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Sendak the Great

May 9, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

Utterly original children's author helped define the essence of art

The death this week of the singularly original children's author Maurice Sendak brings to mind a simultaneously hilarious and incisive interview he permitted on the fake TV news program "The Colbert Report."

Playing the ideologically char-broiled bigot character he has mastered to razor sharpness, Colbert led the 80-something Sendak through a life tour of all the complaints his books had sparked from pinch-minded critics and trembling school librarians who had, among other things, banned his classics "Where the Wild Things Are" and "In the Night Kitchen" because they had decided kids couldn't handle Maurice Sendak. Of particular concern was the anatomically correct nature of the drawings of the naked little boy in "Night Kitchen" as he floats through his dream of being mixed in cake batter by three cooks (who, oddly, all look like Oliver Hardy of Laurel & Hardy fame).

With Colbert, Sendak was shown at his clever, irascible best, refusing to be constrained by the phrase "writer for children," sounding off on politics, technology (on downloaded "e-books," he said the equivalent of "Screw them," to paraphrase for the family newspaper), and other children's books, most of which he described as "abysmal."

He even had the temerity to dismiss the kids' favorite "When You Give a Mouse a Cookie" with a one-syllable review: "Ehhh ... "

If anyone had earned the right, it was Maurice Sendak. One of the economic strengths of children's books as a commodity is their sameness -- the same talking animals, the same precocious children with superhuman powers, the same types of manufactured-looking illustrations, and the same bumper-sticker moral messages.

Sendak wanted nothing of that. His books are instantly recognizable, completely distinct in the genre, and challenging in a way that few others in his field ever dared to be. The children aren't always happy, aren't always inherently right, aren't always brave. They get scared. They encounter things that bother them and that they can't understand. Their own surroundings change in troubling ways, and there isn't always a kindly bear or reassuring grown-up around.

So, they find ways to cope, which gets to the center of Sendak. He said more than once that he thought the powers of imagination, fantasy and creativity were a child's best tools in confronting and, if not conquering, at least co-existing with the fears that arise early in life and, for many people, never quite disappear.

The glory of the artist is that the body of work that survives is more than mathematical formula or economic postulation, more than a moment of glory on the goal line or triumph on election night.

The artist leaves art, with all its particular, individual effects on the particular, individual person.

The French author Marcel Proust described art as recapturing lost time. Through it, we are being transported to poignant pinpoints of past experience, past relationships, past longings and hopes, past fears, past emotions, and past satisfactions, each peculiar to the person doing the seeing, the reading, the listening and the absorbing.

So, if you held a child in your lap and read Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are,'' or huddled under the covers as young eyes followed as you paged through "In the Night Kitchen," your circumstances at those moments, and how they are sifted back to you through the filters of your intervening years -- whether as the reader or the audience -- are the essence of art.

And now the Great Sendak is gone, surely to be missed and mourned. But more than that, thank goodness. Remembered, through the enchantment of his work, which becomes the enchantment of his audience at each new encounter, and always will.

-- Steven R. Peck

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