Sendak and Children’s Interior Worlds

Sendak illus. in Ruth Krauss's "A Very Special House"

Saturday – Something Light

A year ago I dropped “Sports Saturday” from this blog because I needed the extra time on Friday afternoons to work on my book How Beowulf Can Save America, currently in the last stages. I also didn’t have time to watch sports, a deprivation made slightly easier given the injury to my football hero Peyton Manning.

Now that I’ve completed the book, I am restarting the Saturday posts again only I will expand them to include other light subjects, not just sports. Today I write to honor the children’s books of Maurice Sendak, who died this past week.

My first Sendak book was actually authored by Ruth Krauss. A Very Special House was a child’s delight as all normal house rules are suspended:

There’s a bed that’s very special
and a shelf that’s very special
and the chairs are very special
–but it’s not to take a seat–
and the doors are very special
and the walls are very special and
and a table very special where to put your feet feet feet

I reveled in Sendak’s drawings of the main character bouncing on the bed, sleeping on the shelf, climbing on the chairs, swinging on the doors (which are suspended from the ceiling by chains), drawing on the walls, and using the table as a foot stool. His wide smile captures the sheer delight at having a house that is as big as his imagination and with which he can do anything he wants. Krauss’s fantasy has certain affinities with Dr. Seussian home-wrecking Cat in the Hat, a child’s alter ego.

When Sendak started writing his own books, they were often darker—there’s not quite the lighthearted exuberance of A Very Special House in Where the Wild Things Are, Outside Over There, and In the Night Kitchen–but they share this sense that children need a world they can call their own. In a fine New Republic article entitled “Remembering Maurice Sendak, Who Brought Loneliness to Children’s Literature,” Ellen Handler Spitz writes,

Sendak knew from within the profound sense in which every child, from time to time, perceives himself or herself to be alone—an outsider—and feels the need to retreat into some private space, some nook or secret hiding place. Sendak’s books are themselves such places; they can so function even when being read aloud by an adult. Sendak’s supreme gift, as visual artist as well as author, was to discover pictorial as well as verbal and narrative means to portray the existential separateness of childhood.

Because of Sendak, we are far more attuned to the inner life of children than we would otherwise have been. What a gift he gave us!

Added note – As I searched for internet articles on Sendak, I found an interesting 1996 New Republic article by Jed Perl on Sendak’s fascination with the obscure Herman Melville novel Pierre. Learning about this Melville connection gave me a new insight into Sendak’s character Pierre (of his small book “Nutshell” series) who refuses to care, even when a lion is about to eat him: Sendak’s Pierre is Bartleby the Scrivener, who “would prefer not to.” Yes, kids have their Bartleby/Pierre moments just like the rest of us.

Previous Sendak posts

Honoring Our Inner Wild Rumpus

Sendak and Dr. Seuss to the Rescue

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One Comment

  1. Posted May 13, 2012 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    what fun to have the Saturday posts back, Robin! And thanks for highlighting Sendak. He’s always been a family favorite.

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