Remembering Maurice Sendak’s Splendid Nightmares: Author/Illustrator Dies at 83
‘Where the Wild Things Are’ author/illustrator Maurice Sendak passed away on Tuesday at the age of 83. The loss of his “splendid nightmares” will be deeply felt indeed.
Sad news, Bettys: Maurice Sendak, children’s author and illustrator extraordinaire, passed away this morning due to complications from a stroke. He was 83 years old.
I’m sure I’m not the only one here to whom this is a terrible blow; generations of children have grown up with Sendak’s stories, and hopefully generations will to come. He had held a unique place in children’s literature since the ‘50s, and the thought of a world without his wonderful and terrifying ideas is a depressing one indeed.
The New York Times’ obituary names Sendak “Author of Splendid Nightmares”—a title which he has certainly earned. Sendak’s stories are quite dark; indeed, these days, they are perhaps darker than many parents would like when it comes to their children’s reading material. But there is something to be said for confronting darkness at a young age, a sentiment which Sendak took to heart.
Noted child psychologist Bruno Bettleheim once posited in his wonderful The Uses of Enchantment that not only are children made of sterner stuff than we often give them credit for, making them perfectly capable of dealing with darkness and violence in the Grimm’s fairy tales—but perhaps even more importantly, that exposure to these sorts of stories is essential for a child’s emotional development. Sibling rivalry, parents and authority, bullies, the dog next door: All these things, frightening to a child, become something else in fairy tales—giants, witches, wolves—which in turn make them easier to deal with. Although Bettleheim insists that it is fairy tales, and only fairy tales which tap into these troublesome issues, I would argue that Maurice Sendak’s stories accomplish this feat as well. In some ways, perhaps Sendak can be seen as the Brothers Grimm of his time.
My favorite Sendak book was always In the Night Kitchen—which, oddly, is the most challenged of his books. The controversy has something to do with the fact that its main character, a boy named Mickey, is naked for a good portion of the story; but honestly, this isn’t something that will scar your little ones. Reading this book as a five-year-old, I was more concerned about the fact that Mickey was about to get baked into a pie, even if it was just in a dream. Dreams are far more frightening than nudity is to a small child—though the story also teaches children not to be afraid of dreams as well. After all, Mickey comes out on top, escaping the baking and even saving the day by building an airplane out of dough to deliver some much-needed milk to the cake batter. And afterwards? Mickey slides back down the milk bottle and lands safely in his own bed.
And there is an even darker side to In the Night Kitchen as well, something which probably won’t make sense to most children until they are significantly older: The dream world chefs who almost bake Mickey into their “morning cake” look not a little bit like Adolf Hitler. This quality resonates all the more strongly when one considers Sendak’s background: Born in Brooklyn, New York to Polish Jewish parents in 1928, he was exposed to death and the concept of mortality at a very young age when his entire extended family became victims of the Holocaust. How did he deal with this, as well as with his own ill health? By reading.
All of Sendak’s stories deal with these sorts of themes: Where the Wild Things Are addresses the impulse to run away from home… “The Ballad of Chicken Soup” from Sendak’s musical Really Rosie (which I rented regularly from my local video store) tackles the death of a loved one… all of these things are threatening to children, but with the help of stories, they can learn how to process them. For this reason, we owe it to our children not to sanitize their world, but to expose them to as many thoughts and ideas as we can within a safe environment—even if those thoughts and ideas may not be the gentlest things in the world.
I can only hope that Maurice, Stan and Jan Berenstain, and all those other fabulous children’s authors and illustrators are having a gigantic party at that Great Gig in the Sky. Maybe the wild rumpus isn’t over yet.
Maybe it’s just begun.
Lucia Peters is BettyConfidential’s associate editor.