There are plenty of memorials to Maurice Sendak, z”l, on the web this week. They are mostly articles and facts you may or may not know about him and his unique body of work. No doubt he was successful, if not controversial, and he definitely was a man defined at least in part by his Jewish son-of-immigrant roots.
I only offer my personal connection.
I was an early reader. As a student in Hurlbutt (no I am not kidding) Elementary School in Weston, CT, I spent a good deal of kindergarten off in the corner with friends like Susan Bruno and Simeon Hellerman “reading” while the rest of our class listened to records about the alphabet and what sounds they make with The Letter People inflatable 21″ dolls. I thought the dolls were horrific, but then again so was being put off to the side publicly at five years old… there was clearly no concern about social ostracization in the educational system back in CT in 1977.
I put ‘reading’ in quotations marks because we were given headphones larger than my head that plugged into record players. We would play records that went with books and follow along, reading and memorizing each story. The number of books to choose from was significantly smaller than the number of school days when we were sent off to the corner. Along with Susan and Simeon, Rikki Tikki Tembo became one of my closest daily companions. As did Pierre who didn’t care, Really Rosie, Johnnie and the little boy who ate Chicken Soup with Rice.
When I look back upon that time now, I appreciate much more fully how fortunate we were to have access to such educational technology back then! Those ridiculous headphones and record players were most likely not available in most schools then, and we lived in the town that housed Weston Woods. This was the company to first produce books on record (and then tape) for children, and I am guessing we probably had those records before most, if not all, of the country. They created the Really Rosie movies as well as the other animated Sendak stories, including the recorded version Maurice Sendak himself reading Where the Wild Things Are.
His books such as these were formative for me, and for some reason (probably my parents’ PR) I knew he was Jewish and that it was supposed to be a source of pride. I have been so fortunate to pass along my love to my children who have learned Where The Wild Things Are in two languages, have a ‘wild rumpus’ song and dance of their own (that my husband created with my stepson) and who have thought for years that I made up that tune to Chicken Soup with Rice, not Carole King.
So for me, the connection is a truly personal one. My status as an early reader was and remains an indication of nothing regarding my intelligence, only my lifelong deep love affair with books. A love affair spurred on early by the wonderful creations of Mr. Sendak who will be missed, but who will live on in our house and bookshelf for what I hope is many generations to come.