'Did you know Maurice Sendak died this morning?" I asked a librarian Tuesday, when I stopped by the library to peruse a few of the author's books.
"Yes," she said, tearing up. "Kids have been telling me all day."
The torrent of media attention prompted by Sendak's death shouldn't have been a surprise. As news reports all over the country led with the opening lines of Sendak’s breakthrough 1963 book, “Where the Wild Things Are” — “The night Max wore his wolf suit . . . ” — I imagined people looking up misty-eyed from their cellphones and electronic devices.
Yet, in all the talk of Sendak as an artist who understood children’s fears and nightmares, I felt something was missing. I suppose because I was a sunny child, it wasn’t the darkness of Sendak’s books that I loved. I knew darkness as a kid, and I mentally edited it out of my fairy-tale collections, reading and rereading only my favorite stories while skipping the ones that scared me. Sendak wasn’t dark like that, I thought.
I had first encountered Sendak through his illustrations; he collaborated on scores of books before publishing “Where the Wild Things Are.” As with so much else, this work was a continuation of his Brooklyn childhood; his beloved older brother, Jack, was “the writer,” and little Maurice, who was often sick and stayed in bed reading and drawing, contributed pictures to Jack’s stories.
The Sendak-illustrated series "Little Bear," by Else Holmelund Minarik, was among my readers. The warmth of Mother Bear's embrace is inconceivable without the illustrations Sendak provided. The collection of Isaac Bashevis Singer stories "Zlateh the Goat," with Sendak's pictures, was my father's idea of real literature for children. (Apparently the same was true of Sendak's parents; he said the Singer book was the first assignment that earned their respect.) I loved the army of children illustrating the definitions in Ruth Krauss' "A Hole Is to Dig." Those squirmy, wiggly kids -- Sendak used the immigrant urchins of his neighborhood as models -- bring spirit to the linguistic nuances of phrases like "A face is so you can make faces."
I can still feel the sense of possession I experienced when I first held "The Nutshell Library," Sendak's collection of four books sized for tiny hands and published in a cunning slipcover. It turns out, however, that I loved only one of the books, "Chicken Soup With Rice." I cared nothing for the others -- an alphabet book, a counting book and one about a boy who is (shudder!) eaten by a lion. "Chicken Soup" not only helped me learn the months of the year, it later enabled me to grasp the scientific fact that winter and summer are inverted in the Northern and Southern hemispheres. "Aha!" I thought. "So when we are 'slipping on the sliding ice' while 'sipping chicken soup with rice' here, in South America they are 'taking a peep into the cool and fishy deep, where chicken soup is selling cheap.' Now I understand." Thus are good lines rooted in the mind.
Then I grew up and had a son. Oh, he had his cozy "Little Bear" moments, but it was Max of the wolf suit and the mischief that captured his heart. With my son I learned to cry, "Let the wild rumpus start!" We made "Wild Thing" masks and "sailed off through night and day." He taught me to recognize and love the riotous nature of Sendak's world.
But my son's attachment to Sendak also made me rethink my sunniness. Unlike me, he was intrigued by the goblins' empty hoods that I found so creepy in "Outside Over There" (1981). He wanted to know who the naked, emaciated baby was in "We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy," Sendak's parable of homelessness. But he could also be a sunny kid; in fact, sunnier than I, since I had been much more easily frightened, afraid of the dark and prone to horrible imaginings. I avoided misery in the books I read, whereas he confronted it. What kind of a person was I, and what kind of a person is he?
And there is the essence of children's literature: It stays with you all your life, gives you words to shape your thoughts, and -- if it's very good, as Sendak's is -- keeps you thinking and attending to the thoughts of the next generation.