A great light has gone out.
Maurice Sendak passed away at the age of 83, reportedly from complications following a stroke at his residence in Connecticut that he had shared for fifty years with his partner Eugene Glynn, who died in 2007. His best known work was Where the Wild Things Are published in 1963, but he illustrated many other books as well—the Little Bear series, Zlateh the Goat, In the Night Kitchen, Brundibar (named by the New York Times Book Review as one of the 10 Best Illustrated Books of the Year in 2003) as well as designing the sets for many operas and plays including the Pacific Northwest Ballet production of The Nutcracker, Houston Grand Opera’s Hansel and Gretel, and The Cunning Little Vixen for New York City Opera. His works have been awarded the Caldecott Medal, the Newberry Award, the National Book Award, and the National Medal of Arts.
Yet this mere impressive recitation of Sendak’s (very impressive) resume doesn’t quite seem to do him justice. Where the Wild Things Are has been in print for nearly fifty years and will almost certainly be so for fifty more. When it was first published critics panned the book, “being perhaps uncomfortable with its theme of anger and tantrums,” and it was banned in many libraries. In the next couple of years though, teachers and librarians realized that children were drawn to the book like flies to honey; they’d check it out over and over again to meet Max in his wolf costume and play with the Wild Things. In light of the book’s success with the only audience who really mattered, the critics changed their tune. Over the years, Where the Wild Things Are has grown to be one of the most beloved and revered works of children’s fiction ever written. I think the secret to its popularity (besides Sendak’s beautiful, charming, and utterly innovative drawings) is the way it speaks to deeper yearnings inside of us. Who as a child hasn’t had moments where they felt a little fierce, a little weird, a little well…wild?!? Who hasn’t dreamed of a land where it’s OK to bellow, to dance madly, to let it all hang out?!? Deep down we all want to join the Wild Rumpus; but we all fear sooner or later being homesick if we did.
Maurice knew something about balancing inner urges with family ties. He never told his parents about his sexuality knowing it would devastate them to think he couldn’t be “happy and normal.” Nor was this the last time family traditions and expectations colored his work. Sendak had extended relatives who perished in the Holocaust and his knowledge of such horror at an early age colored his later works. Brundibar the children’s opera/book is the most clear cut example. It was originally performed in a concentration camp and showcases a villain with a Hitler mustache but the lighter hearted In the Night Kitchen also featured men with Hitler mustaches who try to bake the young boy in an oven. Outside, Over There showcases an infant stolen from its crib inspired by Sendak as a child hearing about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. The protective older sister in the book was based on Sendak’s own sister who was his primary caregiver and playmate. Maurice’s collaboration on Zlateh the Goat with Isaac Singer the writer was reverence to his Jewish parentage; he often noted that this was the first time his parents began to respect his work.
Nowadays, it goes beyond saying that we respect Maurice Sendak’s unique artistic vision and see him as a genius. But we remember that what truly made this genius was his ability to speak to the scared, confused, angry little kid in all of us.
Sleep soundly Maurice. You will be missed.