Where the Wild Things Are

By FRANCINE KAPLAN

Maurice Sendak, the incomparable children's author and illustrator of more than eighty books, has managed to capture the imagination of children, the highest awards in the publishing world and the criticism of many adults. The 72-year-old recluse, who grew up in Brooklyn, New York, is also a man whose entire life has been profoundly affected by the Holocaust.

Best known for his 1964 Caldecott Medal-winning work Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak grew up as a sickly, isolated child. He was a teenager when his family began to learn of relatives murdered in Hitler's concentration camps. "My mother would scream and pull her hair and fall to the floor when she found out that someone else was dead," he says.

Sendak, who never married, became fascinated with the photos of those loved ones who were gone forever. "I invented lives for them, and I adored them and loved them." His illustrations and the names he gives his characters have become a way to keep their memory alive. Max, the little boy of Wild Things is one example, as are the names of the stuffed animal recreations of Wild Thing creatures that are sold in stores and labeled Moishe, Sippi, and Bernard. Sendak evoked his murdered relatives to win his parents approval. "I disappointed my parents by not being a regular kid," he says. "Instead of going out to play, I was always listening to music and drawing. This was not an appropriate way to be a child in their eyes. They were not uncaring or cruel, just puzzled."

As he matured, Sendak realized that he could retrieve some of those lost souls through his work, and it became an obsession. With Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories, his parents finally understood. Every face in his pen-and-ink illustrations that accompany Isaac Bashevis Singer's 1966 collection of children's folktales was a portrait of a lost relative salvaged from photo albums--uncles, aunts and cousins he never knew. "It was my gift to my parents and they were so proud and joyful to see again the sweet faces of Peshka, Yankif, Zolma and Molka, all carrying on in my pictures for Singer's shtetl stories," Sendak says. Other works influenced by his Jewish heritage include: Chicken Soup With Rice: A Book of Months, The Sign on Rosie's Door, Outside Over There, and Dear Mili: An Old Tale. Grimly enough, the illustrations in Dear Mili have representations of piled corpses from the concentration camps in some panels.

Sendak has also collaborated with the avant-garde dance troupe Pilobolus to create a Holocaust-themed work called "Selections." His latest endeavor is to bring the children's opera "Brundibar" to the stage. This production was performed by the children at the Therezin concentration camp and used as part of the campaign to show international auditors how well the Nazis were treating Jews. The opera's theme centers on the children's triumph over evil. Keeping the spirit of childhood alive has always been paramount in Sendak's work. His books and illustrations are filled with "the unvanquished child, the child who is putting up a fight and holding off the inevitable, who is growing up and conforming," he says. "There are children, I'm sure you know, who are as good as gold. They frighten me."

This might be viewed as an odd comment from Sendak, who himself has been accused of being frightening. Wild Things caused a flurry of controversy when it was first released. The book features a rebellious child named Max, who talks back to his mother and runs away to an imaginary place. Sendak's towering creatures featuring fangs, large mouths full of teeth, clawed feet and horns, inhabit the land into which Max escapes. Child psychologist Dr. Bruno Bettleheim, who had not read the book, came out against it. Sendak was disparaged for portraying a disobedient youngster and creating images that could frighten an impressionable child. But Sendak delights in being politically incorrect. It is what keeps the child in him alive and maintains his connection with his audience. "I think children are by nature politically incorrect," he says. "You have to learn to be a boring person." He believes that children delight in making new observations and love to speak about those observations, be it a woman in a wheelchair or a man with one eye. "To the child it's an enchanting miracle of life."

Sendak's work, often on the edge much of the time, is also courageous in its execution. He has single-handedly changed the face of children's literature by redefining what is appropriate content for young readers. But Sendak says he just did what came naturally. "My entire life has been devoted to telling children the truth to the best of my ability."