Let the Wild Rumpus Start: The Power of Maurice Sendak
Yesterday morning, as the New York Times published their obituary of one of the world’s most beloved illustrators, Maurice Sendak, I watched the mourning spread across the queer Internet. His quotes came up in Facebook statuses, user pictures changed to picture books, twitter users tweeted links to YouTube interviews , as slowly, collectively, we grappled with the realization there would never again be a new Maurice Sendak book. All day his name has come up in nearly every conversation, and I’ve struggled to put into words the impact of his work on my life. I still can’t describe how lonely it is here in the night kitchen, knowing that he’s gone.
As hard as it is for me to believe as I look at my bookshelves today, Maurice Sendak’s books were not favorites of my biological childhood. It was only as a queer adult that I found his stories disappeared into the worlds he created, tattooed them onto my body and dog-eared their pages the way others do bible passages. As a kid growing up in an abusive home I instinctively stayed away from dangerous books that offered hope of escape. I was so consumed by fear and the threat of violence that I couldn’t imagine that I’d be lucky enough to get away, and then I did. See, the truth is I grew up to be a little boy, a leather boy, but little all the same. Part of my tools and tricks for surviving and thriving in the complicated darkness of the world, has been about embracing and recreating a childhood I never had and consciously choosing to believe in magic. Thus, my queerness is a big part of why Sendak’s beliefs about the false boundaries between childhood and adulthood resonate so deeply with me.
“I said anything I wanted because I don’t believe in children, I don’t believe in childhood. I don’t believe that there’s a demarcation.” He went onto say, “I have adult thoughts and experiences in my head but I’m never going to talk about them. Why is my needle stuck in childhood? I don’t know why. I guess that’s where my heart is.” My needle too is stuck in childhood, in an effort to bring magic and fantasy into the darkness of our world, which perhaps is at the core of why I connect so deeply with Sendak’s work.
One of the subtle but powerful messages that run through Sendak’s stories is to be fully present, to take joy in the moment- something that, as adults with jobs and deadlines, we often struggle with. Life, Sendak taught us is about ‘making mischief of one kind or another’ and always dreaming up the worlds and friends that we need. I think Sendak captured this brilliantly when he spoke of one of the highest compliments he ever received:
Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.
How much happier would we all be if we saw it, loved it, ate it? I think there are few things more worthy of aspiring to.
Tonight as I flip through the pages of his books I’m again, as always, taken aback by the depth of his work. Sendak’s stories contain a magic that is all at once joyful, dark, and very queer. Sendak gave us a place to play, and a place to be wild. He gave us permission to run away in our own private boat, to a queer place where we can roar our terrible roars and gnash our terrible teeth, where we can be king of the wild things, and eat each other up.
Maurice Sendak was more than a beloved author and illustrator of children’s books; he was also an outlaw. He didn’t do safe work, he was an out gay man, and his books have been censored, banned and deemed inappropriate as often as they have been treasured. He did not shy away from the darkness in the world. Sendak instinctively knew that, “from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.” One of my most favorite Maurice Sendak quotes comes from a TasteShots interview. Referring to creativity, he said:
Artists have to take a dive. And either you hit your head on a rock and you split your head and die or the blow to the head is so inspiring that you come back up and do the best work you ever did. But you have to take the dive. And you do not know what the result will be.
I keep that quote posted above my writing desk as inspiration, part of a commitment to not hold back, to always do the dangerous creative work. I believe that it is our responsibility as queer writers to ensure that we don’t stop dreaming and imagining, no matter how dark it is tonight in his absence. We must continue to write the dangerous stories, the ones we were told not to tell, or we think will kill us to admit. We must write the stories that will get us banned and censored; we must get mixed into the batter, skim milk from the milky way and ensure that there is always “cake in the morning. ” For it is the only way we can dream of taming the Wild Things that haunt us.
And now, I can’t help but think there is no more fitting tribute than for each of us to “Let the Wild Rumpus Start.”