As an eight year-old weaned into the sanitised world of Enid Blyton from an even earlier age, one didn’t really know that there could be another world that children’s books could describe. My world, like that of many others was the green of rural England where a group of happy children in sailor suits roamed free solving mysteries safely, where dogs were called Timmy or Buster and bumbling policemen were called Mr Goon. Someone with red happy cheeks called Cookie made scones and cakes and ginger ale for the children, and the children who were all white, said, “smashing” and “scrumptious.” And while I read, nibbling on a piece of Flora sliced bread heavily layered with Amul butter and sprinkled liberally with sugar, hoping it was a bit like a scone, outside my window, in the scorching Calcutta sun, rickshaws trundled by, dogs barked and the local beggar woman let out her customary keening wail.
One day an aunt who lived in the USA came visiting and gave me a set of books by Maurice Sendak, illustrated by him, that showed me a different world where children actually threw tantrums, felt jealous, and got into arguments exactly like we did. Some of them were dark and intense. Outside Over There is about a baby who is kidnapped by goblin-like creatures while her older sister is not paying attention. The sister must leave the safety of home to rescue the baby from a strange dreamlike world. Much later I came to know that it was inspired by the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby who was kidnapped and murdered.
Where The Wild Things Are is about a boy Max who goes on a journey which is like a rumpus — through his own imagination — after he is sent to bed without supper, and goes to a land of monsters with sharp teeth and claws. It was controversial because of the way it refused to sugarcoat the childhood experience. I remember being scared and at the same time fascinated by these drawings, so far removed from the pen and ink bucolic landscapes I had been used to. This was strong stuff.
The illustrations had a luminous quality about them, enchanting and alarming at the same time, hanging somewhere in the shadow land between wakefulness and dreaming. And my imagination began to make space for the world around me and the stuff that I saw every day. There was melancholy, happiness, love, and sacrifice in day to day situations and there were angels and demons behind the familiar faces that came and went outside my window and I did not have to escape to a rosy, foreign world any more. I think that was what Sendak’s books did for me.
Sendak’s own life was clouded by the shadow of the Holocaust. He had said that the events of World War II were the root of his raw and honest artistic style. Born in 1928 and raised in Brooklyn, Sendak said he remembered the tears shed by his Jewish-Polish immigrant parents as they’d get news of atrocities and the deaths of relatives and friends. ‘My childhood was about thinking about the kids over there (in Europe). My burden is living for those who didn’t.’ Of Where The Wild Things Are, Maurice said, “There is a cruelty to childhood, there’s an anger. And I did not want to reduce Max to the trite image of the good little boy you find in too many books.” But it was Brundibar, a folk tale about two children who need to earn enough money to buy milk for their sick mother that Sendak completed when he was 75, that he was most proud of. ‘This is the closest thing to a perfect child I’ve ever had.’
Sendak was self-taught and never went to college. His visual style ranged from intricately crosshatched scenes that recalled 19th-century prints to airy watercolors reminiscent of Chagall, to bold, bulbous figures inspired by the comic books he loved all his life, with oversized feet that the page could scarcely contain. He never did learn to draw feet, he often said.
In 2008, he told the New York Times that he was gay and had lived with his partner, psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn, for 50 years before his death in 2007. He never told his parents. ‘All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew.’
Sendak’s work will remain a benchmark for all that comes after. It will be remembered for its beauty, humour, and mystery. Sendak believed that from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions. Fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives. They continually cope with frustrations as best they can. It is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. He said, “It is my involvement with this inescapable fact of childhood —the awful vulnerability of children and their struggle to make themselves King of all Wild Things — that gives my work whatever truth and passion it may have.”
Gautam Benegal is an author, cartoonist and a filmmaker