IN THE DAYS before the Berenstain Bears and R.L. Stine's imaginative Goosebumps series seized the market, the work of Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are, 1963) rested high on the list of best-selling children's books. Although it has lately been overshadowed by other artists and writers, Sendak's work has been widely influential--John Cech even attributes The Troggs' 1967 pop hit "Wild Thing" to his most famous book, although that may be a bit of a stretch--and has spawned many imitators. But no one else quite commands Sendak's range of cultural reference, to say nothing of his mastery of form.
Over the course of his 30-odd published books (each of which has spawned many editions in many languages), Sendak has established a style at once fantastic and realistic. "Mine was a childhood," Cech quotes Sendak as saying, "colored with memories of village life in Poland, never actually experienced but passed on to me as a persuasive reality by my immigrant parents." Like another artist operating under the same influences, Marc Chagall, Sendak incorporated whole worlds in tiny brush strokes, as seen in the pages of books like Outside Over There and In the Night Kitchen.
And those worlds are wonderful places to visit, as millions of readers have learned.
Cech captures Sendak's life and spirit in this fluently written, heavily illustrated biography and critical study. A professor of children's literature, he easily connects Sendak's body of work to several traditions, incorporating both folkloric and psychological viewpoints. He also makes an interesting case for seeing Sendak as something of a natural anarchist who urges adults to strip away what Freud called "blessed amnesia," to reclaim the wonder and innocence of childhood, to encourage children to resist rules and to remember--shades of Kropotkin--that they "must care for other children and depend on other children for survival."
For that reason, perhaps, Sendak's books remain today among those censors private and public constantly seek to keep out of children's hands, books that ask children to believe in the possibility of worlds better than our own. Anyone who believes in just that possibility will want to own a shelf full of Sendak's work, and this handsome companion volume as well.
By Gregory McNamee
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