How Wild Was the Work of Maurice Sendak?

Do his books celebrate wildness—or teach us to master it?

In 2003, Ann Hulbert reconsidered the themes of Maurice Sendak’s work in a review of Brundibar, the book he co-authored with playwright Tony Kushner. Her article is reprinted below:

When Maurice Sendak published Where the Wild Things Are 40 years ago, both fans and detractors called him a Wild Thing. Until then, he’d been best known as the illustrator of Else Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear books, which launched Harper & Row’s “I Can Read” line in 1957. But here was Sendak making mischief of one kind and another in a picture book all his own as the 1960s got under way. Gone was the tractable (and adorable) cub who had lured baby boomers like me into reading by themselves. Gone, too, was the attentive mother of those stories, so deft in dealing with her furry 5-year-old’s fledgling efforts to define his identity. Instead Sendak had conjured up a hellion in a wolf suit (Max is a classic 4-year-old) whose fed-up mother sends him to bed without dinner. And Sendak had created a centerfold of cavorting monsters—a rumpus he dared to let loose on a younger read-aloud crowd.

Librarians issued warnings—“It is not a book to be left where a sensitive child might come upon it at twilight,” one worried—and Sendak won the much-coveted Caldecott Award for the book in 1964. He couldn’t have asked for a better ticket out of the tame confines of what he has derided as “Kiddiebookland.” Joining Dr. Seuss (whose antic The Cat in the Hat debuted the same year as Little Bear), Sendak acquired the status of an “agent of revolution and liberation,” as Tony Kushner puts it in the forthcoming Art of Maurice Sendak.

In fact, Sendak is something arguably more subversive than that: an agent of sublimation. From Little Bear (and before) on through his collaboration with Kushner on his new picture book, Brundibar, Sendak stands out in postwar children’s literature as America’s most imaginative spokesman for, as Freud would say, the reality principle. Mischief-maker though he is, Max lays down the law to the wild things; he parrots his bossy mother as he rebukes the beasts. Meanwhile, she’s plainly cooling down offstage; on the last page, she has his supper set out for him in his bedroom. Sendak’s is a spiky parable about the struggle for self-control, and it speaks to big readers and small listeners alike. It’s a far cry from the chaos the Cat in the Hat wreaks while the kids watch aghast and their mother is off doing who knows what.

I don’t mean to slight the gift for delving into kids’ dream lives that has become Sendak’s signature. Those yellow-eyed wild things, the surreal cityscapes of In the Night Kitchen (1970), the hooded goblins of Outside Over There (1981), the weird underworld of We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy (1993): His pictures, and also his texts, bring to life what Bruno Bettelheim called the “id pressures”—the nightmarish fears, grandiose desires, anger—that buffet children.

At the same time, Sendak’s books have the power to remind adults that we can still be baffled by such primal urges ourselves—especially when we’re dealing with our children, whose deep need to rely on us, and defy us, is enough to unnerve and sometimes enrage any parent. His monsters and animals—who often serve as stand-ins for those inner forces and outer influences that kids have to contend with—aren’t really so alien; you can’t help feeling there’s a big human inside the shaggy forms. And though the trademark Sendak child has the impish look of an upstart, there’s also a curiously ancient, Old World aura about almost all of them. An implicit message emerges again and again in his books: The road to maturity entails a long struggle to master unruly impulses and appetites and acquire a moral imagination. It’s a message Sendak seems to have become increasingly convinced we grown-ups need to hear as much as kids do.

Or maybe even more than kids do. In Brundibar, which Sendak has pronounced his “crowning achievement, my last great collaboration,” he has teamed up with his baby-boomer acolyte Kushner to burst out of the nursery and into history with his most overtly didactic drama yet. Brundibar, as its adult readers will know from the flap copy, is based on a Czech opera created in 1938 by a Jewish composer. An allegory of resistance to Hitler, it was staged 55 times by children in the Terezin concentration camp—with the approval of Nazi officials. They recognized the propaganda value of permitting, and even publicizing, a kiddie performance about two penniless siblings who go in search of milk for their sick mother and discover there’s strength, and wealth and health, in numbers.

Kushner and Sendak in turn mine the opera and its grim history for these dark ironies—and for lessons for our own time, too. The setting is Old Town Prague, portrayed in bright drawings in Sendak’s “fat” folk-art style. (The artist has described his eclectic, yet completely distinctive, repertory as consisting of “a fine style, a fat style, a fairly slim style, and an extremely stout style.”) His fans old and young can pore over what amounts to a reprise of his classic scenes and figures, some given new twists (a growling Little Bear!). Sendak has also dreamed up several garish new ogres (with truly awful tongues and in the case of the Hitlerian organ grinder, Brundibar, a telltale mustache).

Meanwhile, Kushner, the gay socialist playwright who brought us Angels in America, imports some more up-to-date polemics into the text. Into the mouths of the little sibling narrators, he’s slipped not just an indictment of Hitlerian tyranny but a criticism of capitalist selfishness, greed, and clamorous competition—an outcry against our consumerist, post-Columbine era. The children’s pleas for help are drowned out by the “teeth-chattery bone rattley horrible song” of the hurdy-gurdy man Brundibar, who’s showered with gold by grown-ups too busy “buying buying busy buying” to attend to the youthful woe.

But the siblings (with the help of animals) rally a chorus of townschildren. A haunting ballad about the brevity of blissful mother-baby bonding melts the mercenary hearts of the adults, who join the kids in a communal assault on Brundibar. Never one to pass up an internal rhyme, Kushner has him getting “thumped and bumped and squished and vanquished.” Brother and sister bring milk home to save mommy, proclaiming as they go that you need only “be brave and bullies will behave!” The authors arm the townsfolk large and small with banners proclaiming “our friends make us strong” and “the wicked never win.”