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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Tribute to Maurice Sendak from an Unknown Protege

The cover of my well-thumbed copy of The Art of Maurice Sendak by Selma G. Lanes
Today the world is a sadder, wilder place because yesterday Maurice Sendak died.

I cannot remember a time when his books were not a part of my life. As a young child I doodleedoodleedoo-ooed in the virtual mud with his expressive children in Ruth Krauss's A Hole Is To Dig, sipped-once, sipped-twice, sipped Chicken Soup with Rice, visited Grandmother and Grandfather and dreamed of mermaids with Else Homelund Minarik's Little Bear stories, shuddered as I witnessed the scary power of magic in Robert Graves's Big Green Book -- and of course, I sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year as I journeyed to where the Wild Things are with Max.

His art and stories remained a part of my life as I grew older. I learned manners -with a touch of irreverence - from his giggle-inducing illustrations for Sesyle Joslin's What Do You Say, Dear? and discovered more obscure fairy tales and nursery rhymes, as well as the grimmer side of Grimm from some of his less known works.

As an adult, I cried for children left homeless by AIDS in We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy and explored a particularly creepy chapter of the Holocaust with Brundibar.

When I became a parent, I got to revisit old favorites from a new vantage point and relish how they touched my kids in the same ways they'd touched me. My firstborn, the sort who liked to put on his own homemade wolf suit and make mischief of one kind and another, could always tame his inner Wild Things with a snuggle and another reading (or recital, since we all had it memorized) of that favorite book. My silly middle child dissolved in giggles every single time a "butt-naked" Mickey crowed "Cock-a-Doodle-Doo" In the Night Kitchen, and my miniature-loving youngest read her Nutshell Library literally to tatters. (The replacement set still occupies a place of honor on her bookshelves.)

Phrases from his stories have become part of our family lexicon - distilled to their pith, they had the power to transform even strong emotions or heels-dug-in behavior. Needed to entice a reluctant child to come along and quickly? All I had to do was wheedle, "I'll let you fold the folding chair!" and my I-Don't Care Pierre smiled and joined me. Wanted to halt a brimming tantrum? "They rolled their terrible eyes!" turned growls and glares to giggles. And what better way to express the complexity of love and and anxiety and frustration than "I'll eat you up, I love you so!"
All that is enough to make my eyes brim with gratitude and tears at Sendak's passing. But I also weep because Maurice Sendak was my lifelong teacher and mentor, though he never knew it. So much of what I know about drawing, color, painting, word choice - and especially the design and gestalt of children's books -- I learned from studying (and often copying) his work. As a second grader, and long before I'd even heard the terms, I discovered how hatching and crosshatching could create form and depth, as well as the shiver-inducing beauty of chiaroscuro. I copied pictures from his books so many times, the images have become a part of my unconscious repertoire, as is evident in this doodle in one of my high school notebooks and in a school calendar cover I made during high school too:

Recognize the lion who ate Pierre?

I absorbed a love of the energetic activity and detailed line from works like A Hole Is to Dig
To me, there is no better picture book than Where the Wild Things Are. At once innovative and quintessential, it captivates with both its beauty and emotional resonance. I'll never stop studying it as I make my own books - I know I will never stop learning from it.

Tonight I'll sit in front of the shrine I'm assembling to mark a great man's passing. My coffee table already growls beneath the weight of my Sendakian library, waiting to be read again. I'll cue up Mozart's Magic Flute, which Sendak said inspired him. I'll light a candle, pore over The Art of Maurice Sendak, and hope I'm inspired to take up pen and brush.

And I'll say thanks - for bringing me pleasure, for making me think and feel, and for teaching me to create books for children.

1 comment:

  1. Everything you said Carol! I cherish so many of his books, and like you, as both a child and as an adult. I think I'll go re-read one of the many Sendak books on my bookshelves that I can't bear to part with!