When Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer was asked why he wrote for children, he offered a slew of reasons. Among them: Kids “don’t read to free themselves of guilt, to quench their thirst for rebellion, or to get rid of alienation.” Moreover, “they have no use for psychology, they detest sociology, they love interesting stories, not commentaries, guides, or footnotes.” And, perhaps most importantly, “they don’t expect their beloved writer to redeem humanity. Young as they are, they know that it is not in his power. Only the adults have such childish illusions.”
These were also the watchwords of Maurice Sendak, who died May 8 of complications from a stroke at age 84. A much-admired, lavishly awarded, deliberately reclusive figure, Sendak began his long career by designing windows for F. A. O. Schwarz’s magical toy store, graduated to illustrating a science book, Atomics for the Millions, published in 1947, and then set his sights on a different kind of audience. For, like Singer, he wanted readers as wide-eyed as he was.
Gradually Sendak became known for his fresh, quirky approach, first with drawings for A Hole Is to Dig, and later with such perennial favorites as The Nutshell Library (“Cooking once / cooking twice / cooking chicken soup with rice”) and Little Bear, the foundation of a children’s TV series. But it was with the publication of Where the Wild Things Are that Sendak vaulted into the consciousness of the American child.
For years he had planned to write and illustrate the story of a boy being punished for disobedience. Max was to escape to “the land of wild horses,” where he would experience fear, intrigue, and mystery before returning to the safety of his room. The trouble was, Sendak couldn’t draw horses. Eventually he arrived at a solution: the imaginary Wild Things would be representations of his shtetl-born, Brooklyn-bound aunts and uncles, who “scared the hell out of me when I visited them in their apartments.” Indeed, when he collaborated on an opera based on the book, Sendak took his creatures out of the closet. The Wild Things were called by their original names: Aaron, Bernard, Emile, Moishe, and Tzippy. The little volume reached into the dark world of children’s psyches, sold 19 million copies—and showed publishers that nightmare visions, abolished since the days of Alice in Wonderland, were back in style.
By age 52, Sendak had become prominent enough for the coffee-table book treatment. Selma G. Lanes’s oversized, perceptive volume, The Art of Maurice Sendak, showcased an extraordinary range of talent. Sendak could render Grimms’ Fairy Tales with the bite of a Dürer etching—and create soft, brightly colored homages to the king of the Sunday funnies, Winsor McCay. In later years, Sendak came to regard Wild Things as part of a trilogy including In the Night Kitchen and Outside Over There. Their creator called the books “variations on the same theme: how children master various feelings—danger, boredom, fear, frustration, jealousy—and manage to come to grips with the realities of their lives.”
Not everyone approved of Sendak’s approach to childhood. Night Kitchen, for example, featured an unclad little boy, his genitals completely exposed, causing some librarians to censure the author and censor his work. His defense was pugnacious but inarguable: “Children are tough, though we tend to think of them as fragile. They have to be tough. Childhood is not easy. We sentimentalize children, but they know what’s real and what’s not. They understand metaphor and symbol. If children are different from us, they are more spontaneous. Grown-up lives have become overlaid with dross.”
In part to tweak his critics, in part to indulge himself, Sendak continued to depict his private obsessions: portraits of Mozart, his favorite composer; the ladder used to kidnap Charles Lindbergh’s baby—a terrifying photo in the tabloids of his childhood; his pet German Shepherds; and Mickey Mouse. All found a place in the oeuvre, even when they had nothing to do with the story.
The author/illustrator rarely made public appearances. In his modest home in rural Connecticut, Sendak continued to draw and write seven days a week, despite a series of pains and losses—failing health (he had suffered a major heart attack at just 39); the death of his beloved brother, Jack; and the death of psychiatrist Eugene Glynn, his companion for decades (“My parents thought I was straight; they never, never, never knew”). To the end, work remained consolation as well as livelihood. He designed stage sets for Mozart’s Magic Flute, Prokofiev’s Love of Three Oranges, Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen, and many other operas and ballets.
And to the end, children remained his favorite audience. They were the ones who wrote admiring letters to Mr. Sun Deck and gave him far more reason to smile than any rave review: “Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it,” he recalled. “I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters—sometimes very hastily—but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, ‘Dear Jim: I loved your card.’ Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, ‘Jim loved your card so much he ate it.’ That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”