There’s a Mystery There: The Primal Vision of Maurice Sendak
Maurice Sendak wasn’t like any other children’s author, said Meghan Cox Gurdon in The Wall Street Journal. A writer-illustrator “preternaturally alive to the physicality and intense appetites of childhood,” he initially struggled to get published because editors found his work too disconcerting. But the distinctive worlds he brought to life in Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen won Sendak the fierce adoration of young readers, and he continued creating nearly until his death in 2012. Jonathan Cott once interviewed Sendak for Rolling Stone and also draws from a variety of other sources, including psychoanalysts and friends, to explore the author’s vision. Even Sendak skeptics “may find themselves surprised, sympathetic, and enchanted.”
Cott leans too heavily on the words of his secondary sources, said Michiko Kakutaniin The New York Times. But he does offer a few sharp insights. Sendak, who grew up in Brooklyn as the youngest child in a Jewish family of five, was often bedridden by illness, and he fixated early on the 1932 kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s infant son. Young Maurice was traumatized when he learned, courtesy of a news photo, that the baby’s corpse had been found. Years later, he said, “Children surviving childhood is my obsessive theme and my life’s concern.” In 1981’s Outside Over There, he unspooled a tale about a girl whose baby brother is kidnapped by goblins. Cott’s close reading of that work, for which Sendak wrote 100 drafts, “provides an illuminating window into the creative process” and shows how the final version’s words and pictures achieve their resonant effect.
Sendak’s most penetrating critics have always been children, said Christine Smallwood in Harper’s. Cott relates a story about an autistic boy who spoke his first words after studying Where the Wild Things Are. In another anecdote, a young fan is so thrilled to have received a drawing from Sendak that he eats it. Cott’s enthusiasm is almost as fierce. Though at times he’s too earnest, the loving attention he gives to Sendak’s work generates ample rewards. “I wish there were more criticism like it.” ■