In the Shadow of the Holocaust, Murray Sendak Shows Us Ourselves
As someone who grew up reading Little Golden Books in which mommies and daddies take care of their obedient children, I like how Maurice Sendak’s stories, by contrast, dive right into the fray of real life—warts and all. As a librarian, I also appreciate what a pioneer Sendak was and how his stories and illustrations broke barriers in children’s literature. I love the edgy realness of his characters—and especially relate to bratty Pierre of I-don’t-care fame who reminds me of my young self answering my own mother. Sendak’s kids are not gift wrapped with pretty paper or shiny bows. Like him, they’re real and gritty and honest.
Sendak was not a mainstream guy; he ignored conventional rules. Lower class, Jewish and gay, he only wanted to be straight, so his parents could be happy, he told The New York Times in a 2008 interview. “They never, never, never knew.” Add in his sickly growing-up years, the Depression, World War II and the Holocaust (in which many of his family’s relatives perished), as well as the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby in 1932, and is it any wonder that little Murray Sendak was anything but fearful and insecure in his Bensonhurst apartment? Is it any wonder that these fears and insecurities are reflected heavily in his works?
In 1969, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who never actually read Sendak’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are, chastised him in a Ladies’ Home Journal advice column for punishing Max, criticism that haunted Sendak for years. A 2005 exhibit at the Jewish Museum exhibited 140 pieces of Sendak’s work, and explained how strongly the Holocaust influenced his drawings. Quoted in a 2011 essay, Sendak said, “I developed characters who were like me as a child, like the children I knew growing up in Brooklyn—we were wild creatures. So to me, Max is a normal child, a little beast, just as we are all little beasts. But he upset a lot of people at the time.”
With Sendak leading the charge, children’s literature certainly has come a long way since the Golden Book era. A Jew who rejected Judaism, Sendak leaves us with a deep legacy of how the Holocaust surely shaped him, and continues to resonate in us. I agree with Margalit Fox, who notes in her obituary of Sendak his enthusiasm for “the essential rightness of children’s perceptions of the world around them.”