Looking Deeper into Maurice Sendak’s Children’s Books

Sarah Harrison Smith on June 15, 2017

Cott-Sendak225Maurice Sendak, perhaps the greatest of all children’s book authors, told Bill Moyers in a PBS interview that as a child, his lack of self-confidence led him to “hide inside this modest form called a picture book and express myself entirely.  I wasn’t going to paint or do ostentatious drawings or gallery pictures, I would just hide somewhere where nobody would ever find me.”

But found he was—by the art historians, teachers, parents, and above all, the children who loved his books. Higglety Piggety Pop; The Sign on Rosie’s Door; Chicken Soup with Rice; Pierre: Sendak’s varied illustration style and his determined, bossy, gleeful, intent children and animals remain enormously appealing and resonate with deep pleasures and fears.

Jonathan Cott, a writer for Rolling Stone and The New Yorker who knew and worked with Sendak on Sendak’s Victorian Color Picture Books, has written extensively and sensitively about children’s literature before. In his newest book, There’s A Mystery There: The Primal Vision of Maurice Sendak, Cott takes on Sendak’s most intriguing work, Outside Over There, the final volume in the trilogy Sendak began with Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen.

In Outside Over There, Sendak tells the story of a brave little girl, Ida, who saves her baby sister from goblins. But that simple description leaves out everything important. Cott, in conversation with Sendak, Freudian and Jungian analysts, art historian Jane Doonan, and Sendak’s friend, Angels In America playwright Tony Kushner, examines what makes this book a masterpiece.

Sendak produced Outside Over There with great difficulty. Cott says, “In the process of working on the book, he experienced what he described as a ‘mental collapse,’ confessing that he had ‘fallen off a ladder that goes down deep into the unconscious,’ but by climbing back up and completing it he confronted and conquered the inner goblins that had kidnapped his childhood soul.” 

Visually and thematically, the book reflects and refers to Sendak’s obsessions. Mozart’s Magic Flute (Sendak was also working on stage sets for the opera at the time); the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby, a news story that had troubled Sendak as a child; the paintings of William Blake; Bernini’s sculpture of “Saint Theresa in Ecstacy”; the Northern Romantic paintings of Caspar David Friedrich – all can be found in Outside Over There.

While those references are more or less personal to Sendak, the psychoanalytic readings of the book by Dr. Richard M. Gottlieb and Margaret Klenck speak to concerns about growing up, mothering, rage and affection that are both personal to Sendak and universal. The dream-story structure of the book leads Gottlieb to reflect that “Freud himself noted that all the characters in a dream represent aspects of the dreamer”—useful advice to anyone trying to make sense of fairy tales, too.

Like fairy tales, Sendak’s books have something to say to readers of any age, and Cott’s There’s a Mystery There offers several different approaches to seeing more deeply into his work. Whether you’re reading Sendak’s books aloud to children, or enjoying them alone, Cott shows the ways Sendak used them to surface his intellectual interests and the playful and sometimes serious “wild things” that resided deep in his memories. Sendak’s genius shines through, despite his attempts to hide in children’s books’ “modest form.” The question is really whether that form was ever modest in the first place.

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