This morning I awoke to the news that Maurice Sendak had died at the age of eighty-three. I’ve been thinking about Sendak all day—about his art, his writing, and the influence he has had on me (and on my entire generation, as well as the following one, and onwards).
I’m sure that countless blog posts about Sendak were written today, and I’d guess that his masterpiece Where The Wild Things Are was the book most frequently mentioned in those posts (and in the actual obituaries, such as this one in The New York Times). I owned and loved Wild Things, of course, as well as Else Holmelund’s Minarik Little Bear series, illustrated by Sendak. My brother, three years younger, added The Sign on Rosie’s Door, In the Night Kitchen, and the “Nutshell Library” of four mini-books (Pierre, Chicken Soup with Rice, et al.) to our collection. Yet the book that made the first and perhaps deepest impression on me was Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, for which Maurice Sendak illustrated a story by Charlotte Zolotow.
Zolotow’s story is simple and sweet: a young girl, trying to decide on a birthday present for her mother, seeks Mr. Rabbit’s help. The two spend a day together puzzling over the possibilities. When Mr. Rabbit asks the girl what her mother likes best, the girl names various colors. But if you can’t give an actual color as a gift, what can you give? Mr. Rabbit suggests various items for each color, many of them exciting but improbable (a yellow taxicab!). The rabbit and the girl cooperate in gathering and assembling various bright pieces of fruit into a gift basket, and they part at nighttime with their task accomplished.
When I’ve looked back at Mr. Rabbit later in life—as a college student, for example, or as the person I am today—I’ve been just as enchanted by the book as I was at the age of five. And, without any disrespect to Zolotow, it’s really the images that make this story so memorable and so resonant for me.
For one thing, there’s the rabbit himself: he’s nearly human in his size and posture. Where another illustrator might have given us a smiley bunny in a funny hat, Sendak has created an earnest and handsome, if still cotton-tailed, hero. It somehow seems completely natural that he and the heroine should converse, stroll through a forest together, share a woodland picnic. There’s something innocently romantic about their day out, particularly when it deepens into a summer twilight.
And then there’s the overall style of the art, which is Sendak at his most lyrical. Not only is Mr. Rabbit gentle and dreamy, but so are the pictures, with their lush, cool palette and their impressionistic watercolor handling. I’m wondering whether these images planted the seed for my teenage love of Monet’s landscapes. (I’m also just noticing that my husband resembles Mr. Rabbit somewhat. Without the ears. Maybe Sendak influenced me even more than I’ve realized.)
As an adult reader and writer, I’ve come to view Mr. Rabbit and The Lovely Present as a fable of artistic inspiration. The practical girl and the imaginative rabbit collaborate to create the perfect present (bringing colors together, as in a painting), but Mr. Rabbit has also given the the girl a gift: he encourages her to dream of the most fantastic and dazzling possibilities before discovering the smaller pleasures of the fruit. Maurice Sendak did the same for me and for so many other young readers. In works like Mr. Rabbit, he not only helped us learn to read: he also showed us, with intelligence and sympathy, how to look—how to imagine—how to see and share the beauty around us.
Maurice Sendak, 1928-2012.
Photograph of Maurice Sendak in 1971 via The New York Times. All illustrations from Mr. Rabbit and The Lovely Present, first published in 1963. Thanks to My Vintage Book Collection (In Blog Form) and The Art of Children’s Picture Books.