|Moishe from Where the Wild Things Are. Image via Flickr.|
But the wild things cried,
Oh, please don't go
We'll eat you up
We love you so
And Max said:
And we roared our terrible roars, and gnashed our terrible teeth, and rolled our terrible eyes, and showed our terrible claws, but Maurice Sendak stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye.
Sendak was one of our most gifted and prolific author-illustrators – for everyone, child, adult, what have you. He was also a living legend.
Unlike some friends and colleagues, I didn't know Sendak personally. Like so many of my generation, I grew up on Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen and other Sendak productions. For a brief period in college I was obsessed with the Carole King rendition of "Pierre" from The Nutshell Library. (I'm not proud, but I don't care!). Later I acquired his illustrated version of Melville's Pierre. All along, I had this sense that Sendak was familiar; I felt a strange kinship with him. Eventually, of course, I realized he was family.
Sendak came out to the general public in a 2008 New York Times profile by Patricia Cohen, in which he mentions the recent death of his long-time partner, Dr. Eugene Glynn, (not incidentally) a child psychologist. He also talks about how tricky it was to be a gay man working in children's literature in pre-Stonewall New York (he began his career in the late 40s and early 50s).
But Sendak wasn't only gay; he was queer, by all measures of that term. He was eccentric, irascible, difficult. And very funny. Anyone who's watched the Stephen Colbert interviews knows this. "He is not, as children's book writers are often supposed, an everyman's grandpapa," writes Patricia Cohen. "His hatreds are fierce and grand, as if produced by Cecil B. DeMille." Sendak declared himself not overly fond of children or of people in general. By his own report he preferred the company of dogs. If Sendak took a while to come out, his queerness was long on display in interviews, speeches, and certainly in his work.
In that work Sendak found not a safe but an exuberant space for self-expression and even social transformation. There are lots of queerish children in his picturebooks – imaginative, theatrical children, slightly rebellious children, children not drawn to the usual norms. And thanks to the success of Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak could do things his way, share his distinctive vision of childhood and the world. Sendak recognized that children have large, dramatic inner lives, even when they do not (as, unfortunately, they often do) face loss and hardship. Sendak insisted that the only way to "protect" children was to teach them about the world, its evils and disappointments included.
He was a fierce advocate of telling the truth.
Recently I wrote about Sendak as the quintessential "picturebook psychologist." Others before Sendak, I suggest, recognized the emotional and cultural power of the picturebook. Sendak built on and indeed greatly expanded that power, developing further the notion that a picturebook encounter could be vitally transformative. The master practitioner of the genre is therefore an important player in the life of the child, perhaps even something of a lay expert on childhood – creative and intuitive rather than officially credentialed or scientifically trained.
Sendak cultivated and relished his role as an authority on the inner and imaginative world of childhood. No wonder famed child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, author of The Uses of Enchantment, understood Sendak immediately as a rival, and denounced Where the Wild Things Are (he later changed his tune). Sendak's reputation as a picturebook master only grew over the decades.
Tributes and recollections are rolling in. Could be the select company I keep, but my Facebook newsfeed is a virtual wake. It's a huge loss, no question. We are down in the dumps – way down. Still, there's some comfort in all the stories and anecdotes, and even in the passionate mourning.
Goodbye, Maurice. And thank you.
Kenneth B. Kidd is associate professor of English at the University of Florida. He is author of Freud in Oz: At the Intersections of Psychoanalysis and Children's Literature (Minnesota, 2011) and Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale (Minnesota, 2004) and coeditor (with Sidney I. Dobin) of Wild Things: Children’s Culture and Ecocriticism and (with Michelle Ann Abate) of Over the Rainbow: Queer Children’s and Young Adult Literature.
"This canny and original study (Freud in Oz) is far more searching, wide-ranging, and fun than its modest title suggests. Kenneth B. Kidd not only analyzes but somehow evokes for us the way the child and stories told about her drift through our dreams, literature, and culture, giving form to our finest aspirations and darkest nightmares. An essential, generous, deeply-informed book."
—James Kincaid, University of Southern California