The news came, as it often does for me these days, via Facebook, as a trickle of comments and "RIP"s became a flood. As you might expect, my friends on Facebook are a fairly musical and culturally attuned group; as with Dick Clark and the Beastie Boys' Adam Yauch before him, news of Maurie Sendak's death was met with a combination of sadness and appreciation, NPR links and YouTube embeds. Amberly was the first of many to link to the excellent New York Times obituary, which noted that the 83-year-old Sendak died Tuesday of complications from a stroke.
We have exactly three Maurice Sendak books around our house. They are three different editions of the same book, Where the Wild Things Are. The only other book in our house we have three copies of is the Bible, and even though we go to church on a regular basis, I think we probably read Sendak's book more. But it's also clear that we're not some huge Sendak obsessives. While we have the excellent DVD collection of animated stories (affiliate link), we've never seen the Spike Jonze live-action movie. Why, then, do I feel the need to write an appreciation for an illustrator whose presence could be attributed to the power of his publishing house than anything else?
Well, first off, it's a great book and while Sendak's illustrations and his stories could be argued to have opened the door to a much broader range of literature for kids, the door hasn't been busted off the hinge quite yet. Where the Wild Things Are would still be considered different and unusual (and great) even if it were released today, 49 years after it was originally released.
But more importantly, I think Sendak's career is illustrative of the power of sticking to your muse. There's no Return to Where the Wild Things Are or a spin-off featuring the bakers from In the Night Kitchen. Instead there are operas and music books and whatever else struck his fancy. Yes, he hit it lucky in how Where the Wild Things Are struck such a chord with readers and critics -- no massive success like that can be solely attributed to its creator. But that was after twelve years of illustrating books, both of others and of his own. And even after that blazing success, he continued following his own path, lighting up the imaginations of children and children-at-heart.
I would never suggest that a goal for one's life is to get an obituary in the New York Times. I would suggest, however, that hearing that creative spark inside you, listening to the world around you, and focusing on those things are what let you make that dent upon the universe, what draws an appreciative world to say "thanks." There are many worse ways to live a life.
Two videos to finish this off. First, a five-minute interview by the Tate Museum with Sendak from a couple years ago. I can't emphasize how impressive Sendak is in this interview and how well it ties into this appreciation. His comment on sequel to Wild Things is priceless.
Second, this is a kids music blog. Can't go without the music. From Carole King's adaptation of Sendak's "Nutshell Gang" books:
Carole King - "Alligators All Around" [YouTube]