Like the children in his books, Maurice Sendak, at age 83, is doing the best he can to navigate a frightening and bewildering world. “We all have to find our way,” Sendak says in this revealing little film from the Tate museums. “If I could find my way through picture-making and book illustration, or whatever you want to call it, I’d be okay.”
In books like In the Night Kitchen, Where the Wild Things Are and Outside, Over There, Sendak has explored the wonders–and terrors–of childhood. “No one,” wrote Dave Eggers recently in Vanity Fair, “has been more uncompromising, more idiosyncratic, and more in touch with the unhinged and chiaroscuro subconscious of a child.”
Sendak’s own childhood in Brooklyn, New York, was a time of emotional trauma. His parents were Polish immigrants who had trouble adjusting to life in America. On the day of Sendak’s barmitzvah, his father learned that his entire family had been killed in the Holocaust. He remembered the sadness of looking through family scrapbooks. “The shock of thinking I would never know them was terrible,” Sendak told the Guardian earlier this year. “Who were they?”
This early sense of the precariousness of life carried over into his work. As the playwright Tony Kushner wrote of Sendak in 2003:
Maurice, among the best of the best, shocks deeply, touching on the mortal, the insupportably sad or unjust, even on the carnal, on the primal rather than the merely primitive. He pitches children, including aged children, out of the familiar and into mystery, and then into understanding, wisdom even. He pitches children through fantasy into human adulthood, that rare, hard-won and, let’s face it, tragic condition.