On May 8, 2012, when Stacey Quaranta Ta posted the following on Facebook, I instantly knew I needed her to write a guest blog in memory of Maurice Sendak:
“Another one gone who had a huge impact on my life, both as a child and an adult. And now, let the wild rumpus start!”
After attending East Brunswick High School with me, Stacey attended Vassar College. Stacey is currently the Elementary Math & Science Specialist in the South Brunswick School District and previously taught 4th and 5th grade for 11 years. Her husband is also an elementary teacher and they live in East Brunswick, NJ with their 2 amazing children – Emily, 8 and Noah, 5.
I grew up surrounded by books, to which I am extremely grateful to my parents, particularly my mother, who biologically cannot say no to a child who wants a book. This curse of hers extends significantly to her grandchildren, and we are quite literally drowning in books in our house. I am not complaining. One can always purchase another bookshelf. Or another house…
Adding to the problem is that I also never got rid of a great deal of the books from my own childhood. Before my children were even born, before I was even married, I had two bookshelves full of picture books for them. They are one of my favorite things. It is truly impossible to look at a book from your childhood – one that you spent hours searching and studying – and not be actively transported back to being 5, or 8, or whatever, wherever, whenever that moment was for you.
All I have to do is mention to my children is that “this book was one of my favorites as a kid” and they immediately slip it from my hands and start devouring it. Sharing a book that you love is always fun, but it is even better when you remember it from your own childhood. You know exactly what words sound the funniest when you say them out loud; you know exactly which pages have the most intricate and interesting illustrations. We have all had relationships with children’s books. Putting them in your children’s hands is like introducing your two best friends to each other.
Like many of us who grew up in the 70’s, I adored Maurice Sendak. His books and illustrations are many of those that I have shared with my daughter and son. There are framed Wild Things prints in my son’s room and we have puppets of Max and all of his friends (in large and small versions!) “Let the Wild Rumpus begin!” was my high school graduation quote. I imagine that most of us upon hearing of his death earlier this month instantly thought of our own childhoods and the hours we spent with the Wild Things and In the Night Kitchen. For me, it was Really Rosie. My mother had bought me the book – which was really the script for the TV special, and it had all of the music in the back. I’m not sure if I ever actually saw the show – I probably did – but I must have spent a month of my life reading that book over and over if you put it all together. Of course, I couldn’t read music back then, so I made up my own tunes for the songs, and sang them nonstop. I had pretty much decided that when they would finally make the live Broadway version of Really Rosie, that I would undoubtedly be cast as Rosie. Just in case, I had it all memorized for when they called.
But the most momentous thing for me when I heard of his death, though, was that I was not only brought back to my childhood – I was also brought back to another significant time of my life – college graduation. In 1996, when I was graduating from Vassar College, I received one of the best pieces of news of my life – Maurice Sendak was going to be our commencement speaker. You certainly don’t get to pick your graduation speaker, and if you’re lucky you have at least heard of the person before. Yet in this case, he was one of my idols- someone I had cherished my whole life. I felt like the luckiest person in the world. But it got even better… I graduated with my certification in elementary education, and in a small school like Vassar, that helps you to know the right people in this case. A cherished friend pulled some strings, and two of my closest friends and my husband (then fiancé) were invited to dinner with Maurice Sendak the night before graduation.
As excited as I was, I was concerned, as well. As soon as I was old enough to become a bit jaded, I developed a healthy fear of superhero let-down. This probably stemmed from a story my aunt told me about a disappointing run-in with Captain Kangaroo. From that point on, I was concerned about the “real” people behind the famous people that I cherished from my childhood. But I must tell you, Maurice Sendak did not disappoint. He was intensely interesting – both gritty and real, yet charming and poetic. Somehow he both surprised me, yet was exactly what I expected him to be. Much like his books, Mr. Sendak was not flowery or cute – he was honest. When we asked questions, he was unashamedly truthful. It was clear that he had no need to impress, but was down-to-earth, natural, and incredibly likable.
For days before the dinner, I agonized over what I should bring to ask Mr. Sendak to sign for me. My instant thought was my Really Rosie book, but it was home in New Jersey. I did have my original Where the Wild Things Are book in my apartment in Poughkeepsie (I was an elementary education major!), but it was in somewhat sad shape after 20 years of love. And so, I went out and purchased a shiny new edition of Where the Wild Things Are. During dinner, I told him about my Really Rosie addiction and about how I was still waiting my turn as the star of the Broadway version. But mostly, I told him about how he was such a significant part of my childhood and how I will never forget those hours I spent with Rosie. At the end of the night, when he signed my Where the Wild Things Are book, he drew a picture of Rosie above the title. Mr. Sendak had really listened and remembered. His little Rosie in that book means the world to me.
The next day was graduation, and Mr. Sendak inspired and energized the class of ’96. Back in those days, we couldn’t whip out our camera phones, so I unfortunately don’t have the moment recorded, but I remember he urged us to “live deeply” and to steer clear of the shallow paths of life. I found his ending quote in an old Vassar publication,
“So be our brave new world! Denounce the money-changers and defy the hype, the sleaze, the deadly cynicism that chokes the hope out of all our lives. I invite you to take the plunge. And when the hard work is done, have safe sex and let the wild rumpus begin!” And there you go.
So, if you haven’t already, read your child your favorite Maurice Sendak book. Or better yet, dig around on used book sites and find your very favorite childhood books and share them with your kids. Let them know of the magic those books held for you and surely it will do the same for them.
The Ta family favorite book authors from the good ole’ days ‘til now:
Chris Van Allsburg
Margaret Wise Brown
Jean de Brunhoff and Laurent de Brunhoff
H.A. and Margret Rey