The scary and delightful genius of Maurice Sendak

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May 8 2012 10:31 AM

"They're Worse Than Bears, They're Children!": The Genius of Maurice Sendak

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Maurice Sendak after the 2009 movie premier of Where The Wild Things Are

Photograph by Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Also in Slate, Katie Roiphe admires how Maurice Sendak understood that children need to be terrified. John Plotz explains how Sendak was a creator of crazy worlds.

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

No writer has given me more delight than Maurice Sendak, who died today at the age of 83. Max's visit to the monsters in Where the Wild Things Are—and his eventual journey home to his soup, which was still hot—was totemic for me and especially one of my sisters. So we memorized the book and learned poetry from its cadences. Since we didn't have brothers, the nakedness of Mickey, star of In the Night Kitchen, was helpfully instructive. We had the dollhouse-sized volumes of The Nutshell Library, with their green and white paper covers, and thanks to Carole King's Really Rosie, we could sing Alligators All Around, Chicken Soup With Rice, One Was Johnny, and Pierre. Especially Pierre, my favorite Sendak character, cross and obstinate and triumphant. How many times do you get to shout the forbidden sentiment "I don't care!" as you read or sing that book aloud? As a daily ritual of childhood defiance, what could be more exhilarating? 

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I've read all these books with my kids, along with Brundibar, Sendak's haunting collaboration with Tony Kushner, which was based on a 1938 opera performed by children in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Brundibar is scarier than Sendak's other books. "No milk for Mommy oh no what to do?" one of the book's small main characters asks. It's on him and his sister to come up with the answer. When they sing to collect coins for the precious milk, the wicked organ grinder Brundibar steals their audience. The children try to chase him away by turning into bears, but Brundibar unmasks them with the finger-pointing line, "They're worse than bears, they're chlidren!"

Where the Wild Things Are Launcher

When the brother and sister at the heart of the story take their revenge, it's with the help of many more children ("We don't mind skipping school") and a pack of fierce black crows conjured by a semi-disturbing lullaby. This is not the Sendak book I wanted my kids to read over and over again. It's vengeful and a little lurid. But Sendak understood, much better than me and many other parents, that kids need literature that makes adults uncomfortable. They need books that reflect their chaotic and dark worlds, in which sometimes children do have to feed their mothers.

A few months ago, my sons and I listened to Terry Gross interview Sendak on Fresh Air. I was mesmerized. They were outraged by this quote:

I would infinitely prefer a daughter. If I had a son, I would leave him at the A&P or some other big advertising place where somebody who needs a kid would find him and he would be all right. ... A daughter would be drawn to me. A daughter would want to help me. Girls are infinitely more complicated than boys and women more than men. And there's no doubt about that. We just don't like to think about it. Certainly the men don't like to think about it. I have lived my whole life with a dream daughter.

I agreed that this seemed a little reductionist. But I wanted them to appreciate the moment when Sendak talked about the "creative insanity" that characterized his relationship with his brother Jack. Listening to the interview again, it seems exactly right that this is the subject of the last Sendak work, My Brother’s Book, which will be published in February. Sendak told Terry Gross, "I don't believe in an afterlife but I still fully expect to see my brother again." Also, "There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I'm ready, I'm ready, I'm ready."

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