Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Maurice Sendak, 1928-2012

There are many children's book authors who have been major influences in my life: Theodore Geisel, Beverly Cleary, Eric Carle, Don Freeman, Stan & Jan Berenstain, Johnny Gruelle, author of the Raggedy Ann series, Noel Streatfeild, and innumerable more.  But perhaps none has had such an ongoing influence than Maurice Sendak.  In particular, Max and the Wild Things of the book Where the Wild Things Are, has followed me through my life.

When I was a little girl my mom brought me every week or so to library school, which was at least what I called the library preschool program in our urban city of Irvington, NJ.  I remember many things about that library: the blue plastic railing going down to the basement where the children's room was; a bird who resided there, or maybe just visited, who I believed talked; the large, seemingly life-like cardboard cut-outs of the Wild Things and Max.  Again, maybe they were painted, maybe they were cardboard, but large they were.  Max and the Wild Things became part of my weekly visits to the library.  What was originally apprehension at the sight of them became familiarity after I knew the story.

Fast forwarding several years to my post graduate classes I was taking to get my teaching certificate, we used Where the Wild Things Are as an example of a book that has wordless pages.  The beauty of this book and others like it is how it gives children the opportunity to write their own story.  I loved reading this book to my class and hearing all the different scenarios my preschool students would present.  Several years later I attended a 3 day course called the Children's Literary Initiative or CLI.  This book in particular was mentioned as one that introduces new vocabulary to children.  What is a rumpus anyway?  Whatever it is, let me in on the fun!

I had my own slightly battered copy of Where the Wild Things Are as part of my classroom library.  I loved reading it to my students, especially for the first time.  I had one particular little boy who was seemingly unreachable.  His home situation was not a good one and had little promise for improvement.  He was all over the place, unable to stay still for even a minute.  Frustrated one late afternoon, I asked him to bring me a book to read to him.  He immediately brought over my copy and said, "Max."  This was a boy who I thought paid zero attention to books being read aloud.  He could barely answer a direct question.  I had no idea he knew the character's name!

J. and I read Where the Wild Things Are everyday over the next few months while he was in my class.  He always had interesting comments about the Wild Things and even about the rumpus.  He thought that the food in the bowl at the end was macaroni and cheese.  J. would sit on my lap and we would read.  It was the only book he wanted to read, the only one to which he felt connected.  How powerful is that?  This little boy who lived in the projects, one of many children, regularly cursed at by his authority figures, who had very little stability - he connected with Max.  He knew what it felt like to be called a wild thing and sent to his bed, maybe even without dinner.  The day I found out that J. was not going to be in my class anymore I cried.  Where was he going?  Who was going to read about Max to him everyday?  I sent home a copy of the book.  I hope someone read it to him.  Or maybe he just looked at the pictures and let himself get lost in the land of the Wild Things.

At one point in that school year I noticed a bite-sized chunk out of my book.  J.had done it.  We had a talk about it, but it never really bothered me.  I smile now every time I see that bite taken out of the book.

Now, well now I read about Max to my own preschool-aged daughter.  I take my her to the library where we enter worlds beyond our imaginations, where little girls can turn pink by eating too many pink cupcakes, bears wearing corduroys pants can talk to you, and you can take a mouse to school with you.  And Max will be forever in my heart.

Maurice Sendak
Rest in Peace
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