I don't know whether Maurice Sendak ever explicitly said that imagination should never be limited by false notions of absurdity or risk, but as a kid sprawled out on the floor reading and rereading his books, especially In the Night Kitchen and Where the Wild Things Are, this is what he taught me. The internet does tell me he said the following: “I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.”
I had enough unsentimental adults orbiting my childhood that one of them very well could have told me this. It would have gone over my head at age six or seven. But when you watch a drunk make an ass of himself, hear the laughter elicited by a joke that shouldn’t have been told, or through thin walls hear moans of pleasure that you are years off from appreciating, what you do come to understand, though you cannot yet articulate it, is that life ain't all Green Eggs and Ham.
I’m grateful for coming to this realization early on, thanks to the lovingly irreverent family and family friends who shaped me and allowed me to appreciate Sendak’s stories in all their naked, doughy, beastly glory. As these books make clear, adults can be jerks, escape beats confinement, and "Childhood is cannibals and psychotics vomiting in your mouth!" (The latter was quoted by Art Spiegelman in a 1993 New Yorker strip.) They speak to a truth that the child me did not realize I’d been lied to about yet. I wasn’t old enough to go out anywhere further than the yard, and in truth I never actually wanted to run away. But losing myself in my thoughts and delusions, I could see that this was normal and healthy, something that shouldn't be thought of as a waste of time but a crucial part of being alive.
Like most adults, I still daydream like a kid, though I sometimes wish those mental escapes did not end so abruptly thanks to some adult obligation. But that bullshit is a real part of life, the same as trying to imagine it away. Maurice Sendak’s best work exists in that space between the two worlds, an alchemy of the real and imaginary, which is why it resonates with so many of us.