Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Maurice Sendak – RAW…

…& slightly cut (like salad with Stephen Colbert on the side)

As an homage to the man who entertained so many, a re-post.  Thank you dear sweet Maurice for the charming and thought provoking tales you told that stirred the child in all of us.  We miss you already.

I recently watched a two part interview with author, illustrator, artist and all around fun guy, Maurice Sendak.  After decades of admiring his books, his illustrations and his quirky humor as evidenced by his masterful work, I must confess that I was delightfully surprised.  

The man is a treasure and I have been forever changed by the simple experience of watching him interact with Stephen Colbert (also a sort of national treasure but with a silent “t”).

Now, I will assume that you are familiar with Sendak’s works knowing full well that assuming is dangerous, but what the heck let’s get crazy.
My first introduction to Maurice came by way of the tale about a less than cooperative youngster named Max who adamantly decided against going to bed.  He fought off sleep, got no supper and embarked on a wonderful adventure.  You can find the details in Where theWild Things Are, a true children’s classic.

My passion for this story is so great,I often suggest to it to parents seeking titles to add to their home library (It was the very first book I purchased when I was expecting with my first child).  I have also used this book and its wonderful illustrations in my preschool classroom and when giving presentations to adults about reading to children.

I presented tips on reading to and with children to a group of soon to be released minimum security prison inmates.  During my presentation, I discussed ways to engage children, especially young children while reading a story.  Beyond just reading the words, I have found that using different voices and exaggerated facial expressions are great for holding kids attention.  

Note: when you make that kind of general statement to a group with a sense of humor commonly referred to as a bunch of wise guys, be prepared for one of them to rise to his feet and beg the question, “So what do you mean by using different voices and faces?  Can you give us an example?”

Yep, I walked right into that one.  Well, to say I’m a good sport is an understatement.  I was an easy mark with this group and promptly responded, “Well, would you like me to demonstrate?”  As you can well imagine, given my audience, the answer was a resounding “YES!”

And life just keeps getting better.  Thanks Maurice!  Without this book I would not now be making a total fool of myself in front of a lot of adults.

So, I quickly scan the books I’d brought for my presentation and wouldn’t you know that the first title to come to into sight was Where the Wild Things Are.  In the back of my spinning brain I’m naively thinking, ‘okay this is a book everyone is familiar with’.  I held up the book for all to see and asked how many of them were familiar with this title.

They raised their hands and my heart sank.  Of the 65 men in the room only about half a dozen were familiar with this book.  These people who were looking for a way to better connect with their children had never experienced this classic piece of kiddie lit.  I decided to give them my best most energetic presentation, ever.

I’ve been reading aloud to children since I was in the 8th grade and am totally comfortable with this performance venue.  Hold the book so the illustrations can be seen, make sure to pan the book back and forth so everyone sees it and most importantly use funny voices and faces to keep kids interested while telling the story. 

So, I did.  I rolled my eyes, I gnarled my teeth, and I acted out as much as I could to bring the story to life.  My thespianic delivery paid off.  My listeners hung on every word.  

I was about half way through the story and for some unknown reason I stopped reading and closed the book.  I commented that for demonstration purposes reading to kids can look like what I just did. 

They all gasped, loudly.  Not for fear of being unable to deliver what I had just done.  No, they protested at my seeming unfairness in not reading the story until the end.  

“What happens to Max?” they shouted.  “Oh”, I replied, “you wanted me to read the whole thing?”   “Well, yes!  We want to know what happens.”

It’s impossible to say no to that genuine and innocent response.  So, I finished reading the story and they were relieved at how it all ended. 

I walked away from that reading believing that these men were forever changed, for they had experienced the joy of being read a book by someone who truly cares that they have a meaningful experience.  I hope having known that for themselves that they would take that back to their children.

I hope that everyone can do that with their children and the young people in their lives.

Together that day, we experienced a genuine interaction and reciprocity that comes from sharing a book with enthusiasm and a true desire to create a hunger for the written word.  

That afternoon is forever etched in my heart and all because I took a chance with Where the Wild Things Are.  Again gratitude to Maurice.

Back to the interview.   After five decades Maurice Sendak continues to inspire.   He has shaped children’s literature, without really trying to.

In his afore mentioned interview with Stephen Colbert, Sendak comments that he doesn’t set out to write a “children’s” book.  He just writes the story and someone else decides who the audience is.  How fitting that is for my reading anecdote?

Along with writing and illustrating stories, Mr. Sendak has also contributed to other writer’s works as well as creating set designs for theatre productions.  Oh yeah!!! 

The Sendakian style is very distinct.  The exaggerated features of the characters are both mildly repulsive and delightfully engaging.  They beg you to look once and then look once or twice more.  And then, quite frankly, you are hooked.  In a good way.

Check out the Nutcracker set design from the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production.  It is a true delight loaded with stark images, bulgy eyed faces and the vividly muted tones & colors that we have come to recognize as truly Sendakian art.

His book, In the Night Kitchen (which I highly recommend and more so if you are fond of banned books) has the main character Mikey falling out of his pajamas and into a late night kitchen of bakers preparing to make a morning cake.  It’s the falling out of his jammies that got the book banned-hilarious!!  (see how StephenColbert handles that one – it starts at the 5:38 time marker).

That aside, the book is visually pleasing and the story is what you would expect of a dream.  Sendak’s take on the nudity is “he’s a boy and he’s dreaming.”  Very practical.

A fun and diminutive addition to any home would be the Nutshell Library.  In this collection Sendak explores the alphabet, the seasons, counting and the apathetic attitude of a young boy.  It is a great collection about the size of a box of tea.  Simple stories with simple illustrations.  Delightful!

His latest release, Bumble-Ardy is on my check out from the library and read list along with many other titles.  Either way Maurice Sendak continues to be an inspiration through his work, his humor and his playful nature.  For that treasure, I am eternally grateful.

Until we read again…

                                           …keep tripping on books!

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