“Where the Wild Things Are” and More of Maurice’s Sendak’s Best Works (Photos)

He was one of the first writers to insist on telling kids the truth. Jimmy So on his most beloved children’s books.

Maurice Sendak’s Greatest Hits

Maurice Sendak, one of the most beloved children’s book artists of the 20th century, died Tuesday at the age of 83 from complications of a recent stroke. Sendak was one of the first writers to insist on telling kids the truth—that nightmares lurk in every journey, and dealing with perils is the essence of growing up. He did so in children’s books that stand up as literature, including, of course, the classic Where the Wild Things Are, but also In the Night Kitchen , Outside Over There, Chicken Soup With Rice, and the recently published Bumble-Ardy. Here are some of his greatest works.

Where the Wild Things Are

The story of Max, a rather naughty boy who throws a tantrum, gets sent to a timeout without supper, and decides to take a journey “to where the wild things are,” was first unpopular among critics, parents, teachers, and officials—in other words, every adult. Schools wanted it banned. But librarians began noticing that children kept checking it out over and over again. The three-dimensionality of the drawings helps, as Sendak is a master of texture. Fifty years later, people today still refer to Where the Wild Things Are as their “childhood,” because the mini-Odyssey of Max, who sets sail to a land full of giant monsters who, not too different from kids, are themselves capable of both goodness and inadvertent violence (sound like adults to you?), is not only a children’s story; it is a perfect symbol of growing up. Where the Wild Things Are put kids in charge of their own future. “Boys and girls may have to shield their parents from this book,” wrote the Cleveland Press at the time.

In the Night Kitchen
Mickey is a boy who takes a dream journey through a baker’s kitchen. He’s initially in bed, then finds himself floating while his clothes fall off. The boy is naked, and Sendak doesn’t hide the anatomy, which caused the book to be widely banned. Earlier this year, Sendak did a memorable interview with Stephen Colbert where the writer mentioned he was gay. Colbert quipped, “Why are you allowed to write children’s books?” to Sendak’s horror. Colbert then informed the author that he’s “cut out all the penises” in In the Night Kitchen. “There’s nothing wrong with you, of course,” Sendak replied.

Outside Over There

This 1981 book forms a sort of trilogy with the previous two titles, as all three are about learning the responsibilities of growing up. Ida, a young girl, is babysitting her infant sister, though she is a little jealous and resentful of the attention she gets. But when the baby is carried off by goblins—an idea that Sendak said was inspired by the Lindbergh baby kidnapping—she commits to rescuing and caring for the baby.

The Sign on Rosie’s Door

“There was a sign on Rosie’s door. It read, ‘If you want to know a secret, knock three times.’ Kathy knocked three times and Rosie opened the door.” Sendak was a tremendously versatile author and illustrator. While Outside Over There has a more realistic touch, and In the Night Kitchen is fantastically imaginative, this early 1960 book, a charming tale about what happens after the knock, was told through simple pen drawings. In 1975 the book was made into a movie, with music by Carole King.

Higglety Pigglety Pop!

Jennie, the heroine of Higglety Pigglety Pop!, is a white Sealyham terrier. You might remember her being chased by Max in Where the Wild Things Are. She was also, in real life, Sendak’s beloved pet, and he wrote the book as a tribute to her. Many of his books are intensely personal. In profound interviews in 2003 and 2011 with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, Sendak talked about his parents hiding the truth from him about his extended family, most of whom died in the Holocaust.


Sendak has also been a hugely important illustrator of books by other authors, including the first children’s story by the great Isaac Bashevis Singer. Zlateh the Goat won the Newberry Award in 1966. He’s also worked many times with the brilliant poet and critic Randall Jarrell, and one of his earliest collaborations, in 1954, with Meindert DeJong on The Wheel on the School, also won the Newberry.


After 1981’s Outside Over There, Sendak stopped writing his own text. In 2003 he illustrated Tony Kushner's version of  Brundibár, an opera first performed by children at the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Sendak was “one of the most important, if not the most important, writers and artists to ever work in children's literature,” Kushner said. “In fact, he's a significant writer and artist in literature. Period.” Sendak and Kushner became friends, and he even played a rabbi in the HBO production of Kushner’s play Angels in America.


After 30 years illustrating others’ works, Sendak returned with Bumble-Ardy, an exuberantly drawn story of a pig whose parents became dinner and who throws himself a birthday party. The success of Where the Wild Things Are allowed Sendak the luxury of carefully picking his projects. “Max is a useful child. What other 4- or 5-year-old allows his father to stay home and sulk?” he once said.

The Movie

In 2009 director Spike Jonze adapted Where the Wild Things Are, to a screenplay he cowrote with novelist Dave Eggers. The film received a lukewarm reception. See exclusive photos of some of the fantastical images from the film.

The Nutshell Library

A compilation of four beloved short books, including Chicken Soup with Rice; the cover of 1962’s Nutshell Library sums up Sendak wonderfully, showing a boy and a lion both reading a book. Throughout his life, Sendak seems to have searched for both levity and gravity, all through the joy and beauty of books.

AP Photo

Maurice Sendak