosshatching, his kids, his compositions. In college, he was a big piece of the influence-puzzle that I soaked in and obsessed over. Along with Moebius, Lobel, especially Gorey, and a hundred other cartoonists and artists, Sendak made me look. Somewhere around the early or mid-nineties I found The Juniper Tree and Zlateh the Goat, both of which startled me. I think the thought went something like "good lord, this dude can draw." I fell in love with the folk tales and the magic and, again, the crosshatching.

Then, once I was actually able to step foot through that door and start making picture books myself, I went back and read his words. Both his stories and his essays about picture books, as well as the marvelous biography by Selma Lanes. It so happened that my kids were quite young at this time, and I discovered Little Bear. The kids didn't choose Little Bear to read at night as often as I did. Mainly so I could look at the drawings.

I'd just moved to Philadelphia and spent a lot of time at the Rosenbach Library, where I could put on the white gloves, sit in a nice clean room, and get to handle and swoon over Sendak's original art. (By the way, a couple of observations about this: the Juniper Tree drawings are drawn at 100% of the size that they're printed in the book, and four-color offset doesn't remotely do justice to the colors Sendak used to make Where the Wild Things Are. They're unbelievably gorgeous, while the book is muted and dull.)

I got to meet Maurice Sendak twice. The first time was at The Boathouse Cafe in Central Park, New York City. I was a waiter at the restaurant there, and had a table with two very nice men chatting about the lake behind them as they ate. After I delivered the check, one of them gave me his credit card, American Express, where I saw that the man's name was Maurice Sendak. I asked him, probably in a daze, if he was the children's author Maurice Sendak. He agreed that he was, and asked if I was an artist. I admitted that although I was actually a graphic design major at Parsons, I was a fan, and illustrating books was one of the things I truly wanted to do. He wished me luck, and signed his AmEx receipt when I returned. I'm sure the statute of limitations has expired, so I can finally admit that I kept the original and I've had it framed over my drawing table in various studios in various cities for twenty-four years.

The second time I met him was in 1993 where I saw him lecture in San Francisco. At the end of his lecture I ran to the stage and handed someone a copy of my graphic novel, Frederick & Eloise, with a inscription to Maurice, which had weeks earlier been published by Fantagraphics. Gorey is the more obvious influence on Frederick, but it was Sendak that forced me to put down on paper what I had in my head. There is a scene in the book where the main character, Frederick, a kind of rotund middle-aged man is falling through the sky, naked, which came right from In the Night Kitchen, and me not worrying about what my parents or people might say at what was to me a pretty twisted and dark story came from Where the Wild Things Are. Even last week, at a school visit north of Philadelphia, the school librarian had mistakenly ordered several copies of my pre-kids-books books from Amazon (Frederick, and Dear Julia,). She was a bit wary of a naked Frederick, and I brought up Night Kitchen when she asked me about it. It felt good to do that.
So the woman to whom I gave the book, back at the lecture in San Francisco, politely thanked me and walked off stage. Optimistically I waited a minute or two, and was repaid by Mr. Sendak returning to the stage, my book in his hands, looking for me. He walked over and told me he hadn't had time to read it (!) but he loved what he saw, and wished me luck. Again. Two good lucks from Maurice Sendak did me just fine.

Admittedly, the work I am doing now isn't digging into those recesses that Sendak exists in for me. But like Where the Wild Things Are did among my stack of books when I was a kid, that honesty, that unruly child with fears and dreams and real emotions hasn't gone anywhere, and those stories are still working their way to the surface. I knew as a kid that the book was sitting there in the shelf, and just as I do now, I opened it and read it just to remind myself of what's over that fence or under that bed. I'd stare at the pages where Max's room transmogrifies into the woods, and I'd shudder.

And I still do.

4 Comments

  1. Laurie says:

    You were wrong. You had a good deal of good stuff to add. :)

  2. Laurie says:

    Also, I LOVE the Little Bear books. We have several. :)

  3. Charles Hatfield says:

    Wonderful, Brian. Thank you so much for this.

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