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Maurice Sendak Sails Away at 83

May 8, 2012 | Harry Kimball

When we heard that Maurice Sendak died today, at 83, my first thought was of all those teenagers obsessed with The Hunger Games and the rest of the current crop of post-apocalyptic young adult fiction. Not because Sendak wrote young-adult fiction—he'd have been appalled at that thoughtbut because for so many of those kids, Sendak's weird and wooly Wild Things were their first taste of the fictional dark side. Sendak was stunningly and unapologetically tuned into children's desire, and, indeed need, to acknowledge the feelings that make their world more fraught than we'd like to remember. And still, Where the Wild Things Are appears immortal. Few books I know of so consistently span generations in their appeal.

Where does that appeal come from? "There's a cruelty to childhood, there's an anger," Sendak told the AP in 2009. "And I did not want to reduce Max to the trite image of the good little boy that you find in too many books."

Where the Wild Things AreIn an interview with Stephen Colbert that aired earlier this year, Sendak managed to further elucidate his philosophy between a surprising number of one-liners and dyspeptic glee. (I heartily suggest watching it, though a predilection for Colbert's style of satire is probably a prerequisite.) In response to a leading comment from the comedian on the "simple" task of being a child, Sendak says: "There is something in this country that is so opposed to understanding the complexity of children. It's quite amazing." We have to agree. In his weird and wonderful way, Sendak never stopped speaking up for kids.

Margalit Fox, in the New York Times obituary for Sendak, writes that he portrayed "a luminous world, at once lovely and dreadful, suspended between wakefulness and dreaming. In so doing, he was able to convey both the propulsive abandon and the pervasive melancholy of children's interior lives." This doesn't mean that he encouraged sadness or carelessness. But he plumbed the depths of the childhood psyche and found a mirror to reflect it. His books have this message for children: "I understand." 

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