In Which We Remember Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak, best known as the writer and illustrator of the beloved classic Where the Wild Things Are, passed away today at the age of 83. Where the Wild Things Are was first published in 1963, but its fantastical vision of the world and its profound understanding of how the world really looks to a child means that it (and the rest of Sendak’s work) has stayed incredibly relevant for decades, and inspired a 2009 film created by Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers that proved the themes of the children’s book were still more than complex enough to be meaningful to adults. Sendak’s works were staples in millions of households; from The Night Kitchen to Outside, Over There Sendak’s words and illustrations were cherished by children everywhere, as well as the dozens more books he illustrated. He wrote and/or illustrated over 100 books, and over the course of his career received a National Book Award, a Caldecott Medal, the Hans Christian Andersen Award for children’s book illustration, and the National Medal of Arts.

Sendak’s gift as a writer and a person was turning away from the sentimentality and preciousness that we usually expect from children’s authors; in his books and in life he saw a world that was tough and sometimes scary but also beautiful. He refused to compromise in any aspect of his life; he was openly gay, and insisted on respect for children when others wanted to patronize them. In interviews, he proved endearingly grumpy and unfailingly honest, calling Salman Rushdie a “flaccid fuckhead” and candidly explaining his influences and motivations, like the fact that his work on his last book, Bumble-ardy, happened when he was “intensely aware of death” because of caring for his partner Eugene as he died of lung cancer. Now that Sendak has also passed on, we remember how grateful we are for his life and his work; he brought us to the unknown land full of wild and scary things, but he also brought us back from it safely.


I don’t know when I read Where the Wild Things Are, but I remember feeling like it was a grown up book, because the illustrations were darker and better and not fluffy and primary coloured and light. So I was probably in kindergarten. I also remember only understanding that it was supposed to be scary when I read it to someone else while babysitting (they were probably six and I was probably eleven, with very trusting parents) and it made them hide under the blankets for hours.


I lost my copy of Where the Wild Things Are after I bought it at the AU student store. My friends saw the movie without me because it was a dark time in my life and I hated it.

“I said anything I wanted because I don’t believe in children I don’t believe in childhood. I don’t believe that there’s a demarcation. ‘Oh you mustn’t tell them that. You mustn’t tell them that.’ You tell them anything you want. Just tell them if it’s true. If it’s true you tell them.”


I think I loved him precisely because he was crotchety. I remember thinking that only a total asshole could write Where the Wild Things Are because it was TERRIFYING and also proof that kids are assholes, too, and so it just made sense, and I really appreciated that about him — the fact that he knew I could be a jerk. A terrified jerk.


When I was little I read literally everything anyone put in front of me, from cereal boxes to romance novels to 400-page scifi epics. I tended to be fairly disdainful of actual “children’s literature,” because duh, I was practically a grownup, and little kid stuff was dumb. Except for when the little kid stuff was Maurice Sendak’s; it was so smart and weird and beautiful and eerie and sometimes scary and I loved it. Those books didn’t talk down to me, and I didn’t feel like I was being presented with an alternate, sugarcoated fantasy version of the world so much as a layer of the world that maybe really existed, something secret and magical and unsettling. Which is something every child needs to believe in, I think, in order to make it through the weird secret terrible parts of childhood. Also, while I like to keep my Dave Eggers feelings separate from my Maurice Sendak feelings, I also cried like a giant, weepy baby at the Where the Wild Things Are movie.

Terry Gross: Can you share some of your favorite comments from readers that you’ve gotten over the years?

Maurice Sendak: Oh, there’s so many. Can I give you just one that I really like? It was from a little boy. He sent me a charming card with a little drawing. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a postcard 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 drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.

— from interview on Fresh Air, December 2011


Maurice Sendak was one of the few people that didn’t lie to me when I was a child. When everyone else was like, “There’s no such thing as monsters, kid” Sendak was all, “You’re damn right there’s monsters in your bedroom, so you best not give them a reason to eat you.” I feel like when I was young I appreciated the fact that there was at least one person who wasn’t telling me I was wrong about the world.

“I’m totally crazy, I know that. I don’t say that to be a smartass, but I know that that’s the very essence of what makes my work good. And I know my work is good. Not everybody likes it, that’s fine. I don’t do it for everybody. Or anybody. I do it because I can’t not do it.”

— from an interview with the Guardian, October 2011


In retrospect, my parents were potentially trying to start a Maurice Sendak library. We had not just the books Sendak wrote, but also plenty he illustrated. As a result, Sendak’s drawings have a permanent home in my brain. I can still vividly picture Little Bear wearing his cardboard space helmet preparing to go to the moon, the mustached man selling baby elephants in What Do You Say, Dear?, and the little boy dressed as an Indian on the cover about to be lassoed (who I always assumed was my old brother). I could stand up this minute and recite the entire January poem from Chicken Soup With Rice. This is probably only because I could easily draw you a rendition of the poem’s illustration. The little boy slipping on the sliding on the ice while he sips once (and sips twice) his bowl of chicken soup with rice. Of course, the Sendak drawings I remember best were in The Night Kitchen. I’d like to say this is because of the magical imagery or maybe because of the Nazi bakers. It is instead, of course, because the little boy’s penis is showing. I was scandalized.


I never read Where the Wild Things Are when I was little, but I did get high with my best friend and go watch the movie and then call my mom and cry.

Sendak shakes his head beneath the low-beamed ceiling, in this room full of art and old rugs. “I can’t believe I’ve turned into a typical old man. I can’t believe it.” He smiles and his face transforms. “I was young just minutes ago.”

photo credit john dugdale

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  1. I found out about this during 3rd period this morning, and had to face the rest of the day teaching little brats who DON’T EVEN KNOW WHO THIS MAN IS. Which was almost as bad as the other English teachers NOT RECOGNIZING THE NAME MAURICE SENDAK.

    • I’m moving my previously planned “Where the Wild Things Are” tattoo from my leg to my face. You aren’t educated if you don’t know Maurice Sendak.*

      *The more you know. #shootingstar

  2. I can’t remember another time when I have been as devastated by the death of a stranger as I am today. Maurice, you were formative to me in every sense of the word. Give ’em hell, wherever you are.

  3. Okay, first MCA and now Maurice Sendak too?!?!?! I was REALLY hoping you guys would dedicate a post to him! Thank you. I still catch myself watching Little Bear re-runs to escape from my faux adulthood.

    I’m off to start a wild rumpus.

  4. I am really heartbroken about this. The Little Bear books are the first books I remember reading on my own – while not his words, I recognized his illustration style as I moved on to his other books. I think Sendak’s stories don’t resonate for all children, but for those with which they do, he really created something special.

  5. In my family, Where the Wild Things Are was that book we heard so many times that we could recite all the words perfectly with each page to prove that we could already “read.”

  6. I don’t remember reading any Maurice Sendak books when I was a kid but I must have because I read everything, I checked out stacks of books from the library. But I’m still sad to hear about his death because he’s freaking awesome and his interviews are amazing.

    • Those two Colbert interviews were so funny! I will forever refer to sex as “the wild rumpus” from now on.

      • And and…did anyone else see stephen’s tribute to Sendak last night, with the bonus interview footage. I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t sprint to the TV to catch it.
        After NC’s amendment one bullshit, I like to believe Maurice married his partner in heaven, and shel silverstein officiated the ceremony.

  7. I just love this man and thinking about him makes me so happy and I’m happy he was and is here and real and in existence.

    whenever people ask how I’m so good with kids (I work with them), I just wanna say – “I don’t believe in children. I don’t believe in childhood.”

    I never felt like a “child” and I don’t feel like an “adult” – social constructs.

  8. Thank you for posting about this. I found out this afternoon and was really upset about it. I spent tonight reminiscing with my dad about all my favorite Maurice Sendak books. Did any of you ever read The Big Green Book? I had completely forgotten about that until tonight.

  9. “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 drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”-

    That is beautiful.

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