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How Maurice Sendak’s ‘Wild Things’ moved children’s books toward realism

Maurice Sendak's 'Wild Things,' in depicting how a tantrum might play out, paved the way for authors to show children more the world as it is, and less what adults think it ought to be.

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In this July 26, 1990 photo, artist Maurice Sendak signs his individual prints from 'The Mother Goose Collection,' in New York.

Susan Ragan/AP/File

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When Maurice Sendak’s groundbreaking “Where the Wild Things Are,” was published in 1963, some critics and parents grumbled about what they called its dark and nightmarish undertones.

But librarians rallied to what they saw as the picture book’s emotional honesty and psychological realism. It was awarded the Caldecott Medal for children’s literature in 1964 and – say today’s librarians, authors, and experts – forever changed the course of children’s books.

"With Maurice Sendak's 1963 classic tale of vengeful rebellion, Max and the Wild Things ushered in a new era in children's literature,” says Kathleen Horning, director of the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin School of Education in Madison.

“For the first time, authors and illustrators began to show young children the world as it really is, rather than how some adults in charge thought it ought to be,” she adds.

In subsequent years, the sort of subversiveness and humor that marked what has become a classic began to spill out in everything from picture books to young-adult series.

Harriet the Spy,” a cheeky update on the Nancy Drew tomes, came out soon after, points out Ms. Horning. Many works with a much more realistic depiction of the childhood experience followed, she says, such as John Steptoe’s 1969 “Stevie,” featuring a young boy’s experience as his family takes in an older foster child.

“In an earlier era, a book like this would probably have focused on the joys of having an older brother,” she says, “rather than exploring the more difficult psychological issues relating to feeling displaced by a newcomer as the book did.”

Sendak was at the heart of a major shift in focus for stories aimed at children, says Teresa Michals, professor of English at George Mason University

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