On this day in 1928, Sadie and Philip Sendak, Polish émigrés living in Brooklyn, welcomed their third child into the world. Maurice Sendak would later report that the home he grew up in was not a happy one. One of the few stories he told about this with precision was that hours before his bar mitzvah his father learned that his entire family in Germany had been wiped out by the Nazis.
Paradoxically perhaps, Maurice Sendak's boyhood made the lives of tens of millions of children somewhat less frightening because of an unlikely literary classic he wrote and illustrated in 1963.
It begins abruptly without a preamble or back story: "The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another, his mother called him ‘WILD THING!' and Max said ‘I'LL EAT YOU UP!' so he was sent to bed without eating anything."
Was that story line, not to mention the monsters he drew, frightening to young kids? Some child psychologists in the '60s thought so, but they needn't have worried. Decade after decade, boys and girls introduced to the story clamored for this miniature masterpiece to be read to them again and again at bedtime.
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Children themselves are living proof of the mantra "small is beautiful." Likewise,
"Where the Wild Things Are" illustrates the adage that in writing, less is often more. The opening line I recited above is the first of only 10 sentences in that book. It's a narrative story with a beginning, middle, and an end -- in 338 words.
Regular readers of this daily note might be thinking that my praising a writer for his economy of language raises a glass house issue. I'll cop to that: I can be long-winded. So in the spirit of brevity I'll end this morning's missive with a couple of quotes from Maurice Sendak himself.
In 2002, he was interviewed by Leonard Marcus, a children's book historian. "I only have one subject," Sendak said. "The question I am obsessed with is: How do children survive?"
I believe he meant more than literally surviving life's reals dangers -- and more than the daunting necessity of leaving childhood behind and taking our place in the world. He also meant how do we retain what's best about our young selves even as we become adults? In 2011, the year before he died, Sendak told NPR's Terry Gross about a little boy named Jim who, apparently with his mother's help, sent the author a fan letter in the form of a card.
Maurice Sendak replied, as he often did, by sending a postcard with a custom drawing of a Wild Thing. This, in turn, prompted a letter from the mother: "Jim loved your card so much he ate it."
"That to me was one of the highest compliments I've ever received," Sendak told Gross. "He didn't care that it was an original drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.