'Sendak did not make books for children. He just made books. His linework was elegant, sometimes even cute, but always honest'
Friday 11 May 2012
I was a journalist when I started out in the writing game, and I learned not to meet my heroes if I wanted them to remain heroes, and so I never even made an effort to meet Maurice Sendak.
Meeting writers and artists in the flesh is anyway overrated. I met Sendak for the first time when I was 10 or 11. My little sister did not read, and I inveigled my parents into giving me extra pocket money to buy her books, on condition that I read to her. I read her books by Edward Gorey and Heath Robinson, and a book with an interesting cover called In the Night Kitchen.
It was a dream, told in comics panels, although the panels were often the size of whole pages. (It was years before I discovered Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland cartoons, Sendak's inspiration.) I loved the transgressive nakedness of Mickey, our hero, loved the strange pastry chefs who all looked like Oliver Hardy, loved the weird internal rhymes and the read-it-again quality of the story. I now love knowing that it still features on the American Library Association's "most challenged" list. It scared adults.
I bought Sendak for my children, and read them all of it, found them a Wild Thing toy when such things were rare, and then saw Outside Over There, a haunting tale of a girl whose baby brother is stolen by goblins, become a favourite of my daughter Holly.
Sendak, who died this week, did not make books for children. He just made books. His linework was elegant, sometimes even cute, but always honest. He was wise, and he never patronised any readers, adult or child. I devoured interviews with Sendak: he was a grumpy, Jewish, brilliant, wise contrarian and he didn't mellow as he aged. But then, he had never created mellow books. His coming out in 2008, age 80, was a final act of honesty.
Something Sendak once said is the epigraph of my next book. "I remember my own childhood vividly." he explained. "I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn't let adults know I knew. It would scare them."