RIP, Mr. Sendak

Maurice Sendak passed away today. If you don’t know, Sendak was an author and illustrator who gave us such amazing books as Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen. To say that his work was influential to children and the field of children’s literature is a massive understatement, and a topic my mother (a professor of early childhood education) could probably talk about with more authority. I’m going to talk about what his work meant to me.

I’m a speech-language pathologist, and I work with students in kindergarten through 8th grade in an inner city elementary school. I work with an incredibly diverse population, and some of my kids are readers with articulation problems, but most of them either don’t read or don’t read at their grade level. Very few come from homes with a lot of stimulating printed materials around, and very few come to me having read Where the Wild Things Are. I consider that a tragedy and I use it with my students during the first week of school.

Some of it is education and therapeutic. Readers can practice with words that they know and a few they probably don’t (“terrible,” “gnashed”). Non-readers get to listen to the story, follow it along, and answer questions about Max and his private boat and his journey to the place where the wild things are. One of my favorite moments in my job was reading the story with a kindergartener who, when he saw the picture of Max chasing his hapless pet with a fork, exclaimed, “He’s gonna eat the dog!”

I know the book by heart (it’s only 250 words or so). I’ve recited it to my children, in long nights or plane rides or while waiting for tables at restaurants or while helping them go to sleep. And I’ve occasionally thought, if it all crumbles and I have to care for them in a world devoid of the structure and comfort that we enjoy, I’ll still have that story, word for word.

I think a lot of people from my end of the geek spectrum think this way – in the event of the apocalypse, what would we do or have or know? Trying to figure out what we would do in a given situation is a normal part of experiencing fiction, and between zombies, nuclear war and (ahem) RPGs about ideologues wiping out the world with shadow-monsters, the notion of dystopia comes up a lot. It’s not that we want it to happen, I think, we’re just interested in seeing it, us included, maybe as the hero.

Max didn’t want to live with the Wild Things. He just wanted the rumpus, and then he went home, to the night of his very own room.

In the larger context of curse the darkness and properties like it, I think that this desire to let off steam in aggressive ways might be part of the appeal. I know that every child I’ve read Where the Wild Things Are to, ever, has relished the part where they get to snarl at me (“roared their terrible roars”), snap at me (“gnashed their terrible teeth”), make faces (“rolled their terrible eyes”) and swipe at the air (“showed their terrible claws”).

Kids don’t need everything tied up in a bow, and they can certainly handle a little surreal – even out and out weird – in their books. Mr. Sendak understood that. He understood that kids get scared but sometimes seeing the monsters makes the scary easier to tolerate. He understood that kids pay attention.

If you have kids, maybe hit a bookstore or library today and pick up a copy of one of Sendak’s books? Or if, like me, you know Where the Wild Things Are by heart, maybe recite it to someone you love. And make the faces. That’s fun.


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