The passing of beloved children's book author Maurice Sendak touched the hearts of many in Memphis. Sendak died Tuesday, May 8th, following a stroke. He was 83. The author was considered among the most important writers of children's literature in the twentieth century. Mom Kimberly Baker referenced a line from Sendak's Chicken Soup with Rice on her Facebook page, a verse Carol King set to music. "He's been such a big part of my life, ever since I was a child," says Baker, the manager of child life education and movement at the Church Health Center and mother of two.
As a teenager, Baker sold countless copies of Where the Wild Things Are, at her first job at Pinocchio's: The Children's Bookplace, and later shared her love of stories like Pierre, A Cautionary Tale, and Higglety, Pigglety, Pop, with her kindergarten students as well as her own children. His stories could be raucous and playful but often contained a moral, too. "In some of those tales, you learned more than you thought you did," she says.
It was Baker who broke the news to Pinocchio store owners Judy Korones and Miriam Epstein. The two remember meeting Sendak at the first booksellers convention they attended back in 1977. Incredibly, the guest presenters that year were Judy Blume, Dr. Seuss, and Maurice Sendak. "We were so enamored," says Epstein.
What made his books special? "They showed that kids could misbehave and still be loved," says Korones. "That was very reaffirming, since his stories came out at a time [during the early 1960s] when kids weren't supposed to misbehave." One keepsake Miriam cherishes is a signed lithograph of Sendak's book cover of In the Night Kitchen, which has long hung in her own kitchen. She remembers when Wild Things first hit bookstores in 1963, because the book was "so innovative and mind-bending." It earned Sendak the Caldecott Medal in 1964, the first of many honors he would receive for his work. He said his stories showed how kids made it through childhood, defeating boredom and worries and finding hope.
Sendak, a sickly child born to poor Jewish immigrants, grew up in Brooklyn. He once said the inspiration for his monsters came from the faces of aunties and uncles who would pinch his cheeks and say, "You look so good I could eat you up." His themes could be dark, a reflection of his own sense of vulnerability, owing to events like the Lindberg baby kidnapping, which deeply frightened him as a boy, and the reverberations of the Holocaust.
"His influence was significant in that he made the less cheerful popular," says children's librarian Mary Seratt, coordinator of library services for Memphis Public Library. "Before Sendak, children's literature was in Happyland. Such dark themes hadn't been explored before, the monsters that populate every kid's life." Because of his books, kids could begin to deal with those childhood fears in a very real way. Sendak recognized that "kids have rich emotional lives, that they shouldn't just be seen and not heard."
Stop by Pinocchio's bookstore (688 W. Brookhaven Circle • 767-6586 ) where you'll see a special collection of Sendak books and toys.