When I saw Spike Jonze’s film “Where the Wild Things Are,” adapted from Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book, about Max, a young boy dressed in a wolf suit, and his friendship with a band of riotous, loving, and sometimes, tetchy creatures in a dream land of Max’s imagination, I fell in love. I was enraptured by the way the Wild Things were true to Sendak’s illustrations, and thrilled by their enormous size; I was mesmerized by the surreality of the sets that showed a place both surprising and scary. But what I loved most about the movie is what some of the critics criticized: The sadness. For me the melancholy is what made the movie pitch-perfect, made it true to Sendak’s telling, made my heart swell with tears—beneath the emotion lay the author-illustrator’s original intent, a profound understanding that childhood is a rocky shore.
Sendak, as you may have read in the multitude of tender tributes that have appeared since his passing a couple of days ago, was in fact a notorious grouch. Irascible and irreverent. But when he spoke of what truly mattered to him—his brother and sister, his beloved Melville or Mozart or Emily Dickinson, or his dogs Herman (after Melville of course) and Jennie, of Higglety-Pigglety Pop! fame—his harsh words drifted away. Sendak readily showed warmth toward children who were forthright because that’s the sort of world he gave to them. He delighted in the small boy who ate the card with Sendak’s small drawing, and in the child who asked, how much did it cost “to get to where the Wild Things are?” He took care to reply to each of his young fans. We can only guess at what he may have said to the girl who wrote him a letter, stating, “I hate your book. Die soon,” and signed it “Cordially.” (He adored it.) With his picture books, he was the first illustrator and writer to break all the unspoken rules of what was considered appropriate for a child; he tapped into a child’s raw emotions: not just love but also anger and jealousy and fear. He viewed the innocence of childhood bogus. “Children are complicated”; he saw no need to make their stories silly. No need to ‘give a mouse a cookie,’ he told Stephen Colbert. With regard to the mouse, “You should open the door and say, ‘get out of my house.’”
Rest in peace, dear Mr. Sendak.
Sources: Terry Gross, “Fresh Air: Maurice Sendak: On Life, Death And Children’s Lit,” Interview on NPR; Margalit Fox, “Maurice Sendak, Author of Splendid Nightmares, Dies at 83,” New York Times, May 8, 2012; Sasha Weiss, “Art Spiegleman Discusses Maurice Sendak,” New Yorker, May 9, 2012; The Colbert Report, “Grim Colberty Tales with Maurice Sendak Parts 1 and 2.”