I spend a lot of time trying to understand just what is going on in my daughter Sasha’s head. She’s nearly 3 and a half now, and while she can be quite articulate, that doesn’t mean her stories and commentary make any kind of sense. She conflates yesterday and today, she rides elephants, she is pursued by mothers and by monsters. There’s a baby brother in her belly and one day it’s going to pop right out! Her birthday is today, it was a long time ago, it’s coming up next. To play with her—to play with most young children, really—is difficult, because she’s following a line of logic that has become foreign to me. What exactly are we hiding from under this blanket? What am I supposed to know about baby jaguars? And how can I participate in this game in a way that feels natural to us both?
Sasha’s language—the words and thoughts of an imaginative child—is the language that Maurice Sendak, who died today, never forgot. To read his books is to immerse yourself in the imagination not of an adult trying to guess what kids like, but of someone who speaks like them, writes like them, thinks like them.
“Where the Wild Things Are” is, of course, the one that everyone cites, because its narrative flow most closely mimics that of a kid’s story. When Max goes off in his boat “through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year,” that’s a child’s sense of time. He cows the Wild Things by staring them in the eyes—a child’s trick that seems impossible. And while the Wild Rumpus seems like a kid’s fantasy comes true, it’s the sudden shift afterwards, when Max decides he needs to return home, that rings most true. Kids are moody, their unfathomable ecstasy followed by bottomless longing.
That said, “Where the Wild Things Are” was never a favorite of mine, or of Sasha’s. Lately, we’ve been reading the Nutshell Library, and in particular “Pierre,” whose beautiful refrain—”I don’t care!”—Sasha voices while I read the parents’ (and lion’s) lines. “They pulled the lion by the hair, they hit him with the folding chair. His mother asked, ‘Where is Pierre?’ The lion answered, ‘I don’t care!’ His father said, ‘Pierre’s in there!'” God, it’s brilliant—that driving rhythm, the specificity of the folding chair, the insistent rhyme. And it has chapters! To hear Sasha say, “Chapter 2,” as we turn that page is pretty neat. Her first chapter book, and she can hold it in the palm of her hand.
My other favorite is A Hole Is to Dig, which Sendak illustrated but did not write. In fact, its putative author, Ruth Krauss, didn’t exactly write it either. Rather, she got its lines from actual children, whom she asked for definitions of regular things: “A face,” they told her, “is so you can make faces.” More:
- A hand is to hold up when you want your turn
- Grass it to have on the ground with dirt under it and clover in it
- Mashed potatoes are to give everybody enough
And all around these lines—dancing, digging, making faces, and holding up their hands—are Sendak’s children, making sense of the world as best they can. Let’s hope the man himself is now in a place where there’s mashed potatoes a-plenty, and everyone understands how he thinks.