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Big Books Feature

Maurice Sendak

Big Books Issue 2008

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By Lee Gardner | Posted 9/24/2008

Somehow I had always assumed that Maurice Sendak was French. Even as a child, I found Where the Wild Things Are so strange and so different from the cheery colors and elementary narratives of most books written for kids. I wouldn't have been able to express it back then, but Wild Things was clearly a story from some other world that didn't have Saturday morning cartoons and comic books and Judeo-Christian moralistic tales like the ones I was used to. There was misbehavior that ultimately went unpunished. There were gnashing fangs and sinister glaring yellow eyes. There were several pages with no words at all--just images of wild rumpus to galvanize any young imagination.

Before my oldest son could even hold up his own head, I had added Wild Things to his budding library and augmented it with a copy of Sendak's In the Night Kitchen, which my wife knew as a child. Reading Wild Things again as an adult, I was struck anew by its language, with Max sailing on his magical boat "in and out of weeks and almost over a year" and returning "into the night of his very own room," the adroitly mixed metaphors and odd page/line breaks intensifying the dreamlike aura of the tale. Night Kitchen was even more dreamlike, and even more revelatory. It has endured efforts to ban it in this country, and I can kind of understand why, as a naked child slips out of bed into a wild fantasia of fat bakers who all look like Oliver Hardy, being baked alive into a cake, flying a dough plane, and water tower-like bottles of milk. Again, Sendak breaks up the rat-a-tat trochees of singsong kiddie verse with abrupt stops and bizarre outbursts, helping to create a completely otherworldly yarn without ever using any word a 4-year-old wouldn't know. Again, there is no moral, no lesson learned, just a world usually hidden behind closed eyelids laid out on the page.

Given his unusual name and the perfectly imperfect nature of his choice of words, I still assumed Sendak was from some curious European place, a non-native speaker of English. I Googled him recently and discovered that he was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants but grew up with English and Mickey Mouse and comic books, just like I did. Only, obviously, not.

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