Finding out Maurice Sendak had died on Tuesday morning was crushing for us as a family. I still don't really have the emotional wherewithal to do him any sort of justice. I have also been avoiding the internet all week because I wasn't really ready to read what everyone else had to say. You see, he is not just one of the favorite authors in our house, he is one of the favorite authors in our house. Of course, we all love Where the Wild Things Are. (We even dig the movie.) But it isn't our favorite -- we all have different favorites for very different reasons I would suspect. My favorite is Brundibar. I will explain why, but first a little background.
I freaked out when I became a parent. I went nuts researching every little thing during my pregnancy and the subsequent baby years -- and are there ever books for those years -- but it hit me when my son was about 18 months old that pretty soon I would be on my own. The multitude of parenting books that would dicker over a few months difference in age for starting solid foods would soon give way to a vast array of...nothing. I mean, yeah, there are a few books on parenting for older children, but they are primarily for children with a special need: gifted, troubled, ADHD, etc., etc., etc. I felt lost in a sea of nothing. I wanted to protect my son from the dark and scary things of the world, but I also wanted him to have empathy and compassion for people less fortunate. I wanted to shield him from violence, but I wanted him to understand why, how and when things are worth fighting for. How could this possibly be done? Then I found one of my favorite quotes of all time:
"I said anything I wanted because I don't believe in children, I don't believe in childhood. I don't believe that there's a demarcation. 'Oh, you mustn't tell them that. You mustn't tell them that.' You tell them anything you want. Just tell them if it's true. If it's true, you tell them." -Maurice Sendak
If it is true, you tell them. Tell them if it is true. If he is old enough to ask the question, he is old enough to hear a true answer. As a child I loved adults like Sendak because they respected the possibility of a child's intelligence. That is not to say he thought all children were brilliant (listen to some interviews, obviously not.) That is to say that he afforded all people, no matter what qualifiers might be tacked on, the same level of respect. He didn't condescend. If I wanted to be the sort of adult I respected as a child, I had to show my children that same respect. Maurice Sendak helped my husband and I shape ideas that would become part of the core of our parenting practices -- how we operate as a family.
When my son was a little older I went back to school. Toward the end I took a class that I both loved and hated, and that would eventually change me forever. It was German-Jewish Writers with Dr. Hoyer, and there were nights where I would come home emotionally shredded. Roo (my son) would come to me, wanting to know why I was so sad, and I wanted to tell him something...but also something true. But how do you explain the Holocaust to a child, a young child? You read Brundibar. Then you talk about the history, the story, the sadness, but also the hope and how they are all interconnected. We didn't go into every tiny detail, or even a lot of the big ones. (Being truthful, after all, doesn't mean telling everything you know.) But I was able to share a little of why I was so sad with Roo, a little truth, just enough for him to empathize. As he has gotten older, we have discussed more of those little details Sendak has nested in the book -- the yellow Star of David sewn to their clothes or the Hitler-esque nature of Brundibar.
Since that initial reading my son has experienced a lot of personal loss -- he understands much more deeply now what it means to be gone forever. As a family we like to talk about how sharing stories from and about people who are gone helps keep them alive and present in our memories and lives. On Tuesday we scrapped our Language Arts lessons and instead we read different Sendak books in honor of his passing: some just illustrated by him, many both written and illustrated by him. Lady A wanted Little Bear. And my Seven Little Monsters/Where the Wild Things Are boy? He chose Brundibar; maybe because he knows how much I love it, and knew that I was sad. While reading Brundibar, Roo made a wonderful connection: "Brundibar isn't just keeping that musician and those kids alive anymore, mom, but also Maurice Sendak." Stories within stories making up our lives. I am sad that there will be no new stories, but I am grateful for the ones we have. I know that in this household Maurice Sendak will be greatly missed, but he will also always be present.