Fans of acclaimed children's book author Maurice Sendak (1928 – 2012) have been celebrating the late author's June 10th birthday on social media this month and reflecting on the impact of his work.
The enthusiastic chatter and praise compelled me to share Sendak's picture books with my daughters and to highlight him in my blog's Kidlit Great series. (The first author featured was William Steig.)
As a child, I was always aware of Where the Wild Things Are, but it wasn't a book on the shelves of my childhood home - where Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein reigned.
So reading a variety of Sendak titles last week was an enormous treat for all of us in the Schulte house. Here's the stack of books we picked up...
Oh so charming
We were instantly taken with Pierre (Sendak's cautionary tale on the repercussions of 'not caring' about anything) and Chicken Soup with Rice (a sweet book about how this very particular soup can be enjoyed in every month of the year - such a funny premise).
I loved the unique and light-hearted narratives, gorgeous palettes and illustrative genius. My little girls enjoyed carrying the books around and treasuring their tiny covers and pictures. The books were just their size (far smaller than traditional children's books) and more interesting than your typical board book fare.
Messages delivered loud and clear
If there's something that Sendak wants to tell you, he doesn't beat around the bush. His books hit you hard with perspective, and they drive home very specific moral questions.
Two books emblematic of this are We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy and Bumble-Ardy. My girls didn't connect with either of these, truth be told, but they sure got momma's attention. There was so much to process and digest within these pages, even (or perhaps, especially) at the adult level.
Illustratively, Sendak's work in these books is at times garish and challenging to take in. You might call his pictures strange or scary. Odd or provocative. But one thing is for sure. Sendak makes you think and feel.
Sendak wrote three of his books as a dream-state trilogy: Where the Wild Things Are (1963 - winner of the Caldecott Medal), In the Night Kitchen (1970 - a Caldecott Honor Book), and Outside Over There (1981 - a Caldecott Honor Book).
Each of these books is E-X-C-E-L-L-E-N-T and deserving of an individual book review spotlight. But for this post, I am going to focus on In the Night Kitchen because my girls LOVED IT. It was their fave Sendak book.
In this tale, a boy named Mickey awakes in the night and falls into "the night kitchen," where bakers are busy making a cake. Mickey ends up in the cake, flying the cake and, ultimately, saving the cake.
This book demonstrates exactly what makes Sendak a "kidlit great":
He gives us children being brave, silly, untamed and real...
...places them in completely unique scenes and circumstances...
...within adventures that take you up, and up, to places where anything can happen...
...creating images and ideas that stay with you forever.
A parting thought: As I worked up this post, I encountered the viewpoint that Sendak's work is 1) weird, 2) inappropriate and 3) too "out there" to resonate with kids.
Sendak's taste and style may not be to everyone's liking. But his books were to our liking. Even when the narratives got dark, the girls never seemed scared or troubled. They thought the wild things were silly. Naked Mickey simply made them laugh. And they wanted to know more about his goblins and creatures.
Some books affirm and comfort our children and create feelings of safety. Other books encourage them to confront their world and question it. Sendak books do the later, and I'm grateful for it.