This morning I woke up to the news that Maurice Sendak had died and throughout the day I’ve seen post after post and tweet after tweet about Where the Wild Things Are, arguably his most famous book. I love it–impossible not to, in my opinion–but it has never been my favorite book of his.
My favorite is Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and a Prologue. When I was very little my mother would read me a tiny copy that was part of our book collection. It was just a couple of inches tall and I think the size of it was part of its appeal. I discovered later that it’s a part of a set of four called the “nutshell library” and immediately bought the set, which I now read to my boys.
It’s a silly story about a very rude little boy and the consequences he suffers as a result of his behavior. Pierre repeats, “I don’t care” no matter what he’s asked and does things his parents tell him not to. Like all of Sendak’s books, it’s just a little bit scary. The things that scared me the most where that his parents left him all alone because he was bad and, of course, that he gets eaten by a lion. In the end Pierre is extracted from the lion and his parents are relieved and do love him even though he is a difficult child. The lion turns out to be very nice and Pierre’s habit of not caring has been broken. But I always left that story with a slightly uneasy feeling anyway and I think that was also part of the book’s appeal.
My second favorite, another one my mother read me, is Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More To Life. In this book Jennie, a pampered lap dog, leaves her home to find “experience.” This book also borders on absolute creepiness with Jennie being a part of several weird and dangerous situations, but there is a lot of silliness too. For instance, sandwich boards that, instead of just being advertising, have sandwiches in them. Jennie eats several–she likes to eat.
I had that slightly uneasy feeling after my mother finished this story too. These are books that are meant to leave you with a sense that there is real danger in the world and real consequences to your actions. To this day I enjoy books that make me feel a little uncomfortable, that through fiction bring me closer to some realities than I’ve ever been. Whether that’s a result of being read Maurice Sendak books as a child or simply part of human nature, I don’t know, but Sendak certainly didn’t dampen it. His tales were the kindling on a fire that has driven me to understand stories, both fictional and real.
I’m sad that he’s gone.