An EW critic recalls the beloved writer and illustrator who took a hard yet breathtaking look at childhood

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
May 11, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

In sex decades of gorgeous work, Maurice Sendak wrote or illustrated over a hundred books, stories that sometimes terrified cautious parents while simply speaking truth to power in the eyes of young readers. He was garlanded with awards. He was sought out as a literary eminence. Yet even (or maybe especially) in the years since the 2007 death of his partner of 50 years, psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn, the man never mellowed. And that irascible honesty was the greatest gift of all to his audience. What charmed as a Did he really say that? thrill for younger TV viewers who heard Sendak speak his mind for the first time on The Colbert Report in January 2012 was just bluntness as usual for the man who said, ”I refuse to cater to the bulls— of innocence.”

The artist, illustrator, and writer, who died May 8 of complications from a stroke at age 83, was never afraid to look scary things in the eye. Sometimes, in great books such as Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen, he’d say BOO! right back at them. Sometimes he’d laugh or roar. Always, in his art and in his life, he faced down wild things — fears, desires, outrages of history — with panache. As a result, he passed the no-BS test with his toughest critics: children.

Sendak’s own unhappy childhood provided inspiration the hard way. The son of Polish Jewish immigrants, he grew up haunted by the ghosts of family members murdered in the Holocaust. (In 2003 he illustrated an acclaimed picture book, Brundibar, based on an opera performed by children at the Theresienstadt concentration camp.) Depression was daily weather in the Sendaks’ Brooklyn household, and young Maurice was a sickly boy who loved to draw. Still, there’s no accounting for how a sad and sickly kid grows up to find powerful artistic release in the creation of a fantasy kingdom of exquisitely drawn and colored monsters, as Sendak did in his 1963 masterwork Where the Wild Things Are. He poured his own emotional rumpus into Max, the hero of Wild Things who is punished by his mother for making ”mischief,” then sails away to live among magnificently scary monsters who know a king of wild things when they see one. There the author generously improves on his own childhood reality: In the end, a homesick Max returns to a loving mother.

In Sendak’s 2011 book Bumble-Ardy (inspired by an animated short he did for Sesame Street in the 1970s), the title character, a 9-year-old pig, lives with his aunt Adeline after his parents have been, hmmm, eaten. He’s never had a birthday party, so he decides to throw one for himself while his aunt is at work. His pig guests arrive in grotesque costumes. They party hard. When his aunt returns home, she threatens to turn the revelers into, hmmm, ham. While delicate parents may worry about the unsettling stories Sendak spun, the rest of us kids say, ”Oh please don’t go — we’ll eat you up — we love you so!”