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Maurice Sendak taught me to read

By Kate DiCamillo, Special to CNN
updated 2:40 PM EDT, Fri May 11, 2012
Peter Brown, author of
Peter Brown, author of "The Curious Garden" wrote and illustrated this homage to Maurice Sendak.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Maurice Sendak, who died yesterday at age 83, illustrated almost 100 books
  • Children's author Kate DiCamillo learned to read using Sendak's illustrations as a guide
  • Kate DiCamillo is a Newbery Medal winner and the author of "Because of Winn-Dixie"

Editor's note: Kate DiCamillo is a Newbery Medal winner and the author of "Because of Winn-Dixie" and other books for children and adults. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

(CNN) -- The first book I read by myself was Else Holmelund Minarik's "Little Bear." The illustrations were by Maurice Sendak. I was in my first grade classroom at Clermont Elementary in Clermont, Florida. I was sitting in an orange plastic chair. I was holding "Little Bear." I was studying the third story in the book, which is titled "Little Bear Goes To The Moon," and I was staring at a picture of Little Bear, home-made space helmet atop his head, floating toward the moon. The words below the illustration said, "I'm going to fly to the moon."

Children\'s author Kate DiCamillo credits Maurice Sendak with helping her learn to read.
Children's author Kate DiCamillo credits Maurice Sendak with helping her learn to read.

And somehow, suddenly, I was reading this sentence.

And then I was reading the one below it, which said, " 'Fly!' said Mother Bear. 'You can't fly.' "

A current of electricity shot through me. My feet tingled. My shoulders itched. I was reading! I was reading a book on my own!

Those first words that I read by myself are intimately and forever bound to the art that appeared above them. It was as if the art were the doorway and it ushered me toward the words waiting on the other side.

I entered the text through the art. It was one of the most powerful moments of my life.

Author/illustrator Todd Parr created this illustration when he heard about Sendak\'s death.
Author/illustrator Todd Parr created this illustration when he heard about Sendak's death.

Sendak sparked 'wild' creativity in young readers

When I heard Maurice Sendak had died, I pulled my copy of "Little Bear" off the shelf and I turned to the third story in the book and I looked at that picture of Little Bear in his makeshift helmet headed to the moon and I felt again a zap of electricity.

I flipped through the pages and came to a picture of Little Bear floating above a village. These words appear below the illustration:

"Little Bear thought.
I will jump from a good high spot,
far up into the sky,
and fly up, up, up."

And that is when I started to cry.

I didn't know Maurice Sendak. I met him once, briefly. But I feel a terrible loneliness when I think about him not being in the world.

His work has been that "good high spot" from which to jump. It was the good high spot when I was 7. And it is the good high spot, now, some 40 years later.

Maurice Sendak's art was my portal to reading, to storytelling, to magic, to the world. I look at that picture of Little Bear floating above the village and all I can think is, "Wait, don't go. I wanted to tell you a story."

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