NEW YORK -- Before he made beautiful children's books that sold millions of copies, Maurice Sendak, who died yesterday at age 83, lived in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was a child there, and the morning after his death, librarian Sherry Shao talked about Sendak's childhood to a room full of kids and moms in a public library near the apartment house where Sendak grew up.
Holding up a copy of "Where the Wild Things Are," Shao spoke excitedly in a voice that placed her own childhood somewhere in China.
"It was based on his experiences in Brooklyn!" she said. "Those animals -- he described these animals as relatives! His family was poor! Every day the relatives come to his house and eat up all his food, and so this book was his revenge!"
The moms looked at her warily. They were young and some of them didn't speak English. Sendak's parents were immigrants from Poland, and many of the current residents of Brooklyn's Bensonhurst and Borough Park neighborhoods are immigrants too. This was evident not just from their accents but from the surrounding shelves, which held books in Chinese, Yiddish, Spanish, Arabic and Italian.
Shao went on. "He was very honest about childhood, and I like him a lot," she said. As she spoke, a little boy made a run for it, dashing out of the room with a cardboard picture book flopping from his hand. A troublemaker just like one of Sendak's characters.
Sendak's honesty endeared him to a lot of people. The kids in his stories make mischief; they're wild and emotional, and sometimes they act like jerks. But they're a lot more like real kids than the clean-scrubbed children that pranced through the children's literature of the 1950s.
And at first, this didn't go over very well with librarians. When "Where the Wild Things Are" was published in 1963, lots of librarians said it was too scary for children. One reviewer warned against leaving it "where a sensitive child might find it to pore over in the twilight."
After "In the Night Kitchen" came out in 1970, some libraries banned it. This time the controversy was over nudity. Sendak's protagonist was a boy who dreams he's naked, and as Sendak said to Stephen Colbert earlier this year, if you've never been naked in a dream, "You have no imagination."
Shao said she didn't have a problem with the nudity. "This is very natural," she said. "This is true to life."
Sometimes Shao lets the kids take books home with them to keep. That's because the Brooklyn Public Library system is connected to a national program called Reading Is Fundamental, begun in 1966 (three years after the raucous debut of "Wild Things") by Margaret McNamara, the wife of Robert McNamara, then secretary of defense. Margaret had been volunteering as a teacher in Washington, D.C., when a boy asked if he could take home a book of Jules Verne. She said yes, and he became a good reader. She realized that a lot of poor families didn't have books in their homes, and she began thinking of ways to change that.
Since then, an accumulating pile of research has shown that Margaret McNamara had the right hunch about poor kids: One of the most effective ways to help them move out of poverty is to get them excited about reading. That's Shao's job, and she said that Sendak had made it easier.
As Carol Rasco, the current head of Reading Is Fundamental, expressed it by phone on Wednesday, "He really helped move children's literature from the warm lambs and fuzzy ducklings -- that was children's literature when I was growing up -- into something that was much more exciting and real."
In 1993, Sendak illustrated "We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy," a book about poor and homeless street kids, saying that he had been moved by the sight of kids growing up poor among the exorbitantly wealthy in cities like Los Angeles. The problem of child poverty is growing: From 2000 to 2009, the number of poor children in America rose by 20 percent, from 12.2 million to 14. 7 million. And with lawmakers proposing cuts to early childhood programs like Head Start and literacy programs like Reading Is Fundamental, some educators and librarians are worrying about much more than nudity.
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