Maurice Sendak's work challenged the conventions of children's literature and spoke powerfully and indelibly to adults as well.
Maurice Sendak on e-books: “I hate them. It's like making believe there's another kind of sex. There isn't another kind of sex. There isn't another kind of book! A book is a book is a book.” That was in a recent Guardian interview.
Just a little later, on the Colbert show, the subject came up again: “F**k Them. I hate those e-books. They cannot be the future. They may well be. I will be dead. I won't give a sh**t.”
Only as printed books
Even devotees of his work have remarked, since his passing away on May 8, how nicely his books could have turned digital, how the iPad would have given it a new edge. Now, of course, his work, including the Where The Wild Things Are, will remain only in one book form: the physical printed book. Exactly how Maurice wanted them.
Children's Picture Books came alive to me only because of Sendak's work. At once you knew, even as an adult, that you desired his work, that you needed his work. You saw it straightaway as art.
And you had to wonder how children's stories could be so dark and ribald and manic and yet remain a completely children's story. There's this little Sendak picture book that I found a few months ago about two little children who wish for a little puppy and are gifted a stray. They adopt him, and soon he's a bundle of fun. But also horribly and horridly naughty. He seldom listens to the children and defecates where he pleases in the house. They shout at him and he runs away. They miss him terribly and wish for him to come back.
The homeless person, who gave them the puppy, lectures them about never scolding the dog again, never to humiliate him, and finds the puppy for them. The children are full of joy. The puppy is happy to be back. And simply continues to not listen to them, defecating as always everywhere.
Honest and unvarnished
There's all the fun of a dog and children story without the cuteness. At first I was disappointed it wasn't a cuter story, and I recall putting the book aside wishing the puppy was a little nicer — that is, manageable. It was only after some time went by that I saw, felt, actually, how honest and unvarnished the story was. How remarkable it was that the children learnt to let the puppy be himself. And that as characters in stories go, he had, in my mind and heart, already become memorable. It was — and is — a marvellous children's story. Children know the truth of these things at once. I remember a similar reluctance to embrace Where The Wild Things Are when I first came across it. For the first few encounters with the book, I found myself, unexpectedly, not very impressed with the illustrations or the story.
The wild things the boy meets — what admirers and detractors of the book had found either remarkable or troublesome — didn't do much for me. Since then, however, with each new browsing of Where the Wild Things Are, I have begun entering Max's adventure with more empathy and enjoyment, becoming that little boy. The deep power of Sendak's drawings and words don't spring at you, but enter your imagination subtly. His secret, by his own admission, is that he recalls the mind and emotions of a child with a vividness, clarity and affection few adult artists remember or know how to. I think his drawings of children and animals are enchanting for their detail and beauty. No picture book artist I know can describe a child's emotions and subconscious dream world in the truthful, unfinished way Sendak's books can.
The stories really have no sense of completeness or wholesomeness; the characters tumble from one fanciful, silly, transcendent situation to another and when you reach the end, the fantasy has no meaning. No lessons are learnt (at least nothing typical) and no morals are drawn.
Sendak's work has continually challenged the conventions of children's literature and spoken powerfully and indelibly to adults as well. Interestingly, I think more than once Sendak has said he wasn't writing and drawing for children. These were the only stories he wanted to draw. He has said: “I was sickly as a child and gravitated to books and drawing. During my early teen years I spent hundreds of hours at my window. I sketched and listened. If I have an unusual gift, it is not that I draw particularly better than other people; I've never fooled myself about that. Rather it's that I remember things other people don't recall: The sounds and feelings and images — that emotional quality of particular moments in childhood. Happily an essential part of myself — my dreaming life — still lives in the light of childhood.”
Saying he doesn't draw better than other artists is Sendak's modesty; the modesty of genius. (Another typical instance of this is when, at a book signing, an anxious child not wanting to spoil her book by autographing it asked him not to sign it. Sendak agreed wholeheartedly, returning the book back unsigned). Among many things he told young artists, one stays in my mind, and I quote it here in full: “You must never illustrate what is exactly written. You must find a space in the text so that the pictures can do their work. Artistic style is a means to an end, and the more styles you have, the better. To get trapped in a style is to lose all flexibility. If you have only one style, then you're going to do the same book over and over…lots of styles permit you to walk in and out books. So, develop a fine style, a fat style, a fairly slim style, and a really rough style.”
The more Children's Picture Books I see, and the more familiar I become with their illustrators, the more I'm convinced the best of them are the work of true artists. Which is why Sendak once said: “The stars of picture books are illustrators.” And he was, and always shall be, their brightest, wildest star.