Outside Over There: Reflections on Maurice Sendak

Earlier this year, on May 8, 2012, I was struck unexpectedly by the news on the radio as I crawled out of bed, that Maurice Sendak had passed away.  On my commute to work, I somehow stumbled across his final interview on NPR, and 19 minutes later, had to fight back tears as I stepped off the train. What I had heard in my earbuds was a story and testimony all at once extremely beautiful, extremely sad, and yet full of mystery and grace. I was hearing for the first time the longings of an artist who I only knew in a relatively shallow manner, but who I discovered meant more to me than I ever fully realized.

I only knew him through one of my favorite books, Where the Wild Things Are, plus some fond memories of seeing the films and books for Really Rosie and The Nutshell Library as a child.  I regret to say that outside of these particular works, I was not overly familiar with the rest of his life until hearing of his passing and reading up on the various news reports that followed. It's one of those unfortunate realities of life that we often don't spend enough time studying the lives of artists we admire until they have left us. By then it's too late to send them a note of thanks or encouragement, or to anticipate any other projects they may be working on.

It's difficult to fathom just how much Where the Wild Things Are meant to me growing up, both in listening to it read to me by my parents and then continuing to read it on my own. The same sentiment is shared by many in my generation, and its staying power and influence is apparent in much of our popular culture.  When I was young, I simply appreciated the book as a good story with fascinating pictures.  In high school, in an attempt to stay in touch with my inner child, it still stayed with me, as I painted a famous scene from the book on the back of my jean jacket.

Today as I read Where the Wild Things Are to my own children, I am still discovering more and more with each reading what a brilliant work of art it is. The way the words are composed, the way they sound when read out loud, the rich detail in the drawing, and the overall way the illustrations are structured in the book's layout continues to amaze and delight. A few years ago, my friend Ward Jenkins took the time to craft a very insightful observation about its visual style on his blog, where he unpacks the artistry of how the book's images unfold.  The first few pages begin with the illustrations composed in a rectangular box surrounded by white space, as if being viewed through a picture window.  As the story expands to take us into the fantasy world of the wild things, the illustrations slowly take over the full pages. (See Ward's blog for the full analysis).

This great observation of Where the Wild Things Are's visual style becomes all the more significant when hearing about Maurice Sendak's life and how it impacted his art.  In his NPR interviews with Terry Gross, he talks about how much of his life was spent looking out of a window while sick in bed, and watching life as it happened outside.  Even in his final interview close to the end of his life, he speaks of looking out his window and appreciating the beauty of his 100-year-old maple trees. While he insists in his unbelief in God and the possibility of an afterlife, he names his gods as Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and others who reveal visions to him through reading their books.  And what is a book, but another rectangular picture window that you gaze into?

Another story covered by NPR is told by Wicked author Gregory Maguire, who tells us about giving Maurice Sendak a gift in the hospital before he died: a photograph of Lewis Carroll, sitting on the edge of his window, with his feet hanging outside on the edge.  These repeated symbolic images of windows are interesting...the way that Where the Wild Things Are takes us from a tiny window-shaped viewpoint into a world that expands past it, the beauty that its author saw in the world beyond his own window, and then finally, near his life's end, a symbolic image of another author who he so admired, sitting on the edge of a window as if ready to venture into that world himself...that world, to borrow from another one of Sendak's book titles, Outside Over There.  Sendak even tells a riveting tale of his childhood memory seeing an angel out his window one day, and describes it in full detail.

What is profound about Maurice Sendak's final interview is how he wrestles, through real tears, with his adamant disbelief in God and the visions which call to him from "outside over there" anyway.  He says he doesn't believe in an afterlife, but still dreams and expects to see his late brother again.  He speaks about how he imagines what Christianity must be all about through the love and devotion of his friends who take care of him.  He can't tear himself away from the the beauty of his beloved maple trees and his love for music.  He is drawn to a book about the life of artist Samuel Palmer and how his faith interwove with his creativity and love for nature.  Despite holding fast to his conviction of non-belief, he jokes that he might be crazy and admits "I don't know anymore and I don't care."  He wishes all good things to his friend Terry Gross and pleads a beautiful mantra, "Live your life, live your life, live your life."

Equally profound are the musings over his final book Bumble-Ardy, as discussed by Sendak and Gross, about a little boy pig who has himself a birthday party without his mother's permission, and promises "I'll never turn ten."  Maurice speaks of this line as summing up his life's work, not knowing the full mystery of what it means, but only that it "came to him" through a process of his deepest pain and coming into his own.

None of us can know the full mystery of where our ideas come from and how the Spirit calls to us, by whatever name we use or don't choose to use for Him. From any perspective, art can give us a glimpse past the windows of our lives, and in the worst of circumanstances, can give us hope. Despite all of the grudges, sorrow and tragedy we create or receive, we may still surrender to beauty.  Among the wild things in our lives that threaten to eat us up, stories about artists like Maurice Sendak can awaken us to a possibility... the possibility that through our window we may see an angel, or at the very least, we may smell good things to eat, and that our supper is still waiting for us.  And it is still hot. 

Click here for the audio & transcript of Maurice Sendak's final NPR interview >>

Click here for the audio & transcript of a collection of NPR interviews with Maurice Sendak >>


  1. Lovely, Ken.

    You did see his two-part interview from The Colbert Report, right? Priceless.

  2. You know, I really want to see that, but it's only viewable online at Comedy Central's website which doesn't stream in Canada, and it's not on YouTube. :(