The first time I heard Maurice Sendak on the radio, I laughed my head off.
Impossible not to, really. Because while Sendak could be a cantankerous old coot, he was a fun cantankerous old coot. And really, how could you not like someone who admitted that the faces of his Wild Things came from childhood memories of his Brooklyn relatives?
“They came almost every Sunday and there was my week-long anxiety about their coming the next Sunday,” he told an interviewer. “They’d lean way over with their bad teeth and hairy noses and say something threatening like ‘You’re so cute I could eat you up.’ And I knew if my mother didn’t hurry up with the cooking, they probably would.”
Now, like his misbehaving Max, Sendak has sailed off on a journey of his own. A stroke closed the book at age 83.
I’m saying that about too many authors lately, aren’t I?
It’s a funny thing about Sendak, though. With most of my childhood writers and illustrators, I get a clear picture in my head, a portrait of their work and what it meant to me. With Sendak, the picture is more like a Magic Eye, one image hidden inside another.
Because while I knew Maurice Sendak as the man who knew “Where the Wild Things Are,” I also knew him as the illustrator of Little Bear.
Remember Little Bear? A little two-legged bear cub who always seemed slightly worn, where Mother and Grandmother and a host of friends were always close to hand. His stories were the softer ones of childhood, imagining a trip to the moon, or getting ready to play in the snow, or having a thank-you kiss passed to him from Grandmother Bear through a relay of half-a-dozen others.
A very different style from Max in his wolf suit.
Or maybe not.
Maybe, just maybe, Sendak had a more complete picture of childhood than most. He knew the gentle side, knew that there could be curiosity and learning and affection.
But he wouldn’t ignore the other side. The one where kids can be brats. Where children also argue with their parents, do what they shouldn’t, get lonely, get scared.
“I refuse to lie to children,” he told an interviewer for The Guardian.
“I think it’s unnatural to think that there is such a thing as a blue sky, white cloud and a happy childhood for anybody,” he said to NPR “Childhood is a very, very, tricky business of surviving it.”
Reading that, I can remember a few less lovely parts of my own childhood.
Like barricading my door against my sisters when I didn’t want them in my bedroom – or pestering them incessantly when I did.
Like my first and only schoolyard fight, which I waited almost two years to tell my family about. (I almost won … which is a nice way of saying I lost.)
Like the night I sat at the table, dinner uneaten, until Dad came home – and he worked late in those days.
Remembering those moments, Max resonates strongly. The moments where the real Wild Things woke up.
But Wild Things can be commanded and made to obey.
“And when he came to the place where the wild things are, they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws till Max said, ‘Be still’ and tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once.”
Don’t blink. Don’t ignore or pretend they aren’t there. Face them down … and in so doing, master them.
That may be one of the first, best lessons of growing up I know.
So thank you, Mr. Sendak. Thanks for both the sweet and the savage, the gentle and the crazy. It’s been a fun ride together.
In fact, it’s been pretty Wild.