Maurice Sendak Didn’t Just Make Books for Children, but for Everyone
I have no idea what it is like to read the late Maurice Sendak’s books as a child. I was not introduced to them until I was an adult. So when I read how he helped children process their anxieties and their fears, I can take it only on faith, or rather, second-hand. I did watch my own children as we read In the Night Kitchen, our favorite, and Where the Wild Things Are, and Outside Over There. My son preferred the former, my daughter the latter. As for myself, I have always been partial to Higglety Pigglety Pop!
It was a Christmas present from my girlfriend, and when I unwrapped it, I was a little nonplussed. Why would a grown woman give a grown man a copy of a children’s book, I wondered (to myself—I’m not crazy). I soon found out when, that night, I sat down and began to read.
Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life, was my first Sendak. By the standards of children’s books, it is long, topping out at 69 pages. Even by Sendak’s standards it is a very elaborate work, with 34 full-page ink illustrations, including one double-page spread. A few of the chapters end with smaller drawings—a covered serving dish, an old telephone, and assorted portraits of Jennie, the Sealyham terrier who is the story’s heroine.
The book is dedicated to Jennie, who was one of Sendak’s dogs, although I don’t think the real dog ran away from the owner who loved her the way the dog does in the story. I do remember that by the end of the first chapter, I was pretty smitten with Jennie, too.
In that chapter, Jennie has a conversation with a potted plant that tries, without success, to talk her out of leaving home. She has “everything,” the plant points out. “You have two windows,” the plant says. “I only have one.” But the two windows, two pillows, two bowls, the red wool sweater, eye drops, ear drops, bottles of pills, and a master’s love are not enough to persuade Jennie, who explains that she is “discontented. I want something I do not have. There must be more to life than having everything!”
Jennie’s hauteur is pretty funny all by itself, but what makes the scene is that while this conversation unfolds, Jennie is munching on the plant, a leaf at a time. In the end, “The plant had nothing to say. It had nothing left to say it with.” I remember laughing at that line, and I also remember thinking, “Hey, this is pretty unsentimental for a kid’s book.” It would be my first step in understanding that Sendak did not write or illustrate children’s books. He made books that could be enjoyed by children and adults alike, sometimes even for the same reason. That was his genius. The conventional wisdom holds that there is no such thing as “fun for the whole family,” but Sendak, like Dr. Seuss, Carl Barks (Uncle Scrooge), and Jay Ward (Rocky and Bullwinkle), put the lie to that.
As a child, you take great artwork for granted in the books you look at. N.C. Wyeth and William Steig and Sendak are just doing their jobs as far as a kid is concerned. But coming to Sendak as an adult, I understood immediately that here was someone special. I am not a huge fan of his later work, where everything sort of flattens out in an almost depthless picture plane, rather like a stage set (his sets for various plays, operas, and ballets are, on the other hand, altogether marvelous). Higglety Pigglety Pop! has more depth than the later work, and it’s less cartoony than the more famous Night Kitchen and Wild Things. You might almost call it realistic, if a dog with a valise hitching a ride on a milk wagon driven by a cat could be called realistic. Whatever it’s called, it’s draughtsmanship of an extraordinarily high order, and I would find myself returning to this book over the years, long after I’d memorized the story and knew every sly joke by heart, just to lose myself in those marvelous drawings. The dust jacket is in tatters, the pages are foxed, but every time I open that book, it delights me as much as it did that very first Christmas night.
The greatest thing about Jennie and the book that (just barely) contains her is that no icky morals are conveyed. Jennie does not learn that home is where the heart is or anything so shopworn. She is indomitable, whether she is cleaning out the milkman’s stock, trying to feed a baby that wouldn’t eat, facing down a lion, or starring on the stage. She never takes no for an answer, and she almost always gets what she wants.
This is not to say that Jennie is not tested and tried along her way. There is something nightmarish, almost Kafka-esque, about her adventures, especially when she finds herself in a dark wood and all alone. I suppose children might find this disturbing. I certainly did. But that, I think, is Sendak’s point. He plainly understood that there are riddles and dilemmas in life that have no easy answers and maybe no answers at all, and he wasn’t afraid to put that uncertainty into his books. But he just as surely knew that there is an unfaltering spirit in people—and especially in dogs—that obeys no logic and demands only our admiration.
Some books we love because we loved them as children. Others we love because they remind us of what it was like to be a child. Sendak’s books do not fit comfortably in either category. You can discover their strangely beguiling, unsettling worlds when you are 5 or 50. But no matter how old you are, they show you the world you know in a way you never thought of before. For that reason alone, they are unforgettable.
To this day, I never see a Sealyham terrier walking down the street without thinking of Jennie. It always makes me smile to wonder where she’s headed next.