Tue. May 8
Maurice Sendak: The Children’s Sublime
Most areas designed for children are bright and cozy, decorated in primary colors and populated by toys and furniture which are exactly the right size for little hands and bodies. But in those bright blue bookshelves, next to the soft stuffed frog and the abacus, kids might find a picture book which will transport them into the uncanny worlds of Maurice Sendak, whose greatest heroes roam through realms that shiver on the edge between dream and nightmare.
Sendak writes like a lost, Jewish Rossetti sibling. Surely the man who envisioned “the night Max wore his wolf suit” would have gotten along well with the poetess of Goblin Market. And the man who told us how Mickey “fell through the dark/out of his clothes/past the moon and his mama and papa sleeping tight/into the light of the night kitchen” would understand the strange yearning in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s lines,
I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.
The pictures added to the sense of dreamlike, surreal play. There are the galumphing, rambunctious monsters, and Max as their terrible tiny king. There are the doughy bodies of Mickey, tumbling softly and slowly through the sky, and the men of the Night Kitchen. And, perhaps most memorably of all, there are the faceless robed baby-thieves of Outside Over There. What distinguishes the sublime from the beautiful is an element of awe, of fear—a sense of one’s own littleness and powerlessness when confronted with the grandeur of a mountain peak or a mountain lion. A few other picture books have captured this sense of the transcendent, the more than merely-human: Tomie dePaola, best known for his homey and delightful Strega Nona tales, also has a weird and beautiful book called The Prince of the Dolomites, in which moon-madness and inexplicable longings form the spine of a strange and subtle love story. But surely the poet of the children’s sublime is Maurice Sendak.
He could do homey when he wanted to. Chicken Soup with Rice and Alligators All Around are pure summer childhood, sitting on the front stoop sucking a popsicle and scheming with friends. Just mentioning the titles of the Little Bear books or What Do You Say, Dear?, which he illustrated, calls up images of safety, of being tucked into bed or tenderly guided through odd social situations by a loving mother. The very phrase “the night kitchen” suggests a collision of the gentle, pleasant, sweet world of bakery smells and soft dough with the dark, adventurous, unknown world of the night: both fear and fun are represented, as a scowling Mickey gets mixed into the batter and almost baked! And although the dreamy fun is part of the book’s heart and its appeal, Sendak will be remembered most for the scary parts—for the secret-garden books, the books which aren’t at home in the world.
Sendak’s obituaries mention the controversies: the attempts to fig-leaf Mickey’s nudity, Bruno Bettelheim’s fretting that Where the Wild Things Are justified harsh punishments for children, the worry that Sendak’s books were just too dark for little kids. That darkness came in part from the harsh world surrounding Sendak. He’s explained in interviews that his worldview was deeply shaped by the Holocaust, when most of his extended family was slaughtered; even the mustached bakers of the Night Kitchen, he has said, were partly inspired by the man who sent Jews to the ovens. Sendak’s first paid illustration work was for a textbook called Atomics for the Millions, and some would argue that it shows.
But lots of children’s authors and illustrators lived through the terrible twentieth century. Not all of them chose to transform their terrors by tapping into the instinctive surrealism of a child’s-eye view. It doesn’t diminish the reality of Sendak’s fears and sense of powerlessness in the face of historical horror and personal suffering to say that these experiences allowed him to see something real about childhood, something which adults often forget.
For the very elements which unsettle adults are the ones which call most strongly to children. Adults somewhere along the way seem to acquire the bizarre belief that we fit in, that this world should be satisfactory for all of our needs. Children are bracingly aware that in fact this world is insufficient, and that the other world they glimpse in their imaginations—frightening though it may be—is somehow larger and more real. Children know that they’re strangers. So while adults try to protect children and keep them home safe, children themselves want to journey and adventure out into the deep, out into the dark. Sendak let them do it in the pages of his books. He walked with them into the sublime, and then gave them a light to guide them back home—where their suppers were still waiting for them, still hot.
Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She blogs at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/evetushnet/. She has written for Commonweal, USA Today, and the Weekly Standard, among other publications.