May 8: The Man Who Made “Happily Ever After” Get Real

Today in 2012, longtime Connecticut resident Maurice Sendak died in Danbury from complications following a stroke. Sendak was a prolific children’s book creator who wrote and illustrated dozens of books during a more than half-century career. His path-breaking approach to reflecting the psychology of children in his work transformed the field of children’s literature.

The self-taught Sendak was born into a Jewish family in Brooklyn in 1928. He began his career filling in backgrounds for comic books and illustrating other authors’ children’s books (most notably the Little Bear series by Else Holmelund Minarik) before publishing his own work in the early 1960s.

Maurice Sendak signing books at the UConn Co-op Bookstore in 1988. (UConn Libraries Archives & Special Collections)

Sendak’s most famous work — and the one that almost single-handedly transformed children’s literature — was Where the Wild Things Are. This concisely worded and unusually illustrated story chronicled the fantastical journey of a young boy to a world populated by wild, giant, and grotesque creatures. Published in 1963, the book completely departed from the typical children’s story models, which tended to feature well-behaved children in idealistic settings and concluded with a moral or lesson in good behavior. Sendak’s story is about a boy named Max who dresses in a wolf costume, wreaks havoc through his house, and is sent to bed without his supper. From his bedroom, Max magically sails to an island of malicious (but appealing) wild creatures. After successfully intimidating them, Max becomes “King of the Wild Things” and enjoys a romp with his new subjects. He gets lonely, however, and returns home, where he finds a hot dinner waiting for him.

Critics of Sendak’s radical new approach thought the book’s tone and art style to be subversive, with the creatures appearing too “nightmare-inducing” to be suitable for children. Most children disagreed; the 338-word, lavishly illustrated book has been a perennial bestseller and is often hailed as one of the most beloved children’s books of all time. (The New York Public Library ranks Where the Wild Things Are number four in All-Time Book Checkouts.) It is credited with bringing a more honest portrayal of children’s psychological motivations to the genre, a perspective that has largely replaced the formulaic, moralistic works that typified the field before Sendak.

Over his career, Maurice Sendak accumulated a number of prestigious awards, including the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration, the National Medal of the Arts (presented to him in 1996 by President Bill Clinton) and the Caldecott Medal for the artwork of Where the Wild Things Are. In 2009, Where the Wild Things Are was adapted into a feature-length film directed by Spike Jonze.

In early 2018, the University of Connecticut Archives and Special Collections became the home for the Maurice Sendak Collection, which features artwork, drafts, and source materials related to Sendak’s children’s literature. Sendak received an honorary degree from the University in 1990, when he was the featured guest commencement speaker. Though Sendak passed away today in Connecticut history, his work, happily and ironically, seems likely to live on ever after.

Street art honoring Sendak in Wicker Park, Chicago.

Further Reading

Margalit Fox, “Maurice Sendak, Author of Splendid Nightmares,” New York Times

Kenneth Best, “UConn Archives to Host Maurice Sendak Artwork,” UConn Today

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