As I’m sure you’ve all heard, Maurice Sendak passed away this morning at the age of 83. Certainly, I was saddened by the news, as Where the Wild Things Are and the Nutshell Library were a part of my early childhood like so many others. And like so many other newish parents, I’ve come back to Sendak recently, sharing both books with my sons, as well as adding In the Night Kitchen and Little Bear into the mix. If one mark of success for a picture book artist is a book that speaks across generations, then Sendak’s career was truly unparalleled.
That said, I distinctly recall back when I started in kids’ books that Sendak was looked upon less than favorably by his peers. Partly, I think there was some jealously of his success, but I also think there was a feeling that he turned his back on the children’s book community. In particular, back in the 1990s Sendak spent a lot of time on the college lecture circuit (I saw him give a fantastic talk as an undergrad), which definitely rubbed some people the wrong way, for both of the aforementioned reasons. And, of course, there was his famously prickly demeanor, which didn’t always seem so lovable to those on the inside…
But I also wonder if his lack of picture book production over the last two decades had something to do with it. Most working picture book artists average at least a book a year, if not two, and by going so long between books, I think he may have heightened both the jealously and resentment factors. Certainly, that’s an old story with artists—those who deny the audience what they want run the risk of losing their fans.
Yet whether it was a conscious decision to curry favor, a sense of mortality, or whether it was just where his art took him, his recent spate of activity—the Wild Things movie, Brundibar, Bumble-Ardy, palling around with Stephen Colbert—certainly drew him back into the fold. And so it’s good to see all the tributes to him across the internet, especially from the children’s book community.
But really, the ultimate tribute will come tonight, when literally millions of children will go to sleep to his words—I know my kids will be two of them.