I’ve never really understood why we as a culture experience grief at the passing of celebrities. I had a conversation about this last week after observing the outpouring of sadness in various pockets of the Internet over the death of MCA – a person whose music was an integral part of formative periods of many of our (though not my) lives. To the best of my knowledge, no one that I know personally knew Adam Yauch, or will feel his absence in their day-to-day lives – and yet many were shedding tears over his death, just as many did over Steve Jobs a few months ago, or Michael Jackson a few years ago. I don’t get it.
That said, I gasped when I heard the news of Maurice Sendak’s passing this morning. Much has already been written about him, and in much more eloquent ways than I can manage, but that gasp of sadness seems justification enough for adding my words to the pile.
Perhaps it will come as no surprise that I was a bookish kid, or that books (and my thumb and blanket) were my truest friends from early childhood. This photo of my brother and I circa 1984 was taken at my aunt’s apartment in Iowa City, where I first remember encountering the stories and illustrations of Maurice Sendak. In fact, if you look closely, I think that the stack next to Mark includes one of the Little Bear books, illustrated by Sendak.
I remember reading The Nutshell Library with my aunt, the small books just the right size for a child’s hands. We read In the Night Kitchen – what a strange story – and I remember experiencing a thrill of the forbidden because Mickey is naked as he gets baked into the morning cake. And of course – Where the Wild Things Are. The story and illustrations figure large in the imagination of people my age – larger than the monsters who threaten to eat Max up because they don’t want him to go.
For a year, I lived in an apartment with the beginnings of murals on the walls of my living room. There was the Lorax, speaking for the trees, and Curious George, reaching for the hand of The Man in the Yellow Hat. And then, in the west and north corners of the room, a pair of Wild Things:
The Wild Things cemented my love for that apartment, and were the source of wonder for friends who visited, and confusion for those who woke up on the couch to a lovingly menacing face:
And I loved – and continue to love – his illustrations for The Animal Family, a small and magical book about a hunter, a mermaid, a bear, a lynx, and a child. That a war poet and a noted curmudgeon could create a world so intricate, sensitive, deliberate, and wonderful – it gives me chills.
“I have nothing now but praise for my life. I’m not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more. … What I dread is the isolation. … There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.”
So today I am sad because this amazingly talented and insightful person is no longer in the world – that monsters, both real and imagined, will go undrawn. And I’m grateful for all the magic his work brought to the lives of so many children, young and old, for so many years.