Maurice Sendak and his uncle

Maurice Sendak

Let me start by saying I never met Maurice Sendak, the exceptional author and illustrator of children’s books. But  I’d like speak about my reaction to something he once said :

After Sendak passed away last week, NPR replayed a 2006 interview with him (below). In it he talks about how his fury at his aunts and uncles drove his work – in particular his uncle’s comment to Maurice Sendak’s father that nobody would want to kidnap his children.

I’d like to offer a different take on the uncle’s statement that I feel I owe to my empathetic mother, who couldn’t bear even her own anger.

Naturally, a child might feel anger at what seemed to be a hurtful snub. I certainly would have as a boy myself.

But as an adult, I’d like to suggest an alternate explanation. Seeing the anxiety in his brother’s face, might not the uncle’s words have been meant to comfort and reassure his brother? Why indeed should Maurice Sendak’s father be concerned? Was his the family of a celebrity millionaire? Was there a kidnapping of a similar child in his neighborhood.

What I’m suggesting is not that the Sendaks’ reaction was extreme. We all feel personally threatened hearing news of notorious crimes.  But later in life, shouldn’t an adult look deeper? I’m not suggesting any kind of parity with the great author, but shouldn’t a writer see the world with more nuance than does a child?

NPR Narrative … Another book features a baby being kidnapped, just as the Lindbergh baby was famously kidnapped when Sendak was a boy.

MAURICE SENDAK: I had my father sleep in our room. We all shared a room, my brother, sister and I. And he had to sleep – and I still can see him with his underwear top, trousers, a baseball bat lying on the floor. And in case the kidnapper came in, he would kill him. And when my Uncle Joe – who I then used as the ugliest of all the Wild Things, because I loathed him – was – he said to my father: Why would they want your kids, Phillip?


SENDAK: How insulting could that be to a child, when he isn’t worthy of being kidnapped?

INSKEEP: Have you now gotten even with the people who made your childhood unhappy?

SENDAK: No, of course not. But, you know, being in a fury and not getting even is a lot of the energy that goes into work.

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