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Maurice Sendak: 'Childhood Is A Very Difficult Time Of Life'

Children's book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, points to a 3-year-old fan Marcus Gabrielli as he signed autographs in New York.
AP Photo/Mike Appleton
Children's book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, points to 3-year-old Marcus Gabrielli as he signed autographs in New York.

Did Maurice Sendak, author of "Where The Wild Things Are," talk to kids about his work?

It was 1991, and Sendak had come into the KUOW studios for an interview with Ross Reynolds on “Seattle  Afternoon.”  

“No, it just confuses them,” Sendak said. “They don’t know what you’re talking about.”

At book signings, Sendak said mothers would shove their kids forward and say, “Honey” – in a drawn-out, nasally voice – “this is the man who wrote your favorite book.”

“And then they would sort of hug the book like, 'I’ve been standing in line when I’m desperate to go to the bathroom for an hour – to meet this elderly man sitting behind a table?'” Sendak said. “They have no comprehension of what that means.”

But the mothers would persist.

“The mother urges them forward because now she’s embarrassed at how back they’ve gone,” Sendak said. “’Honey, you waited all day. This is the man who wrote ‘The Wild Things.’ Give him your book.’”

“And you see the look on the face. ‘No, I don’t want to give him my book.’”

Sometimes, though, the kids engaged. In San Francisco, a 4-year-old boy hurled his book on the signing table. He’d grown grumpy waiting in line.

“I guess I had an expression on my face, a little bit hurt or something, because he came around,” Sendak said. “As I was writing, he put his head in the crook of my arm, just rested his chin like he was tired. He put his whole head there, and he said, ‘Hi, are you Maurice?’ With a sort of cunning smile, because he knew I was.”

“Do you hate your name?” the boy asked.

“I sure do,” Sendak said.

“Hey Maurice,” the boy asked again. “Are you tough guy? Are you tough guy, man?”

“It was a wonderful conversation,” Sendak recalled. “It was just glorious, because I didn’t know where any of it was coming from in his head. And it was kind of easy entering into another person’s psyche the way children have a way of doing. There’s no introductions, no formalities, you just dive in, and you make yourself at home in somebody else’s head. Only kids do that.

“Most of us go through this rigmarole of introductions and twistings and turnings and gyrations and, ‘Did he say that? Did he mean that? She said that?’ Kids are easy that way.”

But Sendak also said that adults must be aware that it’s tough to be a kid. He recalled his own childhood, which he called normal.

“I had good parents, hard-working parents,” he said. “I didn't suffer, except I did simply because I was a human animal, and childhood is a very, very, very difficult time of life. It's great, and it's wonderful when you have fun; I don't mean to sound like Old Man Mose about it. I'm just adding to it.”

But adults paint a false picture of childhood, he said.

“You can have the pastel picture, but you've got to have the other shaded pictures to go with it,” Sendak said. “Those are the pictures I provide, because I think children need to know that we are out there supporting them, and that we are conscious of this dimmer side of their lives.”

People always want to protect children from that darker side, he said.

“We all do not want them to suffer,” he said. “But in point of fact, we can’t protect them.

"Children know by osmosis, practically, that somebody might die or they will be left or, 'Who will feed me?' Or, 'Where is Daddy?' There's no protecting them. So rather than pretend, you can be honest with them. Love them more. Take care of them better. There's all kinds of things to do except lie to them."

Produced for the Web by Isolde Raftery.