Farewell to the King of All Wild Things

Elizabeth Street Remembers Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak, who died of stroke complications on Tuesday, was a somewhat reluctant king of children’s literature. More grim than goofy, he took his work seriously and worried it wasn’t good enough, never mind his Caldecott Medal, National Medal of Arts, and countless other measures of success. Sendak was certain, however, that he did it for himself, and not for children. “If I had a son, I would leave him at the A&P,” he once told NPR’s Terry Gross. His own sensibilities were indeed very adult. This was a man who loved Mozart, who hoped to die with the happy, crazy abandon of William Blake, who worked on the illustrations for Pierre: or, The Ambiguities by Herman Melville, after whom he named his beloved German shepherd.

And yet, his work strikes a chord with children everywhere, precisely because of its maturity. Sendak’s dark and dreamy stories acknowledge the complexity of a child’s mind. Max, the daring boy hero of Where the Wild Things Are, is no different in that he uses his imagination as a refuge. Most of Sendak’s characters are resourceful in this way. Mickey of In the Night Kitchen dreams that he flies to a strange town and helps make the batter for the morning cake. Rosie, the self-professed star of Really Rosie, the Carole King musical based on Sendak’s books (primarily The Sign on Rosie’s Door) conceives of a whole movie—a big hit—with the neighbor children of Brooklyn’s Avenue P.

Despite the overwhelming popularity of these titles, Sendak’s favorite was Outside Over There, a book about sisters. Though much of his childhood was unhappy, he loved his siblings dearly. My Brother’s Book, a picture book of poems inspired by his brother, Jack, will be published posthumously next February. If it’s anything like the rest in terms of speaking to the hearts and minds of kids, it will make something he told The Guardian last year seem as true and bittersweet as ever: “I can’t believe I turned into a typical old man…I was young just minutes ago.”