Family Matters

Why Maurice Sendak Insisted He Didn’t Write for Children

The famed author and illustrator — who died Tuesday — was among the first writers to capture the intense emotions of childhood, drawing heavily on imaginary worlds. Why, he wondered, do adults stop playing make-believe?

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Is there anything more evocative of childhood than Maurice Sendak’s description of disgruntled Max — the banished-to-his-room little boy, who has become one of the best-known childhood literary characters of all time — sailing “back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room”?

In one lyrical sentence in his classic Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak captured the make-believe world where children live, summing it up with humor and the acknowledgement that a hot meal’s appeal, regardless of age, is pretty irresistible.

Since Sendak’s death Tuesday at the age of 83, scores of writers have scrambled to divine the importance of his contributions to the pantheon of kid lit. Perhaps the most significant is Sendak’s own assertion that he wrote not for children nor for adults. He just wrote.

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But his fascination with the inner life of children was undeniable, and he spent his life wondering — aloud and in writing — what makes them tick. In a 2002 interview with children’s book historian Leonard Marcus, he declared his life’s work: “The question I am obsessed with is: how do children survive?”

They survive — and thrive — via an active fantasy life, for sure. In a tribute to Sendak on Tuesday, ABC News’ Mikaela Conley highlighted the writer’s ability to portray what kids think and feel, the real and the pretend:

In a 2009 article published in The Psychologist, Richard Gottlieb, a psychoanalyst based in Phoenix, analyzed the influences and motivations behind Sendak’s illustrations and writing.

“Sendak’s work in ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ is of particular interest to psychologists due to his strikingly unusual abilities to gain access to, and to represent in words and pictures, fantasies that accompany childish rage states,” Gottlieb wrote in the paper.

“It is this capacity, I believe, that contributes to the appeal of his work to children who are unable or unwilling to articulate these states, and to adults who have forgotten them or do not wish to know about them,” Gottlieb continued.

In 1972, Sendak told renowned children’s librarian Virginia Haviland that he didn’t understand why pretend play is considered child’s play. “I believe there is no part of our lives, our adult as well as child life, when we’re not fantasizing, but we prefer to relegate fantasy to children, as though it were some tomfoolery only fit for the immature minds of the young. Children do live in fantasy and reality; they move back and forth very easily in a way we no longer remember how to do.”

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In his writing, Sendak also acknowledged that stories about children need to reflect the truth — and the truth about kids is that they’re not all about hopscotch and ice cream cones and teddy bears. Sure, they love sweets, games and cuddly creatures, the smiley stuff that’s at the heart of so many children’s books. But they get scared and really mad too. It’s that darker side that Sendak delighted in depicting.

Last night, in honor of Sendak, my kids and I jammed to Really Rosie, Sendak’s musical collaboration with Carole King based on his books Chicken Soup with Rice, Pierre, One was Johnny, Alligators All Around and The Sign on Rosie’s Door. At bedtime, we read Where the Wild Things Are. We talked about Max and how furious he’d been at his mother, then how he ended up pining for her after he’d gallivanted off to become king of the fearsome forest.

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The intrepid Max “was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.” So he came sailing home, where he found his still-warm dinner waiting for him in his bedroom. Which is ultimately what we all hope for our kids, to know they’re loved and very much wanted when dinner rolls around. Even if it does have to be reheated.