Thoughts on Maurice Sendak and Children’s Literature

The world lost an amazing inspiration, innovator, and teacher this week with the passing of Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of many popular children’s books. What really made me want to write something about this is the fact that when I relayed the news of his death to my family, their response was “Who??”, and upon reminding them his accomplishments like Where the Wild Things AreLittle Bear (illustrator), One Was Johnny, and Really Rosie, their memories flowed back, and we all drifted back to our personal childhood recollections of enjoying his work.

I’m not going to tell you that I am the biggest Sendak fan, I haven’t read or seen all of his works. I’d be the first to tell you that Where the Wild Things Are was not my fave, in neither book nor movie format (but I seriously prefer the book; even the hip Arcade Fire and Karen O. & the Kids soundtrack couldn’t save the 2009 film for me). However, when I remember a deep childhood connection to Maurice Sendak, it all starts with the complacent and fundamental world that was built around the character of Little Bear. While the actually stories for Little Bear were written by Else Holmelund Minarik, the first five books of the series were illustrated by Maurice Sendak, and I remember falling in love with the drawings and fitting myself into Little Bear’s adventures. There was something so beautiful and simple about the detail that Sendak put into those illustrations that resonated well with me. When Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear came to children’s television as an animated feature, I watched nearly every episode, even when I was out of the age range, simply because of how deep a connection I had with the character, stories, and illustrations. I loved seeing my favorite children’s stories brought to life (outside of my head).

I could never pinpoint why, but I was the type of kid who loved to read. And when I use the word “love” I mean, I was the sort of kid who came home from the public library with milk crates full of books — nearly half of which I would read in the same afternoon that I returned home. I could attribute my strong desire to read to my wanting to do homework like my older brother, therefore, starting to read and write early, or the fact that my mother was a childcare provider and a substitute teacher during my developmental years, or even the fact that both my parents were brought up in meager means situations and wanted to encourage active learning and education on their children. Whatever the cause, I was not only encouraged to read very early, but I was also reading and writing at an advanced level by age four, and my literacy skills continued to thrive as I grew older. When I trace back my love of reading it always takes me back to those early children’s books that I read, and how those experiences are still fresh in my mind. Those books helped me learn how to animate words and ideas, creating my own understanding of the world through words and imagery, and illustrating my perspective of the situations in my head. That is such a powerful tool for children. Reading as a child offers us our first opportunities to use and understand our minds by ourselves; even when parents read to and explain stories to children, it is the child who has to develop and accept their own understanding.

Sendak’s works, along with other author-illustrators such as Patricia Polacco, the Berenstains, and Steven Kellogg are some of the earliest that I came to recognize with just a quick glance, and that is a powerful hold to have on a small child. Once you’ve got a child’s attention visually, you can have a great impact. I think that is what Sendak’s death has symbolized to me today. Suddenly, I was faced with losing someone whom I never know personally, but whose works and contributions to this world had a profound impact on me at a very young age. We tend to forget about those early children’s books and nursery rhymes that were the building blocks to reading and activating our minds. And so, I mourn the death of someone who gave so much to me, and who saw the endless possibilities in inspiring the young minds, but I also celebrate his life, contributions, and the knowledge that his work will continue to inspire children for many lifetimes to come. I also celebrate all the authors, illustrators, and creators out there for children’s literature, music, and activities. These are the people who recognize that the real potential in our future starts with those little minds who will grow up to change the world.

Also, thanks to Kimya Dawson for posting Maurice Sendak’s “Really Rosie” television special on her blog. Another contribution form Sendak that is still a relevant fixture in my life. I hadn’t watched the show since I was about 8, but in the many years since then have still had its theme song and crazy-hat-wearing heroine pop up in my brain from time to time. And with the music by Carole King, no wonder I never forgot it. 🙂

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