Renowned children’s author Maurice Sendak died today in Danbury, Connecticut, at age 83. Widely considered one of the 20th century’s most important children’s writers, Sendak’s works pulled picture books out of the quaint wholesome world of nursery rhymes and plunged them into the dark, yet beautiful recesses of the human mind. His most famous, Where the Wild Things Are, was also his first. It upended the traditional concepts of children’s literature when first published in 1963, inciting controversy and even censorship. People at the time thought they knew how children’s minds functioned and subsequently what was best for them. Sendak made people realize that the human psyche wasn’t so straightforward and perfectly defined.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Sendak was a frail child who said he witnessed a number of real-life horrors: the Great Depression, World War II and the Nazi Holocaust, in which many of his European relatives perished. He even recalled the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby in 1932 and feared such a tragedy could happen to him. His myriad illnesses as a youngster relegated him to lonely days and nights in bed where he would write and draw. At age 20, he found a job building window displays for F.A.O. Schwartz and, through the store’s children’s book buyer, he met Ursula Nordstrom, the editor for children’s books at Harper & Row. Their meeting commenced a long and studious business relationship whereupon Sendak illustrated books by many well-known children’s authors. But, Where the Wild Things Are is the one project that established his career as a self-made children’s author. In his later years, he also designed and built theatrical sets, many of them productions inspired by his books. His last book, Mommy?, came out in 2006.
I remember when I first read Where the Wild Things Are. I fell in love with it, and it actually remains one of my favorite books. I still have an original copy. I wasn’t frightened by the hideous-looking monsters that populated the dreams of its central character, Max; in fact, I found them fascinating. I even identified with Max, although my parents never sent me to bed without dinner. But, as an only child, shy and introverted, my mind often created fantastic images and characters. Yet, I think other children could make a connection with Max who didn’t cower in fear at the thought of hairy, snaggle-toothed monsters lurking in his bedroom. He established his supremacy over them, and they made him their king.
Sendak, who was gay, leaves no heirs. His last work, My Brother’s Book, is an ode to his late brother, Jack, and will be published next February.