Finding the wild things

Characters from Where the Wild Things Are, some of which resemble Maurice Sendak’s relatives from childhood.
Characters from Where the Wild Things Are, some of which resemble Maurice Sendak’s relatives from childhood.

MAURICE Sendak did not think of himself as a children's author, but as an author who told the truth about childhood.

"I like interesting people and kids are really interesting people," he said last year. "And if you didn't paint them in little blue, pink and yellow, it's even more interesting."

Sendak, who died this week, aged 83, days after suffering a stroke, revolutionised children's books and how we think about childhood simply by leaving in what so many writers before had excluded.

Dick and Jane were no match for his naughty Max. His kids misbehaved and didn't regret it, and in their dreams and nightmares fled to the most unimaginable places. Monstrous creatures were devised from his studio, but none more frightening than the grownups in his stories or the cloud of the Holocaust that darkened his every page.

"From their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions. Fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives. They continually cope with frustrations as best they can," he said upon receiving the Caldecott Medal in 1964 for Where the Wild Things Are, his signature book.

"And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming wild things."

Rarely was a man so uninterested in being loved or adored. Communities attempted to ban him, but his books sold millions of copies and his curmudgeonly persona became as much a part of his legend as Where the Wild Things Are, which became a hit movie in 2009.

He seemed to act out everyone's fantasy of a nasty old man with a hidden and generous heart. No one granted the privilege could forget his snarly smile, his raspy, unprintable and adorable dismissals of such modern piffle as e-books and publicity tours, his misleading insistence that his life didn't matter.

Besides illustrating his own work, he also provided drawings - sometimes sweet, sometimes nasty - for Else Holmelund Minarik's series Little Bear, George MacDonald's The Light Princess and adaptations of E.T.A. Hoffman's The Nutcracker and the Brothers Grimm's King Grisly-Beard.

His most recent book that he wrote and illustrated was Bumble-Ardy, a naughty pig party which came out in 2011, based on an old animated skit he worked up for Sesame Street.

None of Sendak's books were memoirs, but all were personal, if only for their celebrations of disobedience and intimations of fear and death.

""He drew children in a realistic way, as opposed to an idealised way," children's books historian Leonard S. Marcus said.

He worked for decades out of the studio of his shingled 18th century country home reachable only by a bumpy road that seemed designed to shield him from his adoring public.

Sendak spoke often, endlessly, about death in recent years - dreading it, longing for it. He didn't mind being old because the young were under so much pressure.

But he missed his late siblings and his longtime companion, Eugene Glynn, who died in 2009. Work, not people, was his reason to carry on.

>> Read more lifestyle stories.

Topics:  book