The Wild Things were my Yiddish relatives

Maurice Sendak's book has thrilled millions of children.


Long before they know the words to the Star Spangled Banner, American children can recite the opening lines to Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Not that the affection for this tale stops in the US. Every school and nursery in Britain has a well-thumbed copy, and with sales of this picture book exceeding 19 million worldwide since its publication in 1963, mischievous little Max has become a global hero for children and parents longing for adventure — albeit only in their imagination. And now Max, together with the monsters he tames in the land of wild things, are movie stars.

The tall order of breathing life into the cast from this classic story was embraced by director Spike Jonze (born Adam Spiegel and the man behind cult films like Being John Malkcovich and Adaptation), who loved the book as a child and felt he was the right man to retain the spirit of the tale on the big screen.

Jonze first met the author in 1994, when Sendak’s film company hired him to adapt the children’s book, Harold and the Purple Crayon, a project that never came to fruition. But a friendship blossomed between the two men, despite their 42 year age gap.

“I’ve never regarded Maurice as a father figure, because he isn’t that patriarchal,” says the 39-year-old Jonze, who to tie in with the release of his long-awaited motion picture has also made the HBO documentary, Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak. “When I first met Maurice I was 25, and I loved him. He is wise and experienced, but he never stops questioning or struggling.”

Despite the success of his book, Sendak, who is 81, is not a mainstay of children’s literature in Britain — not in the way Roald Dahl or Julia Donaldson of Gruffalo fame are. But those familiar with his works, including In the Night Kitchen, Chicken Soup With Rice and the Little Bear series, are captivated by his dark themes and beautifully rendered drawings that have, on occasion, been deemed too scary for young children. He himself has always insisted that it is “grown-ups who are afraid for children; not children who are afraid”. Yet by his own admission the author has harboured fears all his life, from the Lindbergh baby kidnapping when he was just three years old and feared a similar fate for himself, to the Holocaust which he was constantly reminded of by his Polish immigrant parents.

“If I was staying out late and dinner was on the table and I’d been called three times, my mother’s voice would tell me that I’d better go up now,” recalls Sendak, who grew up in Brooklyn. “So I’d go up. And she’d say: ‘Your cousins, you know they’re your age. They don’t play ball. They’re dead. They’re in a concentration camp. You have the privilege of being here. And you don’t come up and eat.’ I was made to feel guilty all the time.”

Unlike Jonze, who has revealed little of his Jewish antecedence, though a German rabbi lurks somewhere in his background, Sendak constantly refers to his Judaism which does not just pepper his work, but is often the key ingredient. Take Where The Wild Things Are — for years readers pondered the source of inspiration for Sendak’s monsters who “roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws”. It may surprise you to know that the “wild things” are Sendak’s old Jewish relatives.

“The wild things are my aunts, uncles and cousins who used to come from the old country, those few who got in before the gate closed, all on my mother’s side. These people didn’t speak English, only Yiddish. And they were unkempt. Their teeth were horrifying. They had hair unravelling out of their noses. And they’d pick you up and hug you and kiss you. ‘Aggghh. Oh, we could eat you up’, they’d say. And we knew they would eat anything. Anything.” Suddenly the passage: “But the wild things cried: ‘Oh please don’t go — we’ll eat you up — we love you so!’” has a greater resonance.

“Those relatives would grab you and twist your face, and they thought that was an affectionate thing to do,” Sendak continues. “And children can be so cruel. My brother, sister and I would laugh at those people, who we, of course, grew up to love very much. But that’s who the wild things are. Foreigners, lost in America without a language.”

When it came to producing an opera of Wild Things, Sendak thought it would be a good idea to give names to the beasts of his book, in order to help direct the actors. So in came Tzippy, Moishe, Aaron, Emile, and Bernard. The monsters, incidentally, also have names in the movie, but only one, Ira (voiced by Forest Whitaker), smacks of a connection to the old country.

Sendak has been a recipient of almost every prize there is to win for children’s literature, but has yet to be convinced by his own talent. “I have no brilliant conceptual gift for drawing or any really exceptional gift for writing,” he says. “My gift is a kind of intuitive sense that I often think you would find in a musician, of knowing just what the music sounds like and knowing where to put your fingers. My talent is knowing how to make a picture book. I think my work is miraculous in that it has kept me alive and employed. Constantly, since I’ve been about 15. I have to work, that’s who I am.”

He attributes this work ethic to his Jewishness. “Being Jewish in the strict sense is to make your life purposeful. Otherwise, there’s no purpose for you to be here at all. I am not an Orthodox Jew, but I was brought up as one and that lingers, the business of making your life purposeful. Actually, you can’t make your life purposeful, it just is. And it was from childhood on.”

In Jonze’s documentary, Sendak describes a lonely childhood spent sitting at the window, drawing other children playing in the street. He was, in his own words, always an outsider, particularly when he found out he was gay — and though he lived with his partner, Dr Eugene Glynn, for 50 years until Dr Glynn’s death in 2007, Sendak never came out to his parents. “All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew,” he told the New York Times in 2008.

Sendak now lives in a farmhouse in Connecticut, intentionally far from the Max-like “rumpus” of the city and a good distance from the small apartment in Brooklyn, where he spent his childhood, constantly chased around by an angry mother, calling him “wild thing” in Yiddish. Not that the author has ever claimed to be the Max in his story. “I am not Max,” he says. “I never had the courage that he had. But I often went to bed without supper, though only because I hated my mother’s cooking. If she was going to hurt me, she would have made me eat it.”

The hours Jonze and Sendak spent discussing making a film of Where the Wild Things Are rolled into years, mainly because of interference from studio executives who wanted a movie for and not about children.

“Maurice told me to make the film my own,” says the director, who already has his documentary about the author on the Oscar short-list. “He said: ‘Don’t worry about me, don’t worry about the book. You have to just make something bold and not pander to children. Make something that’s as dangerous for its time as the book was in its time.”’ Sendak has yet to give a definitive verdict on Jonze’s efforts. But having gone into deep depression over the death of his life partner, and of his elder brother, the film has given him a much-needed lift and he is writing again. Word has it that one of his two forthcoming books is about a boy who happens to “look like and be a pig.” Relatives, you have been warned.

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