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Maurice Sendak: No backstory required

What the great children’s author got right

Max in his wolf suit in “Where the Wild Things Are.”

Copyright © 1963 by Maurice Sendak, copyright renewed 1991 by Maurice Sendak

Max in his wolf suit in “Where the Wild Things Are.”

In “Where the Wild Things Are,” the masterpiece among masterpieces of the late Maurice Sendak, the word that first summons magic is a simple “his”: “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind / and another,” the opening pages read. Not “a wolf suit”; certainly not “the wolf suit his grandmother gave him for his birthday.” The wolf suit is a given. It already exists, and the story is already underway.

This was Sendak’s imaginative genius. In the wake of his death last week at age 83, the conventional thing to say about his work has been that it brought depth and darkness into children’s literature (or back into children’s literature, if you’ve read your Grimm). But his books were nothing like those in the children’s book genre that Amazon calls “Social Situations.” Too often, writers striving to make art for children believe that those darker shades are something to be expressed programmatically. Library shelves groan under the weight of Quality Children’s Books with explicitly described scenarios of poverty, orphanhood, or divorce—instead of that already-occupied wolf suit, the characters are carefully vested in sackcloth.

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Sendak’s power was not that his work addressed children’s fear or anger or loneliness, but that it didn’t. He simply took up those things as givens, along with everything else. That’s the source of his books’ intensity. Sendak’s worlds are conjured whole, without introduction or explanation or motive. Mickey hears a noise and plunges into the Night Kitchen. Pierre arrives at breakfast and will say nothing but “I don’t care.” Johnny lived by himself. (Gregor Samsa wakes to find himself transformed into a giant cockroach.)

This alarming suddenness, the inseparable union of the character and the situation—this is the way the real world presents itself to a child. Childhood, like a dream, begins in mid-story. The personalities and the rules are already in place. No one pauses to brief a child on his or her background and psychology. That’s how adults tell stories, with all the fussy business of stage-management and exposition, bringing in the characters and saying what sort of people they are and how they got that way. The sentimental lit-novelist Dave Eggers got this all wrong when he novelized “Where the Wild Things Are,” to go with his screenplay for the big movie version. His literary version of Max is out of control because he has problems at home. The “private boat for Max,” which Sendak brings in via subordinate clause, has to be placed in the landscape and discovered and its property rights correctly assigned.

Maurice Sendak Collection/Rosenbach Museum and Library

An illustration from “In The Night Kitchen.”

Grownups ruin everything, with their framing ideas of childhood. As a father, I’ve been through enough bad dinners to be pretty sure Max skipped a nap or snack the day he wore his wolf suit. But that doesn’t mean anything to Max, any more than it did to my preschooler, diving sideways away from his spaghetti Tuesday night.

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Sendak’s protagonists simply act, and events occur, and they act some more. Nobody explicitly decides what to do. Max does not feel afraid of the Wild Things’ terrible claws, or if he does, it’s not worth specifying. No matter the arc of a Sendak plot, no one apologizes, and rarely is there conscious moral progress. “Pierre” is told in the form of a moral fable, yet when Pierre’s defiance gets him eaten by a lion and coughed up again, he never says he’s sorry. Nor does the lion.

The complexity is in the drawings. Max snickers into his hand as trees and vines demolish his bedroom. An ostensibly tame Wild Thing looks at Max with a not-at-all docile eye roll. Mickey’s abandoned airplane of bread dough lingers, tail upright, crashed into a roof in the background. At the climax, words may drop away entirely—in the case of the Wild Rumpus, for six full pages, as Max and the Wild Things go dancing and swinging and marching the full width of the book. Why does one horned beast crash into a tree? You can go as deep into the pictures as you want.

What keeps Maurice Sendak alive, in the hands of young readers and in the minds of readers who’ve grown up, is that a Sendak story doesn’t worry about realism. It addresses children directly, on the terms they understand. Children don’t need precise step-by-step directions to lead them to some distant place in which there are things that act wild. There are simply the Wild Things, and they are there as soon as you open the book.

Tom Scocca is the managing editor of Deadspin and a columnist for Slate. He is the author of “Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future.”
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