Celebrated ‘Wild Things’ creator dies aged 83
Children’s author Maurice Sendak has died of a stroke. His dark, surreal stories and beautiful illustrations were adored by young and old – but they were more than just playful fantasies.
Before 1963 most children’s books were populated by sweet, obedient boys and girls. The evils they triumphed over were petty and unthreatening; the lessons they learned were easy and complete.
Then along came Where the Wild Things Are. Its hero Max is rude and aggressive. Its cast of savage, oversized monsters were a weird mixture of daydream and nightmare. It is a strange fantasy about a child’s dark and turbulent emotional world – and it changed children’s fiction forever.
Maurice Sendak, the author and illustrator of Where the Wild Things Are, died yesterday at the age of 83. He had never expected to live so long: during his sickly childhood, Sendak’s parents made no secret of the fact that they constantly feared his death.
Illness was not all that troubled Sendak’s youth. Growing up as an immigrant Jew in 1930s New York, he witnessed the effects of the Holocaust from afar. On the day of his Bar Mitzvah, Sendak’s father discovered that his European relatives had vanished into Nazi concentration camps. Then there was his sexuality: he was gay, and desperate not to be.
Sendak’s disturbed childhood seeped unmistakably into his books. In one a child is kidnapped; another is a retelling of the Holocaust. ‘I refuse to lie to children,’ Sendak defiantly said. As one of his books concludes: ‘nothing ever turns out neatly, bullies don’t give up completely.’
It was an attitude that won him enemies as well as adoration. ‘These are not books you leave in the presence of sensitive children,’ one librarian said. In The Night Kitchen, his second most famous work, became one of America’s banned books – critics reacted furiously the young hero’s nudity.
His writing was based on the realisation that children do not live in comfort and innocence: they can be wild, scared and aware of bad things in the world.
But it was not all doom and gloom: he appealed to children’s fantasies as well as their fears. ‘Dear Mr. Sendak,’ one child wrote. ‘How much does it cost to get to where the wild things are? If it’s not expensive, my sister and I would like to spend the summer there.’
Sure Maurice Sendak was good, say sceptics – for a children’s writer. But what a pity he never wrote for adults! Children have simple desires, short attention spans and only a murky understanding of the world. Kids' books can be loveable, they say; but with such a limited audience, they can never be great.
‘Nonsense!’ say fans: adults with these snobbish attitudes are more ‘limited’ than any child. Children feel things more powerfully than anyone, and their imaginations are just as vivid. If only adults were as in touch with their own emotions, they say, perhaps the literature they read would be as brave and unusual as Sendak’s.
- What is your favourite children’s book or film? Would you rate it as highly as great art for adults?
- Are children more imaginative than adults?
- Draw the design for a character in an illustrated children’s book – make them as distinctive as possible!
- Write a serious analysis of any children’s book. Think about its themes, symbolism, what it says about childhood and the worldview of its author.
Some People Say...
“Children ought to be protected from the harsh realities of the world.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- I’ve never read anything by Maurice Sendak – did he write anything for older audiences?
- Sendak denied that he had ever written books ‘for children’: he simply wrote about what he had felt as a child. It’s certainly not too late to read books likeWhere The Wild Things Are, Outside, Over There or Brundibar.
- Were children’s books really so dull before Sendak?
- Well, notall of them. In fact the list of great adult writers who have written for children is astonishing: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, Mark Twain, James Joyce. Some rate Oscar Wilde’s children’s books as his best work. But many of these went unpublished, and none caused as much of a sensation as Sendak.
- Immigrant Jew
- Many European Jews fled to New York from the 1880s onward to escape discrimination and persecution in Europe. They started out poor, but good education and a culture of hard work quickly made many of them wealthy – although they certainly didn’t escape prejudice entirely. Today New York has over a million Jews, more than any other city outside Israel.
- Desperate not to be
- In the 1930s, few people or countries were tolerant of homosexuality. Many gay people felt miserable, ashamed and afraid of being discovered. Maurice Sendak never allowed his parents to know the truth. ‘All I wanted to be was straight, so my parents could be happy,’ he said.
- Banned books
- Like almost every country, the USA frequently banned books until the mid-20th Century. Since then it has been more difficult; but campaigns still routinely lead to books being banned from schools and public libraries. Regular victims include classics like Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men and Catcher in the Rye. Even the dictionary has been banned.