05.08.12

Maurice Sendak Knew Enough to Put the Bite Back in Children’s Stories

In a visit with the late children’s book author several years ago, Andrew Romano discovered a prickly, witty man who knew that good children’s stories are always full of threat and danger. Plus, Jimmy So on Sendak's best works.

One of the first things I noticed, sitting down across from Maurice Sendak at his rambling home in Ridgefield, Conn., back in 2009, was the mantelpiece. Or rather what was on the mantelpiece: a raucous plastic menagerie of Disney figurines. Donald Duck was there. So was Goofy. But most of all, there was Mickey Mouse.

I had traveled up to Ridgefield, along with my Newsweek colleague Ramin Setoodeh, to interview Sendak, who died Tuesday at 83, about the soon-to-be released screen adaption of Where the Wild Things Are. Spike Jonze, the director, had come, too; his co-screenwriter, Dave Eggers, was on the line from San Francisco. Sendak's lumbering German Shepherd, Herman—named after Melville—was snoring at our feet.

At some point, we started to discuss whether Wild Things was a movie "for children" or a movie "about childhood." Sendak—squinty-eyed, sly, and ever snappish—took exception. He didn't see a distinction. Citing Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows and Lasse Hallstrom's My Life as a Dog—European films that confronted the disorienting strangeness of childhood head-on—he accused Americans of being "squeamish" and "Disneyfied."

But what about those Disney characters on your mantelpiece? we asked. Sendak arched his long, devilish eyebrows. "Oh, I adored Mickey Mouse when I was a child," he said. "He was the emblem of happiness and funniness. You went to the movies then, you saw two movies and a short. When Mickey Mouse came on the screen and there was his big head, my sister said she had to hold onto me. I went berserk. I stood on the chair screaming, "My hero! My hero!" He had a lot of guts when he was young. We're both about the same age; we're about a month apart. He was the little brother I always wanted."

Jonze was fascinated. He leaned forward and put his hand on Sendak's shoulder. "What was he like when he was young?" he asked.

"He had teeth," Sendak said.

"Literally?"

"He had literally teeth," Sendak continued. "I have toys in the other room."

"Was he more dangerous?"

"Yes," Sendak said. "He was more dangerous. He did things to Minnie that were not nice. I think what happened, was that he became so popular—this is my own theory—they gave his cruelty and his toughness to Donald Duck. And they made Mickey a fat nothing. He's too important for products. They want him to be placid and nice and adorable. He turned into a schmaltzer. I despised him after a point."

"That always seemed to be the most critical test that a child was confronted with—loss of parents, loss of direction, loss of love," Sendak told me in 2009.

Maurice Sendak liked things with teeth. If I had to explain, in short, why I love his work—why pretty much anyone who had the weird, wonderful privilege of being a child in the second half of the 20th century loves his work—that is what I would say. The things Sendak made, Wild or not, always had teeth. Max almost got eaten; Pierre actually did, by a lion. In Outside Over There, a gang of goblins abducts a baby. Elsewhere, a naked boy is nearly baked to death. When Sendak made an alphabet book, he called it Alligators All Around. With him, M was for menace.

As I wrote in 2009, Sendak knew that the greatest children's stories are about what happens when we become untethered from authority, whether by disobedience, disaster, or disregard, and the twinned feelings of freedom and fear we experience as we grapple with an autonomy we're not quite ready for. They are, in that sense, rehearsals for adulthood. Much like Max, Hansel and Gretel are abandoned by their parents in the forest and forced to fend for themselves. The children of The Cat in the Hat are left in the care of a massive anthropomorphic feline. Mary Lennox of The Secret Garden, James of James and the Giant Peach, and Harry Potter are all orphans; Astrid Lindgren's unruly Pippi Longstocking might as well be. "That always seemed to be the most critical test that a child was confronted with—loss of parents, loss of direction, loss of love," Sendak told me in 2009. "Can you live without a mother and a father?" Fiction and fantasy let children indulge their primal desire to grow up—to be rid of rules and face a dangerous and exhilarating world alone—from the safety of their own bedrooms.

What made Sendak's books particularly unforgettable—inescapable may be the more accurate word, actually—is the way they always recreated that disorientation, in real time, as the reader struggled through the lush, almost claustophobic world that his words and illustrations had conjured up on the page. As Sendak put it in our interview, "[Max] doesn't know what's to come next. I mean, that's gotta be scary for a kid, but it's also gotta be what a kid likes most. It's that enticement of what might or might not happen." His readers felt the same way; over the years, Sendak's books began to seem more like memories—like experiences we'd had—than like stories we'd read. They helped us wrestle with things that were difficult to understand because they themselves were difficult to understand. They helped us deal with the terror of being 9 years old because they themselves were, at times, terrifying. And we appreciated that, even if we didn't know why. For once we weren't being treated like "children." We were being treated like people.

Near the end of our interview in Ridgefield, I asked Sendak why the specter of death always seemed to be hovering over his children's stories. I'll never forget his answer. It was the classic Sendak shtick—light and dark at the same time, and also totally true.

'Well, it’s a great subject,' he said. 'There’s a lot of charm to it. I remember when we did Hansel and Gretel, the opera. All of the kids are out in the open, unprotected from the weather, and so we had one of the little girls die. And the opera people and everybody was, 'Are you sure you want to do this? It’s Hansel and Gretel.' But I said: 'Hansel and Gretel is one of the scariest stories ever written! Psychotic mother; stupid, inane father. What the hell are you talking about? Of course there’s going to be somebody dead in it.' After the show, the kids came backstage and they wanted the autograph of the dead girl."

Everyone laughed.

"Like, I was just chopped liver," he continued, his face a mask of mock chagrin. "They walked right past me. 'Where’s the dead girl?'"

Turns out kids like things with teeth, too.