5 Things We Learned from Maurice Sendak

1. Children are mysterious, and childhood can be dark.

When I worked at a daycare, I watched High School Musical to see what the kids were so excited about. After seeing that the conflict was basically that the stars were good at too many extracurricular activities, I was disappointed. What were kids going through real problems supposed to learn from this? Editing out conflict is becoming far too common in media, especially when it’s aimed at children and women.

Where the Wild Things Are changed the game in children’s literature by celebrating mischief, and getting on the side of the child, rather than the parent. He acknowledged that childhood was hard, and that kids were wise enough to comprehend the truth about life. “Childhood is a very, very tricky business of surviving it,” he pointed out. This is often forgotten by the people who make media for kids.

2. The best literature and art is never pedantic or concerned with morals.

I took a Y.A. lit class in college and my teacher would always say, “Don’t try to sneak in a lesson! Kids hate that.” I have taken this advice to heart, and I think it originated for this field with Maurice Sendak. It’s a radical idea – that literature can go against the institutions of “good” and “bad” if it means giving people something to relate to.

3. Be yourself, even if it means being blunt and rude.

If you haven’t watched The Colbert Report’s interview with Maurice Sendak, watch it now. He has a unique talent for saying whatever he thinks, which has definitely become more and more rare in an era when PR people outnumber journalists 3:1. Sendak will swear, he’ll unapologetically hate something, but that makes it all the more touching when he says something like, “I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more.”

4. You don’t have to have children. You can devote your life to art.

He’s said that he wouldn’t have had children even if he could have come out earlier and more publicly, and adopted. Instead he devoted his life to making childhood more spooky, adventurous and meaningful for other people’s children, and I think that’s admirable.

5. A long life is a blessing, but a tragedy too.

This morning I listened to his NPR Fresh Air interview that he did when he was very sick, and my lip trembled the whole time. Usually when people die old, I say something like, “Well at least they had a long life and made an impact.” But hearing him talk about how painful it was to lose his friends and family members, and how uncertain he was about what death was, with no ornamentation other than plain sincerity, gave me a dark glimpse into how scary growing old can be.

And that was his real power – being so committed to the truth that people can’t help but linger over everything he says and does. He gave us a glimpse of something that is usually sitting in our blind spot of belief and expectation.

-Becky Lang