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VIDEO ESSAY: Maurice Sendak: Outside Over There

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by Tres Seymour and Ken Cancelosi
May 29, 2012 9:48 AM
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On May 8, 2012, Maurice Sendak died.  Shakespeare’s dead, too, and Melville, and Emily Dickinson. In fact, come to think of it, so are most people who have ever lived. But most people aren’t lionized after death in the press as one of the great Fathers of Children’s Literature.

Ironic, considering that Sendak was a child until he died at the age of 83—and I mean that in the best way.

All the best children’s authors are children.  The most horrid thing that can happen in children’s books, aside from a Grown-Up deciding to Write A Book For Children, is for that book to actually get published. 

If you’re scratching your head wondering who I am, you’ve never heard of me.  Several of my children’s books have been published, so I’m an actual author of children’s books, but the fact that you know all about Maurice Sendak and nothing about me is kind of important here, because Mr. Sendak and I have a lot in common.  Just not what you think. I understand him in a different way.

Journalist Emma Brockes, in an October 2011 edition of The Guardian, claimed that millions will always think of Sendak as “young, a proxy for Max in Where the Wild Things Are.”*  Other writers have variously described him as “Grumpy.” “Angry.” “Fierce.” Names that tend to evoke the faces of the monsters that glare out of the pages he created.

Were any of these true? I really couldn’t say. I never met him in my life, and never really wanted to.  I’m not much on meeting authors, for reasons I now understand—though when I first started writing seriously, this theory of reading sent me sprawling: That no matter how hard the writer or the artist tries to convey his or her message, no matter how perfect the execution of what lives in his or her mind, once the reader reads the work, the true message is the reader’s and the reader’s alone—even if it’s not exactly what the author meant.  This is hard, hard, hard for a creator to accept, and doubly so when that creator finds himself equated personally with the creation.

When a reader meets an author, the author becomes a clay figure upon whom the reader pastes his or her feelings, dreams, desires, and impressions. Suddenly the author finds he is expected to live up to everyone’s expectations. That’s enough to make anyone Grumpy.  Angry.  Fierce.

Sendak was, in some ways, the poster child (as it were) for children’s books in a way that mildly irritated many in the profession, through no fault of Sendak’s. When speaking to most any member of the public, about books to get for children, one invariably and repetitively heard: “Oh, how about Where the Wild Things Are?  Get Where the Wild Things Are.  My kids loved Where the Wild Things Are.” It was brilliant, true, but it’s also the only thing most people know, and Sendak was only one among a massive chest that holds an embarrassment of visual and literary riches, unguessed by most, and never found by the majority of children.

Yet passes Sendak, and in the press it is as in Outside Over There when “Ida played a frenzied jig, a hornpipe / that makes sailors wild beneath the ocean moon.”

I do not know whether Sendak was a humble man or proud. That he wrote from his child’s heart, which he somehow kept intact through a life that did its damnedest to drag him into the gray and cynical adult world, is plainly evident. When I speak of his “child’s heart,” I mean the heart that is still in love with wonder—a heart that is brave and wild and young and still unconquered by the terror and the ugliness in the world. It’s a heart that finds the world a very difficult place to live in in spite of—and because of—its excruciating beauty. That is the kind of innocence Maurice Sendak had, and that he shared with the world. It’s a contrast to the adult-imagined innocence of Peter Pan, a story that Sendak and I mutually despised.

There’s absolutely no denying the ground-shaking societal impact of Where The Wild Things Are, In The Night Kitchen and, in a quieter way, Outside Over There—they are the great post-Victorian children’s manifesto of rebellion. They are the Declaration of Monstrosity that freed children from the starched expectation that they were somehow less beastly than the adults who spawned them. Sendak rightly recognized—and to the abject horror of many, actually went so far as to illustrate—the reality that these delightful little sweetings had a nasty ego-flavored center.

Just like the rest of us.

Make no mistake—Sendak did not write for children. He wrote for himself. So do I. Our writing is for a single purpose—we yearn to be understood in a world that is wild and roaring. We feel compelled by some inner urge to convey a message.

As a writer, I am not proud of my published work because I see my role as that of a messenger only.  I will never be a Sendak, and that’s fine—that’s not what I was meant for.  My messages are modest; he had a transcendent message to deliver, and the talent to do it. But in the end, as we find ourselves pasting our own Maxes, Mickeys, and Idas onto Sendak, is it not possible that the message is more important than the man? All our messages, than the messengers themselves?

Regardless, Maurice Sendak, for all his gifts, will now give us no more. He is gone.

In this he and I differ, though: He believed that nothing happens after death; we simply cease. I prefer to think that he still is, Outside, Over There.

*Brockes, Emma. “Maurice Sendak: ‘I refuse to lie to children’.”  The Guardian.  2 October 2011, 13:30 EDT  <http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/02/maurice-sendak-interview?intcmp=239>.

Tres Seymour is the author of thirteen books for young people, including Hunting the White Cow and Life In The Desert, a 1993 American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults  He lives in Munfordville, Kentucky.

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