Mr Sendak, who died last week at the age of 83, was famously acerbic and unsentimental. Much of his Jewish family did not escape the terrors of 20th-century Eastern Europe; terror and sundered families figure prominently in his work: the bakers in “In the Night Kitchen” have alarmingly short mustaches; Bumble-Ardy’s parents get eaten; the girl in Outside Over There (his best and most unsettling work) gets stolen by goblins. “I refuse to lie to children,” he said in an interview. “I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.” And indeed he did not.
His books are often called dark; they are not, or not deliberately so. They are instead faithful to the powerlessness and terror that comes with being a child, with having to figure out the rules as you go, and with being entirely subject to the whims not merely of the world, as we all are, but to the imperfect people who raise you. In a conversationwith Art Spiegelman—like Mr Sendak, an artist profoundly marked by the Holocaust—Mr Sendak mocks people who sentimentalise childhood. “Childhood is cannibals and psychotics vomiting in your mouth!” He ends the conversation by telling Mr Spiegelman that he knew things as a child—terrible things, but he could never let adults know that knew them, or “it would scare them.”
What Mr Sendak’s books get so frighteningly right about childhood is that uneasy, violent imbalance between total narcicissm and total oppression, between being king of the world and being a squashed bug. Eventually, as we grow into ourselves, we learn (at least we ought to learn) to strike the right balance between our needs and those of others. Childhood offers no such comforts. To his eternal credit Mr Sendak refused to pretend otherwise.
Secular humanist, freethinker, progressive, and bibliophile. I love living life, learning things, and meeting people.
This is just a minor and belated tribute to Maurice Sendak, whose work has touched the lives of so many people of all ages. I don’t know any childhood that didn’t include this classic.