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Goodbye, Maurice Sendak: We Will All Miss You Dearly

I was crushed this morning to hear of the death of Maurice Sendak at age 83, author of such timeless classics as Where the Wild Thing Are and In the Night Kitchen. When the popular author of books you loved as a child dies, you are sad for the loss of that childhood self as well as for the one who enriched those early experiences.

That said, my sense of sorrow at the death of Sendak is acute and specific. Here is an author that my adult self admires on level with that childhood self. (Have you picked up one of his books lately? Take another look: his work invites revisiting.) At grad school1, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study writing for a series of sessions under Sendak at his workshop in Connecticut. The one thing that you wouldn’t guess meeting him — a tough-as-nails Brooklyn intellectual, talking with fiery passion and strong language about politics, art, music, opera, literature, and “people who are idiots” — is that he is not only a children’s book author, but the household name for children’s book authors.

It is important to acknowledge when taking time to remember him this week that he largely detested the children’s book industry that sprung up in the wake of his tremendous early successes, going so far to refer to the field as “a publishers scam.” He took great pains to draw the attention of my classmates to a whole range of notable exceptions throughout history, condemning those who write children’s books for the money, pandering to a sanitized, publisher’s notion of what children want to read: “These writers are liars; these writers are selling something they don’t believe in. And children know it.” Here is an author as well-versed in Herman Melville and Henry James as Randolph Caldecott and Ruth Krauss. If you haven’t had a chance to read his collection, Caldecott & Co: Notes on Books & Pictures, you should hunt for it to get a sense of the depth of his thinking about the work he created — I suspect it will soon be coming back into print.

Here is where I can connect this discussion back directly to the MakerBot community. Sendak’s “secret” method, something he was never reticent about sharing, was his commitment to retain the raw spirit and untainted perceptions of his childhood self. It is not an easy process to make yourself so vulnerable to your experiences, to be an exposed nerve to the baffling and potentially hostile world erected by the adults towering over you. And yet, seeing the world through these eyes grants your creative efforts the directness of a truth unsullied by the cascade of assumptions about life, politics, and what people want to hear that shackle the adult writer wishing to speak to children at their level. The reason that good children’s books stand the test of time isn’t that they were tuned by a council of publishers to match statistical models for what children want to hear, but because they are darned good books that are true enough that children do not discard them as yet another finger-waggling speech from the adult-monsters.

I suggest that each of you take some time today to wander through the Thingiverse, this universe of invented objects that we are all contributing to, with your childhood eyes in place.2 Test what you encounter against Sendak’s rubric for “truth and honesty” in creativity. You have the tools to create whole new worlds, but maybe the killer app for helping you create work that will be successfully transmitted from one human to another is to take up Sendak’s challenge — rather than making objects that you think people might like, create the object that your childhood self wishes into existence.

Today, May 8th, is National Teacher Appreciation Day, and MakerBot Blogger Andrew has gathered together a bunch of us at MakerBot to offer 3D printed apples to the many teachers who shaped our lives. Here’s my contribution to this effort: an apple for Maurice Sendak. Maurice Sendak — you and your voice will be dearly missed.

 

  1. for Fiction at Columbia University School of the Arts []
  2. this will be far easier for our many 9-year-old customers, no doubt []
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