Did you feel the earth wobble this morning? Maurice Sendak died, as we all must. But his contributions to the world were more than most of us can hope to make, and the loss hits hard.
From the boisterous ebullience of his illustrations for Ruth Krauss' A Hole Is to Dig to the gleeful subversion of In the Night Kitchen, from the gothic foreboding of Outside Over There to the plaintive, determined innocence of his illustrations for Tony Kushner's Brundibar, he delighted and provoked, often at the same time.
See all of Maurice Sendak’s books reviewed by Kirkus.
As a children's librarian and as a mom, I turned to Sendak over and over. I read some of his books so many times I could recite them in my sleep—if I'd wanted to miss out on the joyous rhythms of Chicken Soup with Rice, that is. Pierre, who didn't care, was a particular favorite as a group read; the children invested their "I don't care"s with a one-of-a-kind combination of energy and ennui.
And then, of course, there are the Wild Things. How many of us sailed from the room where the walls became the world all around through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to the place Where the Wild Things Are? Without the illustrations, the story is an auditory gem, offering just enough words to create a meter that carries readers effortlessly along misbehaving Max's epic journey.
Visually, page by page, Sendak's densely crosshatched illustrations grow larger and larger until, with the commencement of the wild rumpus, they take over entirely. For three spectacular, entirely wordless spreads, King Max and his wild things cavort with total abandon—the ultimate fulfillment of a child's fruitless dreams of power. When Max becomes lonely and wants to be where someone loves him best of and decides to return, it is no capitulation to parental authority. That his supper is "still hot" says everything to Max and readers about the complexity of the parent-child relationship.
More than any other single picture book of the 20th century, Where the Wild Things Are defined excellence in craft and broke barriers for generations of picture-book creators. Sendak's legacy, then, is more than the few dozen books he either illustrated or wrote and illustrated—it is an aesthetic that honors children's rights to their emotions without reserve.
Never afraid to plumb the darkness both within and without, Sendak armed us for the world. He led generations through the joys and nightmares of childhood. Beyond his mastery of both image and word, his fearlessness in confronting those visceral terrors and showing children that they are not alone was perhaps his greatest gift.