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Maurice Sendak: Wild Thing

Getty Images / Barbara Alper

Let the wild rumpus begin!

Fifty years ago, Maurice Sendak published a children's book the likes of which had never been seen.

Where the Wild Things Are was initially dismissed by critics and banned in libraries, a victim of adults who disapproved of its "wild rumpus" and scary-looking characters. Fortunately for Sendak, kids don't pay much attention to book reviews. Young people adored Where the Wild Things Are, checking it out from the libraries that did make it available, and reading and rereading it again and again. Where the Wild Things Are was a book written for children – and children helped make it an enduring classic.

Most anyone who has been a kid (or known one) is familiar with the story of wolf-suited Max who journeys to a magical land and meets a merry group of friendly monsters. But unless you are a Sendak superfan, you might not know the real origin of the “Wild Things.” Not your garden-variety monsters, the Wild Things were based on Sendak's aunts and uncles, who brought their own wild rumpus when they visited him at his childhood home in Brooklyn. As a child, Sendak spent much time drawing caricatures of his relatives, and these drawings informed the creations of the book's Wild Things. Meanwhile, the name "Wild Things" reflected Sendak's Jewish upbringing – the Yiddish expression "vilde chaya" meant rambunctious children.

Despite the initially lukewarm-to-hostile reception Where the Wild Things Are received, the book did come to gain the honors its young readers knew it deserved. In 1964, it won the prestigious Caldecott Medal, and through the years it has been included in list after list of best children's books. And, as many good stories are, it has been adapted more than once for film. In 1973, Sendak helped Gene Dietch create an animated short, using his own original artwork from the book. Quite true to the book, the short film was a hit.

Sendak went on to collaborate with Oliver Knussen to create an operatic adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. Debuting in 1980, the opera is still performed – recently at the New York City Opera.

Before Maurice Sendak died in 2012, he was able to be a part of yet another adaptation: Spike Jonze's live-action film Where the Wild Things Are, released in 2009. A producer of the movie, Sendak was touched by the final product.

Maurice Sendak would have turned 85 years old this week. In honor of the man who encouraged each of us to be a Wild Thing… let the wild rumpus begin!