A Tribute to Maurice Sendak

wildthingsby PAMELA TROW-JOHNSON for CascadeA&E

T­he phone rang. It was my husband.

“Did you see the news?”

“No, what happened?”

“Maurice Sendak died.”

It got quiet. I felt that burning hiccup in my heart one might get hearing about the death of a distant relative. We just lost one of the most important children’s authors and illustrators who has ever lived…and who ever touched my life.

I got to meet Maurice Sendak in the summer of ’78 in Atlanta, Georgia. Just two years out of art school and starting my career in illustration and graphic design at an Atlanta advertising agency, the opportunity came my way to teach part-time at a local art school. Imagine how I felt when I learned the school was bringing children’s book writer and illustrator, Maurice Sendak, to the school for a week-long illustration workshop for the students. Although my schedule didn’t allow for me to attend or visit the workshop, as faculty, I was attending the celebratory picnic at Piedmont Park.

I couldn’t wait to talk two the writer whose books challenged traditional children’s book themes by honestly portraying the emotional intensity of growing up. I couldn’t wait to meet the creator of children’s stories that dared to talk about survival rather than sweetness. I couldn’t wait to talk with the groundbreaker who refused to lie to children. Mostly, I couldn’t wait to meet this amazing artist who like me, was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York.

The picnic was a relaxed event. After sharing appropriate gratitudes and group discussions, the students and faculty played softball. Maurice Sendak sat alone on a park bench adjacent to first base. I went up to him, introduced myself and eagerly shared with him how much I loved his work and that I too, came from Brooklyn. He then said to me, “Then you would understand that Jewish boys from Brooklyn don’t play softball.” We laughed and I got to talk with a man I adored.

Before Maurice left town, he graciously signed any of his books we brought to him. I brought In the Night Kitchen, his 1970 book that was controversial because Mickey, the child character, falls out of his pants revealing full frontal nudity. I also had him sign his most popular book, Where the Wild Things Are, also controversial, but for it’s expression of anger and being perceived as too scary for children.

I was so touched by Maurice’s visit, I decided to pay homage to him. As an emerging illustrator, I created a pen & ink and watercolor piece of a little girl sleeping in her canopy bed. As she slept, characters from Maurice Sendak’s books crawled out from under her bed, peeked out of the closet, hung on top of the canopy and climbed in from the window. I framed it and shipped it to Maurice at his beloved farm in Ridgefield, Connecticut.
I had long forgotten, until today, I had received a beautiful letter back from him. It took some delving but I found the signed books. Sitting between the last pages of Where the Wild Things Are, is the letter Maurice sent after he received my gift:

“Dear Pam,
The picture is superb & you’ve made me happy–thank you! Of course, knowing the clutz that I am, it is hard to imagine why people would pay tribute. But I suppose we all feel clutzy in life & if I did contribute an iota to your pleasure, then I am grateful. Very awkwardly said– but I am a little embarrassed– flattered and very, very touched.”

So are we, Maurice. So are we.

Pamela Trow-Johnson is a branding designer, illustrator, artist and instructor at COCC, living in Bend, Oregon.  Pamela is chair of the City of Bend Arts, Beautification & Culture Commission.

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