As you have no doubt heard by now, the great Maurice Sendak passed away early this morning at the age of 83. Like most people of my generation, I've long had fond memories of Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, but it wasn't until this past year, when I began reading it aloud to my daughter, that I finally understood just what a multilayered accomplishment it is.
I say "began" reading it aloud, because once wasn't enough, of course. My daughter requested it over and over for days, and it soon entered our regular bedtime reading rotation, as did many of Sendak's other works, from the Little Bear stories that he only illustrated to the four tiny child-size volumes in his Nutshell Library.
The outpouring of emotion in response to Sendak's death has been immediate and intense, as is only natural given his great influence on so many people's formative imaginations. His most famous book, Where the Wild Things Are, is the title most often being cited today, and it may indeed be his most perfect story. As his former editor Ursula Nordstrom wrote back in 1964, "I think Wild Things is the first complete work of art in the picture book field, conceived, written, illustrated, executed in entirety by one person of authentic genius." She went on: "Most books are written from the outside in. But Wild Things comes from the inside out, if you know what I mean."
But while Wild Things was Sendak's breakthrough book, it would be a shame if readers overlooked his later masterpieces, including not just In the Night Kitchen, a Freudian update of Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland, but also the emotionally shattering Outside Over There, in which a young girl's baby sister is kidnapped by goblins (who resemble human infants themselves).
"Herman Melville said that artists have to take a dive, and either you hit your head on a rock and you split your skull and you die, or that blow to the head is so inspiring that you come back up and do the best work you ever did," Sendak said in an interview late last year. "But you have to take the dive, and you do not know what the result will be." Creating Outside Over There was possibly the deepest dive Sendak ever took. "It brought on a nervous breakdown of monumental force," he said. "It slammed me to the ground. I got that close to the fire!"
A true artistic visionary, Sendak will be sorely missed—by both parents and children for generations to come.
—Timothy Hodler, research director at Details