If I were a Newbery-winning author who was remotely superstitious, I'd be a little nervous right now. Maurice Sendak died two weeks ago, and Jean Craighead George died last week … so who's next? Seriously, though, I'd argue that these two deaths are more than just the loss of one or two icons. It's a changing of the guard in children's literature.
Sendak was the more beloved of the two, as attested to by the outpouring of affection across the nation after his death at age 83. George's death at 92 last Tuesday was met with a quieter round of salutes, most focusing on her Newbery honor book, My Side of the Mountain, and her Newbery Medal winner, Julie of the Wolves. But what she lacked in literary originality, she made up for in work ethic and curiosity for the natural world. George's publication list boasts 100-plus nature books for children and young adults that spanned seven decades.
An artist's artist, Sendak was aptly described in The New York Times as having "wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery and plunged it into the dark, terrifying and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche." And although George's plumbing of the "human psyche" was far less raucous, her characters were also pushed out of civilization and into the wilderness. A plot device that, though seeming to move them outward, was a way to strip characters of the constraints of culture and push them on a "journey inward," the title of her autobiography.
For that journey, George drew on fantastic childhood encounters with the natural world: training falcons with her brothers and studying beetles with her father, an entomologist. Her books are also filled with painstaking research: For Julie of the Wolves, George actually lived with researchers studying Artic wolves and talked to the wolves herself. (No transcripts available. …) Yet over her career, she followed prevailing literary currents into ever more liberal waters, including environmentalism and feminism. As The New York Times once trumpeted in a review, "Julie of the Wolves is a novel for today: It describes not only a self-sufficient girl surviving on her own in the arctic wilderness but the clash of the Eskimo and white man's cultures."
Sendak's and George's most iconic characters do come home in the end. But does that homecoming really belie a prodigal's repentance? As a character complains in George's My Side of the Mountain, "Let's face it, Thoreau; you can't live in America today and be quietly different. If you are going to be different, you are going to stand out, and people are going to hear about you; and in your case, if they hear about you, they will remove you to the city … and you won't be different anymore."
Sendak's and George's generation accomplished "different." The Dick and Jane blinders are off, and we've gone deeper into the passionate, defiant wilderness of the soul. Not an especially comfortable position, but also not hidden from the One who, in times past, has scheduled wilderness wanderings for those He loves.