by Joanna Godfree
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The news of the death of Maurice Sendak yesterday, at the age of 83, flew round the world faster than his furious hero Max could travel to where the wild things are – and when Max got back home, soothed and comforted by his victorious wild rumpus with the monsters, his dinner was still hot, so that must have been a speedy journey! Sendak’s picture books – Where The Wild Things Are, In The Night Kitchen, Outside Over There among them – feature childhood rage, sibling rivalry, insecurity and anarchy, pictured in chunky, mildly grotesque drawings and muted colours that are far from the cuddly pastels of many books created for young children His Wikipedia entry notes an eclectic range of influences, including the tales of the Brothers Grimm, William Blake, Herman Melville, Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, all writers who reflect a strong and sometimes savage awareness of the darkness which is a condition of life, and who confront and often embrace it – sometimes using absurdity as a weapon.
By his own account the young Sendak (born in
Brooklyn in 1928 to Polish Jewish immigrants) was profoundly affected by the loss of family members during the Holocaust. "It forced me to take children to a level that I thought was more honest than most people did," he once said. "Because if life is so critical, if Anne Frank could die, if my friend could die, children were as vulnerable as adults, and that gave me a secret purpose to my work, to make them live. Because I wanted to live. I wanted to grow up." (Esther Addley in The Guardian, 8 May 2012) In addition, like so many writers, he was confined to bed by illness in childhood; this allowed his imagination the space and opportunity to develop, fostered by his father’s stories of life in ‘the old country’. His strongly Jewish inheritance formed an essential element of his literary style, and emerges in such characters as the cooks in the Night Kitchen, who all sport Hitlerian moustaches, and are intent on baking Mickey in a cake – though all ends happily, with daylight. Mickey’s cheeky nakedness during this dream story also contributed to the controversy over this book, and indeed In The Night Kitchen has been ranked 25th in the "100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000" list compiled by the American Library Association (see Letters Of Note, below).
In an interview last autumn, Sendak was in characteristically outspoken form as he recounted his ambition for what he called a "yummy death". ‘William Blake set the standard, jumping up from his death bed at the last minute to start singing. "A happy death," says Sendak. "It can be done." He lifts his eyebrows to two peaks. "If you're William Blake and totally crazy.” ‘ (Emma Brockes in The Guardian, 2.10.11) Earlier this year, in more reflective mood, he spoke again about his own death: "I want to be alone and work until the day my head hits the drawing table and I'm dead. Kaput. I feel very much like I want to be with my brother and sister again. They're nowhere. I know they're nowhere and they don't exist, but if nowhere means that's where they are, that's where I want to be." (The Guardian) Far from being nowhere, Maurice Sendak is everywhere today, being remembered, talked about and celebrated across the world.