By Story Star correspondent Jane Haynes
Tributes poured in recently as reports announced that the controversial and best-selling author Maurice Sendak had passed away at the age of eighty-three. Sendak, who penned over fifty children’s books including the controversial Where the Wild Things Are, is said to have died from complications following a recent stroke on 8th May. In its obituary dedicated to the author, The New York Times referred to him as “the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century.”
Sendak received high praise during his lifetime and career as an author. As well as a string of bestselling novels and illustrated children’s books, he won a number of prestigious awards and accolades including the Caldecott Medal, a National Book Award and the National Medal of Arts. As gifted at illustration as he was with the written word, he also won the Hans Christian Anderson Award in 1970 for children’s book illustration.
The themes and subject matter of his popular children’s tales never failed to entertain or arouse controversy. While he is often lauded for his departure from the more classical formula of the children’s book with all its pleasantry and happy endings, the dark nature of the subject matter dealt with in his stories was often challenged as being unsuited to his age group and genre of choice.
Probably the most famous, or infamous, of these is undoubtedly 1963’s Where the Wild Things Are. The thirty-seven-page book tells the story of Max, a young boy with a vivid imagination who, when he is sent to bed without supper for causing mischief, enters the world of the Wild Things. While the Wild Things appear to be fearsome creatures, Max conquers them by looking fearlessly into their eyes without blinking and is made ‘king of all the Wild Things’. Had the book been written and published in this modern era critics would hardly bat an eyelid at it, however, at the time the book caused ripples in the publishing industry. The theme and plot were considered far too dark for the children’s genre and the book received negative critical reviews, and was even banned from libraries.
As we are well aware of by now, however, hype only heightens the intrigue, and all the negative press could not stop children from reading the book. When the banning rules were finally relaxed, Sendak’s controversial work was returned to and received in a more positive light. One critic aptly referred to the book, which was also illustrated by Sendak himself, as “one of the very few picture books to make an entirely deliberate and beautiful, use of the psychoanalytic story of anger.” The success which followed the renewed appreciation of the book saw it soar onto bestseller lists and ensure that, over half a century later, it has never been out of print.
Sendak went on to enjoy equal success with such works as Chicken Soup with Rice, and the controversial In the Night Kitchen. The latter caused quite the stir among literary critics and readers alike who opened up the pages to discover the story of a young boy who nearly gets cooked after falling into a bowl of batter. However, while negative reviews may have been par for the course with Sendak’s innovative vision of the children’s story, he was always a firm favourite among the children who so loved his “edgy” books.
Maurice Sendak will be remembered as a true innovator of the literary industry, and particularly for his work in the children’s genre. He was fearless in his pursuit to depict the true nightmarish fears which can often preoccupy the mind of the young child, and emerged as a pioneer of the genre, making people sit up and take notice of the child’s voice.