Maurice Sendak appreciation: Author left mark on Baltimore readers

Author Maurice Sendak (left) and Sanford Unger lead a procession during Goucher's commencement in 2004.
Author Maurice Sendak (left) and Sanford Unger lead a procession during Goucher's commencement in 2004. (Jim Burger, Handout photo)

Somewhere the wild things are roaring their terrible roars and gnashing their terrible teeth and rolling their terrible eyes and showing their terrible claws.

They're mourning their creator, children's book author Maurice Sendak, who stepped into his private boat on Tuesday and waved goodbye.

The 83-year-old Sendak died Tuesday morning at a hospital in Connecticut, four days after suffering a stroke.

"When I heard the news on the radio, it was just a punch in the gut," said Selma Levi, who supervises the children's department of the Central Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

"I know he was older. But I thought, 'He just can't be gone.'"

Though Sendak was the author and illustrator of 20 children's books (the 21st is scheduled to be published posthumously), he is loved most for his 1963 classic, "Where the Wild Things Are."

For nearly 50 years, the story of Max and the monsters he tamed has given children tacit permission to be their most beastly selves, while reassuring them that they can return at any time to the warmth of their beds, a hot supper, and their parents' unconditional love.

Levi began reading "Where the Wild Things Are" to her son Adam in 1994, when he was 3 years old.

"If you give a child one book when he is 3 years old, it should be that book," Levi said.

"We gave Adam a stuffed animal of one of the wild things, and he would take it to bed with him every night. He insisted that I talk to him in my wild things voice. I read that book to him for the next three to four years. The story still resonates with children, even when they're supposedly 'too old' for picture books."

For that matter, she said, adults frequently check out copies of that book. And they don't always pretend that they're borrowing it for their offspring.

"That book was ground-breaking," Levi said, "and they want to relive that pleasure. No one who reads it again as an adult is ever disappointed."

If Sendak's books have been a formative influence on two generations of children, it's probably because the place from which the author wrote was so dark.

Goucher College President Sanford J. Ungar recalls a 1981 interview with Sendak on National Public Radio that quickly turned into an on-air therapy session — for both men. (At the time, Ungar was a host of the show "All Things Considered.")

"For some reason, it was just a very emotional interview," Ungar recalled.

"What I remember very vividly and with some degree of awkwardness is that when we came out of the studio, we were both in tears.

"He had a very traumatic childhood, and he told me amazing things about how those early experiences fed into his books. For instance, the wild things were patterned after some of his relatives who survived the Holocaust. He was frightened of them as a child.

" 'In the Night Kitchen' is about all the nightmares and fears he had as a child of falling into a bottle of milk. If you read that book closely, it's full of psychological insights."

The interview made such a strong impression on both men that Sendak requested that it be reprised when he delivered the commencement address at Goucher College in 2004.

Children instantly were entranced by Sendak's books. Their parents were another story.

When "In the Night Kitchen" was published in 1970, it included an anatomically correct illustration of baby Mickey, complete with genitals. Librarians and parents nationwide promptly covered the infant's bottom with an inked-on diaper.

"When I taught kindergarten in the 1970s, those books wore out so often that I was always buying new copies," said Mona Kerby, who coordinates McDaniel College's graduate program in writing children's and young adult fiction.

"Adults found the stories frightening. But I never had a child who was scared by them."

Kerby frequently holds Sendak's books up as a model for her aspiring writers.

"Every word is essential," she said. "The books are poetic, rhythmic and sparse, and yet they tell a powerful story. They show you that children are stronger and need less protection than most adults think."

Perhaps it's not surprising that the boy who remembers being haunted by the Lindbergh kidnapping grew up to be a crotchety adult nicknamed "Morose Sendak."

"He was quite eccentric, there's no question about it," Ungar said.

When he was the Goucher commencement speaker, Sendak made an unusual request.

"He had to have a very large number of pillows in his hotel room," Ungar recalled. "There had to be enough to completely surround himself in bed."

It seems that even the king of the monsters, sailing back over a year, in and out of weeks and through a day, never stopped needing to end his voyages in the comfort of a soft bed.

An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Goucher College President Sanford J. Ungar. The Sun regrets the error.