Remembering Maurice Sendak, author of “Where the Wild Things Are,” dead at 83

Since the publication of his early works, Maurice Sendak’s haunting books have become a mainstay in American children’s literature.

The child of Jewish immigrants, Sendak was born in Brooklyn in 1928. The complex fears Sendak held as a Jewish child growing up in New York during World War II fed significantly into his writing. Sendak died Tuesday at 83, from complications of a stroke, according to reports.

Sendak’s books, most famously “Where the Wild Things Are,” were childhood staples for kids growing up after 1960. In an interview late last year, Sendak discussed some of what led him to create the darkness in his books.

“It was a constant in our house, constant grieving,” Sendak said. “Also I had a sense that I arbitrarily, dumb luck, was born on this side of the ocean. It was a guilt trip, and we had to be aware of them all the time. If we forgot them, our parents reminded us that we had the privilege to play stoop ball and go to the movies when those children couldn’t do anything. It was a heavy burden to put on a child.” 

For Sendak, the Holocaust and real threats of disease endemic to the 1930s formed the backdrop to his childhood. As an adult, these fears fed into stories of children who channeled their vulnerability into disobedience.

Sendak’s best known work, “Where the Wild Things Are” broke the mold of sheltered and clean children’s literature. The story of a rebellious boy named Max who travels to an imaginary land of wild monsters, “Wild Things” celebrated unruly behavior and gave voice to the psychological challenges of childhood.

“In all my books there is a critical moment when in a child’s life that he has to figure out what to do without the aide of logic or experience,” Sendak said. “So some of the reactions are bizarre because they don’t know where to go. Max exhausts himself in a temper tantrum and then comes home. The first time that happens it’s a shock, but now he’s prepared for the second time and the third time. And that’s how we grow up.”

When it was published in 1963, “Where the Wild Things Are” did not appeal to all readers, but since then over 19 million copies of the book have been sold worldwide. Enough copies have been produced that one out of every 20 children born in the U.S. after 1963 could have a copy. 

Across his career, 22 of Sendak’s works were named New York Times best illustrated books of the year. The author was awarded the prestigious Caldecott medal, a Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award and the National Medal of the Arts, presented by President Bill Clinton. In 2009, “Where the Wild Things Are” was transformed into a feature film directed by Spike Jonze.

Sendak’s partner of fifty years, the psychiatrist Eugene Glynn, died in 2007. Sendak is not survived by any immediate family members.

In 2011, Sendak wrote and illustrated “Bumble-Ardy,” his newest in a long line of subversive and humorous picture books. One more posthumous title is scheduled for publication in February.

Across a career of writing and illustrating children’s books, Sendak remained in awe of his audience. 

“I have total trust in children and their incredible awareness of life which is much keener and sharper. We must help them by telling them the truth,” he said.

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