In a review of Show Me A Story: Why Picture Books Matter (WSJ 5/12/12), Meghan Cox Gurdon quotes from some of the interviewees who are subjects in Leonard Marcus’ anthology of famous illustrators. Maurice Sendak, probably the most admired children’s book author since Dr. Seuss had this to say about the grotesque (Gurdon’s word) aunts and uncles who visited his family when he was a child, “God knows most of the people who came there were pigs.” He then goes on to explain that the day of his own Bar-Mitzvah was also the day his father collapsed with the news that other members of his family had been killed in the holocaust: “I remember my father falling down, and me in my little suit all ready to go, and the rage that was stirred in me by these dead Jews who constantly infiltrated our lives and made us miserable.” We’re reading the words of an adult recapturing the emotion not of a 5 year old Little Lord Fauntleroy, but of a 13 year old adolescent son of hard-working immigrants. It’s hard not to remember that he was the same age as another teenager who penned her own emotional reaction to far more serious deprivation in the posthumously published Diary of Anne Frank.
In Sendak’s recent obituary in the NYTimes, Margalit Fox described him as the man “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.” I’m not sure what Ms. Fox considered the works of the Brothers Grimm to be but for all of us whose favorite children’s stories were fairy tales, it’s puzzling to wonder whether anything Sendak wrote was as terrifying as Hansel and Gretel or Snow White, folktales anthologized by the brothers in the early 19th century, or Little Red Riding Hood, first written in 1697 by Charles Perrault. Yes, Pierre does get eaten by the lion but the rhyme takes away the sting of the deed and even very young children smile at that part, understanding the subtle humor of the lion uttering Pierre’s refrain: They pulled the lion by the hair They hit him with the folding chair His mother asked - Where is Pierre? The lion answered - I dont care His father said - Pierre’s in there!
Though Sendak didn’t initiate the concept of addressing issues of fear and abandonment in children’s books, he does deserve credit for tapping into the undercurrents of classic fairy tales and updating them with different sorts of monsters. As Ms. Fox expounds in the obituary, “…the wild things are deliciously grotesque: huge, snaggletoothed, exquisitely hirsute and glowering maniacally. He (Sendak) always maintained he was drawing his relatives - who, in his memory at least, had hovered like a pack of middle-aged gargoyles above the childhood sickbed to which he was often confined.” As Mel Brooks might say “again with the relatives.”
There is certainly no equation between artistry and kindness, something apparent since the days of the poetic King David to the monstre sacre of Pablo Picasso. Sendak, plagued by the need to stay closeted as a gay man so as not offend his parents, comes across as a man who, despite his great talent, had a paucity of tolerance and understanding for how difficult circumstances affected anyone but himself. He saw himself as a child raised in times of despair from the depression to the holocaust, yet showed no compassion for those relatives who had lost their loved ones yet would soon be immortalized by him for posterity as wild things. In the picture of Sendak which illustrates his obituary, he is sitting at home accompanied by his German Shepherd named Herman. Too bad his longtime partner, a psychiatrist named Eugene Glynn, pre-deceased him by several years; he might have had some very interesting things to say about that……………….
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