Writers remember Maurice Sendak: The “author of splendid nightmares” died Tuesday at age 83. His stories, especially the classic Where the Wild Things Are, were among the first popular tales to truly acknowledge that children experience darkness, and then to reflect those shadows right back at them. At first, that notion drew plenty of criticism, but ultimately turned Sendak into one of the most celebrated children’s authors in modern history. The prolific writer and illustrator is now “widely considered the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century,” says Margalit Fox at The New York Times.
When Where the Wild Things Are was published in 1963, it was an instant classic — and instantly controversial. The story of young Max, a grumpy boy who lashes out at his mother, is sent to his room without supper, and is then magically transported to a menacing forest populated by grotesque creatures who want to eat him, was “a startling departure from the sweetness and innocence that ruled childhood literature,” says Valerie J. Nelson at the Los Angeles Times. Libraries banned it, but the book won the Caldecott Medal, was considered for the Pulitzer Prize, and eventually sold more than 19 million copies.
He was a prickly, loving, complicated man. Sendak, who was gay and had no children, was famously both ornery and warm. He told Vanity Fair last year: “A woman came up to me the other day and said, ‘You’re the kiddie-book man!’ I wanted to kill her.” Despite occasional grumpiness, Sendak was dearly fond of his young fans, and had a sense of humor about himself, as exhibited during a recent viral interview on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report. Speaking with NPR’s Fresh Air last year, he faced his own mortality: “I have nothing but praise now, for my life. I’m not unhappy… Oh God, there are such beautiful things in the world, which I will have to leave when I die. But I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.”
How Sendak revolutionized children’s literature