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Maurice Sendak rewrote the rules with 'Wild Things'

The children's picture book didn't idealize childhood, and in turn it inspired director Spike Jonze.

October 11, 2009|Scott Timberg

An angry boy, talking monsters and a six-page, wordless wild rumpus: When Maurice Sendak sat down to write what would become "Where the Wild Things Are," he didn't quite know what he was getting into.

"I didn't have a social conscience that I was doing anything different," Sendak, 81, says from his Connecticut home. Mostly, the Brooklyn-born illustrator, then in his early 30s, was excited to tackle his first full picture book. "It was all my own and in full color. It's hard to imagine now, with everyone doing them. But emancipating children was far from my mind."

He certainly didn't aim to rewrite the history of children's literature. But those 10 sentences -- which tell of an unruly boy who is sent to bed without supper and sails to a magical land where he's worshiped by an odd cast of animal-inspired creatures -- turned Sendak into more than just a famous writer.

"I became," Sendak reflects, "a troublesome person: They expected something from me that would be trouble."

The young Sendak also couldn't have known that a shy kid growing up in New Jersey in the early '70s would be read the book by his mother and have his head turned around.

"As a kid, I felt like I could fall into those drawings, just disappear," says director Spike Jonze, 39, whose long-awaited film adaptation of the storybook, scripted with novelist Dave Eggers, opens Friday. "I've just recently realized how powerful picture books are before you can read. There's this entire world there."

The production, which began with discussions between Sendak and Jonze in the mid-'90s, came close to disappearing altogether because of creative differences between director and studio. And though it could still be a Gen-X "Heaven's Gate" with its cost overruns into the millions beyond its original $80-million budget, it has also -- thanks in part to a dynamic trailer -- become one of the most anticipated films of the year.

A mixed reaction to the film would mirror the book's initial reception.

"Wild Things" became the kind of controversial work that draws denunciations -- child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim urged parents to keep away from it -- and helps transform its field.

But Sendak had advocates as well. Finally, they said, a writer who takes children seriously, who moves beyond a sentimentalized view of childhood. Today, he's a hero to artists, including Meryl Streep and Tony Kushner, both of whom spoke at an 80th birthday celebration for Sendak last year, and he's been called an important influence on writers as diverse as Chris Van Allsburg ("The Polar Express"), Brian Selznick ("The Invention of Hugo Cabret") and Neil Gaiman.

Sendak's next breakout, "In the Night Kitchen," from 1970, included an anatomically correct boy hero and was banned by libraries while winning many of the field's highest honors. (If it was known then -- as Sendak revealed last year -- that the author is gay, the controversy might have played out much more disastrously.)

"I don't think it's possible to overestimate Sendak's influence on the 20th century," says Susan Patron, the Los Angeles-based author of "Lucky Breaks" and a retired children's librarian. "And not only in the field of children's literature but in the broadest cultural context."

Jonze has also made the 40-minute "Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak," which will air Wednesday on HBO. "How crazy is it that he invented those monsters?" Jonze asks. "Those creatures seem like they always existed. They seem like they were always there."

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Cultural revolution

Six years before "Wild Things," Dr. Seuss' similarly anarchic "The Cat in the Hat" was released; the year after Sendak's book, a group of long-haired Englishmen crashed the U.S. pop music charts. The same forces that reshaped American culture in the postwar era were redrawing books for children as well.

Sendak, who spent much of the '50s illustrating the works of others, including the "Little Bear" series, describes typical postwar kids books as "training manuals. How to behave, what was acceptable and not acceptable. In other words, boring. And a complete misunderstanding of the nature of children."

"Those years saw people new to college, new to the suburbs, new to the middle class," says Seth Lerer, author of the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning "Children's Literature: A Readers' History From Aesop to Harry Potter." Mainstream kids stories, then, helped orient these new arrivals, whether immigrants or veterans getting a boost from the GI Bill.

In one of the Little Golden Books popular at the time, "Scuffy the Tugboat" gets too big for his britches, ventures down a stream, then happily returns home. In another, things are put right by a resourceful lad dubbed "Doctor Dan, the Bandage Man." Award-winning books recapped nursery rhymes and celebrated Tom Paine.

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