Maurice liked to tell the story of the daughter of a friend who was at school near the World Trade Center when the towers fell. She told her father that she saw butterflies on the building as the towers collapsed. Later she admitted that they weren’t butterflies, they were people jumping, but she didn’t want to upset her father by letting him know that she knew. Children protect their parents, which is the funny part of childhood that slips away from us, the awful knowledge it contains.
The received wisdom is that it is not good to scare kids, but Sendak’s belief was that kids are already scared, that what they crave is seeing their anxieties thrillingly laid out. Much of Sendak’s work, then, exists between play and terror, that infinitely intriguing, purely fantastical place where you are joked out of your most serious fears. But those fears are also entertained on the most serious and high level in Sendak’s books; they are not dismissed but reveled in, romped through.
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After the runaway success of Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice ran into a friend from Lafayette High School. She was the girl he sat next to in art class. On his high-school yearbook page, which was captioned, “Your delightful drawings make us all gay. A famous artist you’ll be someday,” he had scrawled to her, “Lotsa luck to a swell gal. Sendak.”
Now she said to him, “How does it feel to be famous?” He said, “I still have to die.”
Maurice had a passion for ritual. He liked to eat the same breakfast every day—marmalade, English muffin, tea—from 9 to 11, then he would work, then get dressed and walk the dog, then have lunch, then work, then dinner with cake, and then, from about 10 to 2 in the morning, more work. The day was about creating a carapace for the work. In a letter to a reader with whom he warmly corresponded for decades, he once wrote that life was good when he was working or getting ready to work.
What is unsaid here is that life is not happy when he is not working. Like his mother and brother, Maurice had always wrangled with depression. The black moods would descend, and he would fight them off with work or, when he couldn’t work, with the idea of work. The work was, among other things, a mood stabilizer. It kept him going; it lured and cajoled him back to life.
Sendak often talked about his books as a “battleground” or “battles.” In the hours in his studio, under the cheap white lamp clipped to his drawing desk, he was fighting. The business of creating children’s books was not a sweet, civilized occupation; it was violent, bloody. He was defending or protecting himself.
“I’m totally crazy, I know that,” he once said. “I don’t say that to be a smartass, but I know that that’s the very essence of what makes my work good.” The craziness was in his work. The blackness was vital; he called it “the shadows.” The shadows were in the illustrations. Without them, there would be only charm.