Illustrator Mark Greene’s tribute to one of the greatest children’s books authors and illustrators of all time.
The news today of children’s book author Maurice Sendak’s death transported me instantly to the twilight forest of his most famous book, Where the Wild Things Are.
There are very few people in the western world who don’t know Sendak’s work. He wrote and/or illustrated over 100 books, the most famous being Where The Wild Things Are. If I had to pick one book for my child, and only one, it would be that one.
I don’t know my exact age when I first read Where the Wild Things Are. Maybe seven? When Max, the book’s young protagonist, was sent to his room for being bad, something happened that struck me like a thunderbolt the first time I saw it unfold. Max’s room was transformed into a magical forest. That series of illustrations depicting leaves sprouting from the bedposts, becoming a dark and mysterious forest, impacted me on such a profound level that I have yet to feel that resonance end in my life.
For many children, the real world is not always an easy place to live in. But Sendak showed us that there is a way out of the humdrum and sometimes brutal day to day. That a room doesn’t have be just be a room. That if we need to, we can create our own worlds and live in those instead when we need a respite, a sanctuary.
Sendak was willing to scare his readers a bit; make us wonder if things really would turn out okay. There is a gentle pathos in his work, lurking just beyond the edge of the darkened forest; just up a delicately crafted flight of stairs. I like to think in adding a touch of the darkness, he’s reminding us that uncertainty is the most potent form of magic. That uncovering the unknown is sometimes the very best part of any worthwhile adventure.
As an illustrator, I can tell you that Sendak was an unparalleled master. A virtuoso of the highest order. His illustrations create twilight worlds that hang in our imaginations long after we close his books. I can look at his drawings for hours because the expressions on his characters are so deeply real. How he did it is a mystery. It comes in the eloquent motion of his pencil and pen. Right now, I can see another of his characters, Little Bear, in my mind’s eye with his funny winter hat on, his paws crossed, talking to his mother.
I never met the man, but I love Mr. Sendak. I love him because of what he created in his wonderful books, allowing us to see the power of imagination made manifest. When Maurice Sendak made forests and oceans and wild things out of Max’s simple bedroom, he led the way for all of us to do that same. And that has transformed more lives than we can ever know.
So, thank you so very very much, Mr. Sendak. And tell Max “hi” for me.