Rumpus in Peace

I was startled by how sad the news of Maurice Sendak’s death made me.  It  felt, in a way,  like the official death of my three children’s childhood.

Zoe–yes, she was a Zoe way ahead of her time–loved those wild things.  At three or so, she often “read” the book to herself in bed at night, but before she fell asleep made sure to set it safely out in the hall, just in case they decided to escape its pages.  I, in turn, always liked the story of how Sendak, who as a child was often sick and confined to bed, based the creatures with their bulging eyes, hairy faces and (we can assume) bad breath, on the relatives who constantly hovered over him.  The sweet “Little Bear” books were better loved by me than my kids, but “Pierre” , unphased even by a lion, rivaled Madeleine and her “pooh pooh”  for courage and savoir faire.

What is it with those children he drew?   They look both ancient and brand new at once, with their crooked smiles and fierce frowns, their attitudes so arrogant, so vulnerable.  A dark and tender glee infuses all he made.    

Not long ago a friend and I were talking about books we’d loved as children, and she remembered the novel “Twig”.   Like me, when she was small she never paid any attention to who wrote the books she loved–it was all about the story and pictures.  But remembering how she’d read the book again and again, and recalling how she once wished she were small enough to live inside that tomato can and cavort with fairies, she decided to look up the writer and send her a letter of appreciation.  A few days later she called to ruefully tell me that Elizabeth Orton Jones had been born in 1910 and was no longer with us. 

It was funny, but sad, too.  Like her, I  assumed that my beloved Maurice was immortal.  And, of course, he is.   


Yet another reason to revere the New York Times: they put Sendak’s obituary on the front page.  It begins, “Maurice Sendak, widely considered the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century, who wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery and plunged it into the dark, terrifying and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche, died on Tuesday…Roundly praised, intermittently censored, and occasionally eaten, Mr. Sendak’s books were essential ingredients of childhood for the generation born after 1960…”