Maurice Sendak 1928-2012

Even with far more time and attention than I have right now it wouldn’t be possible to do justice to Maurice Sendak with this post.

A young boy in a wolf costume and crown frozen in mid-dance with monsters around him on moonlit night

Sendak passed yesterday, at the age of 83, following a stroke. His career spanned
65 years and nearly 100 books as well as notable work in other media. You can find a timeline of his life and creations at the website of The Rosenbach Museum & Library, whose director also offers a nice remembrance of that Philadelphia institution’s relationship with the Brooklyn-born Sendak. (If you’re ever in town, I recommend a visit to the place — its collection includes a large repository of Lewis Carroll memorabilia, James Joyce’s handwritten manuscript to Ulysses, and “over 10,000 Sendak objects, including original drawings, preliminary sketches, manuscripts, photographs, proofs, and rare prints of Sendak books.” Don’t forget to sample the incunabula!) [Note: The links specific to Sendak no longer lead to where they once
did, unfortunately, nor does the Rosenbach still house his papers.]

My first memory of reading Sendak was an encounter with his creepy, compelling
1963 masterpiece Where the Wild Things Are in first grade at 5 or 6 years old. Truth be told, I may have more of an affinity for 1970’s In the Night Kitchen — inspired by Winsor McCay’s seminal newspaper comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland and, given its allusions to the Holocaust and mortality, arguably even darker than Wild Things — perhaps due to my pull towards word balloons, captions, and panel-to-panel continuity versus the full-page picture with text common to most children’s books.

Yet Where the Wild Things Are remains so haunting, reverberating backwards and forwards through time into popular art from Peter Pan to Calvin and Hobbes, that it’s still what I and everyone else associate indivisibly with Sendak. Sendak himself turned it into an opera with Oliver Knussen, it was adapted into an animated short, and a few years ago it became the basis for a live-action feature film directed by Spike Jonze that
I quite liked but which understandably divided the book’s fanbase.

Neil Gaiman has posted a journal entry on Sendak that includes a link to a two-page strip done by Sendak and Art Spiegelman for The New Yorker in 1993, which Gaiman impressed upon the magazine to unlock for non-subscribers. I don’t know how long it will be available, so you should check it out now, as it’s a real treat to see Sendak draw his best-known creations into the background while his and Spiegelman’s cartoon avatars converse so frankly.

Illustration from Where the Wild Things Are © 1963 Maurice Sendak.


  1. I read Where the Wild Things Are to my kiddos on a regular basis. What I love about it is that it's a real story: "Imagine if..." instead of the plethora of lame "I am building my vocabulary to the Provincial Standard" books my son has to read for school. My son's two favorite books are this one and "Where the Sidewalk Ends" - needless to say, I am thrilled when I see him snuggled in bed with them propped up on his tummy. Little Miss is obsessed with dinosaurs and so is delighted to act out the "gnashing of terrible teeth" for us. She runs hot and cold, that one. One minutes she's dancing ballet, while singing in "French*", then next she is growling and trying to squeeze people as hard as she can... no idea where she gets it from.

    *Dad speaks near-fluent French but what the Little One has picked up so far is only "Bon-shooah, bon-shooah, bon-shooah, je mah parlee Franch! Ooo, Ooo, Ooo, bon-jooah!**" This is what she sings to me while sitting on the counter in the bathroom while I attempt to take a shower. Followed by "Why you not clapping!?" when she "ends" her song (which is impossible to tell because her song has long periods of silence - which she uses to admire her hair and how "it's pretty and not dark like Mommy's" - in it anyway).

    **She's surpasses her mother in French already, obviously.

  2. Let the wild rumpus start!

  3. I get what you're saying about the "Imagine if..." thing, Joan — l think. Like that the book has a real story, a creative reason for existing, and isn't just a framework for learning to read (better). I kinda bristled [Whuh? You turned into a brush?] when I read that, though, because it reminded me of the debate as to whether Max actually travels to land of the Wild Things or it was all a dream, and as with similar stories I tend to come down on the side of it really happening (in the context of the book).

  4. Are you sure your son isn't just working his way through your book collection in reverse alphabetical order? I mean, I'd never deny a kid some Shel Silverstein, but I hope you're prepared to find him paging through Where Did I Come From?

  5. I'm sorry to hear of the man's passing, but he lived quite a full creative life and his works will surely endure... Where the Wild Things Are is just such a great, haunting reflection of what being an 8-year-old boy is like. Having kids would be a great excuse to build a little library of Sendak books and other classics, except that I'd already done so before the little ones came along!

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  7. Your daughter sounds not unlike my younger niece a few years ago, Joan. Her time was spent in one of three personalities: sweetest little huggy-lovey thing in the world, 1920s gun moll, and "wolf girl".


  8. LK: as with similar stories I tend to come down on the side of it really happening (in the context of the book).

    I know exactly what you mean, LK, and in fact we've talked about this, but Max's journey in Where the Wild Things Are is pretty close to the edge for me. Even though in general I agree with you (Hobbes is really there, Dorothy really traveled to Oz — in the books, she obviously did; in the MGM movie, I'm pretty sure they're suggesting that she didn't what with the actors playing dual roles in Kansas and Oz, although I choose to believe otherwise) I think that certain details point to it all being a reverie; of course, there's nothing to say that Max's desire to escape couldn't have actually called forth a bridge between his bedroom and the forest that leads to the river that leads to the land of the Wild things, nor that this all being rather magic his voyage couldn't have brought him back the same night while his dinner was still warm. I suspect that Sendak would say that we're all right.

    Arben: Where the Wild Things Are is just such a great, haunting reflection of what being an 8-year-old boy is like.

    I completely agree. The fantasy of escape and independence coupled with the desire to return home to parents and bedroom and supper just gets at the primal push-pull of childhood.