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Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Where the wild things (always) are

I tuned into NPR's Fresh Air this morning (do you 'tune in' on the internet?) and looked to the list of stories on the right panel to find one I had not listened to earlier--an interview with Maurice Sendak on the occasion of the publication of Bumble Ardy. It was a great interview, conducted graciously as always by Terry Gross of Fresh Air. The interview itself made me think about a variety of things....the artistic imagination, the world of the child, death, relationships, fear and the whole host of things we all deal with as human beings. After listening to the interview, I went back to the home page and noticed something I had missed earlier--a special Fresh Air show dedicated to Sendak, on his death, just yesterday (May 8). The show features excerpts from several interviews with the children's author and illustrator, and reminiscences by other writers and journalists. From then on it was a short journey to discover the several other tributes paid in newspapers across the world. It was a strange feeling, to have listened to Sendak talking about how he was "ready" to die, and moments later, to learn that he had passed away.

I can't say very much more than all those people have already said in tribute to this extraordinary storyteller, who opened up the world of the child's imagination, tore it out of the goody-goody wrappings that the mid-twentieth century had imposed upon children's literature, and laid bare the fears, the visions and the perceptions that structure and stimulate children's worlds. Most of us who have read (or read out to our children) Sendak's books will recognize those elements from our own memories. The creatures that looked bizzarre to adult eyes were familiar to the child's eyes; they were the creatures that "went bump" in the night, or whose hairy hands crept up over the edge of the bed when parents were asleep. Sendak seemed to have kept alive his own childhood mind, the shadows on the window pane, the mysterious figures behind the curtains. The pictures in the books provided access to a visual journey that the words only hinted at.

While other storytellers have written stories free of the gloss and glitter that modern fairy tales seem to favour, Sendak was unique in combining the deepest fears of the six-year old imagination with an ever-present, mostly unconscious, hope and wonder. Terry Gross' conversations with Sandak reveal a person of deep humanity and a great sense of humour (how can you write for children and not have this?), someone who was keenly conscious of the effect of the adult world on the child--and how often we as adults forget what we ourselves felt as children confronted with an overwhelmingly adult world.

For more on Maurice Sendak and his wonderful work, check out these links:
The LA Times pays tribute
Bill Moyers about his time with Maurice Sendak
The Guardian interviews Maurice Sendak