Maurice Sendak (1928–2012) is best known for his beloved book Where the Wild Things Are (1963), about a young boy who, after being sent to bed without supper, goes on a fantastical adventure where he meets fierce and playful monsters called the Wild Things. The book has sold more than 19 million copies worldwide, has been adapted as an opera and feature film, and is a staple of school libraries around the world.
While Where the Wild Things Are deserves all its accolades, Maurice Sendak’s life is fascinating and worthy of study even apart from his best-known work. Among many other accomplishments, he illustrated more than 150 books and won such prestigious awards as the Caldecott Medal, the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, and the National Medal of Arts, among others.
In this article, we’ll take a look at Sendak’s life as well as several classroom activities you can use to introduce him and his works to your students.
Maurice Sendak: A Brief Bio
Sendak’s early life was marked by global tragedy and personal hardship. Although his parents immigrated to the United States from Poland before the rise of Nazi concentration camps, many members of their extended family were murdered during Hitler’s rise to power, exposing Sendak to the realities of evil at a young age. In addition, as a child, Sendak suffered severe health problems that left him bedridden.
However, these challenges helped to shape Sendak as a writer and illustrator. For example, while struggling with his health, Sendak turned to books for companionship and entertainment, laying the groundwork for his later work as a writer. Watching the movie Fantasia at age 12 inspired him to become an artist, and rather than pursuing traditional training or education, he spent years teaching himself the craft that would later become his career.
Sendak’s artistic eye extended beyond writing and illustrating books. At different points throughout his life, he created window displays for the toy store FAO Schwarz; did costumes and stage design for productions such as The Magic Flute, Hansel and Gretel, and The Nutcracker; and illustrated for comic strips, a physics textbook, and more. Over his 60-year career, he collaborated with many other celebrated children’s authors and illustrated classics by Mother Goose, the Brothers Grimm, Herman Melville, and Leo Tolstoy.
Sendak lived with his partner, Eugene Glynn, for more than 50 years (until Glynn’s death).
Where the Wild Things Are
Like Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are has its own interesting history. Given the book’s enduring popularity, it’s hard to believe that it received negative reviews and was even banned from some libraries in the first couple of years after its publication. The general assessment was that the book was too dark and scary, with its harsh themes of anger and rebellion and the frightening look of the Wild Things themselves.
Sendak, however, was unapologetic about writing about the harder issues of life. He was once quoted as saying, “I refuse to lie to children. I refuse to cater to the [nonsense] of innocence.” Where the Wild Things Are was, in fact, semiautobiographical, as Sendak often clashed with his mother and had a difficult relationship with his parents throughout his life. Humorously, he also said that he based the Wild Things on the extended relatives who came to his parents’ house for dinner every Sunday night.
Despite the early criticisms, it’s worth noting that the book ends with Max missing his family and coming home to find a hot meal waiting for him—a sign that his mother cared deeply for him even when they butted heads. Between this more positive reading of the story—and the droves of kids asking to check it out of the library—the critics eventually caught up, and Sendak won the Caldecott Medal for “most distinguished American picture book for children” in 1964.
Classroom Activities: Let the Wild Rumpus Start!
Wild Things Crafts: Have some empty toilet paper or gift-wrapping rolls and paint? Then you can make your own Wild Thing! Blogger Katie Steuernagle shows you how to do this super simple craft activity to give your students a chance to exercise their creativity. Cost: Free
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak: A Complete Literature Study!: This comprehensive packet gives you tons of resources for a literature study on Where the Wild Things Are. Highlights include (among other things): author research activity; graphic organizers for characters, plot, setting, vocabulary, and more; drawing activities; writing prompts; letter to the author activity; grammar games; and much more. Cost: $4.65
Author Study – Maurice Sendak: In this research activity, students work through a guided worksheet to discover key facts about Maurice Sendak’s life. The TpT packet also contains a biography mini-book, poster, author pamphlet, author card, and book report page. Cost: $2.25
Wild Things Literacy and Math Activities: In this “craftivity,” students make their very own Wild Thing! The TpT packet includes patterns and directions for making a Wild Thing, plus worksheets, graphic organizers, and journal prompts for math and literacy lessons. Cost: $4
FLIPBOOKS Set: Maurice Sendak – Author Study and Research: This TpT project guides students through creating a flipbook about Maurice Sendak’s life. There are two different versions of the flipbook: a longer, more research-based version for older students and a shorter version for younger students. Cost: $5
Chicken Soup with Rice by Maurice Sendak Book Companion: Chicken Soup with Rice is another book by Maurice Sendak, written as a series of poems teaching kids the months of the year. This TpT packet combines the book with a fun graphing activity where students log how many members of the class do and don’t like eating chicken soup with rice. Cost: $3
Sub Plans: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak: Need a fun and easy sub plan? This TpT packet includes everything a substitute teacher might need to teach crosscurricular lessons on Where the Wild Things Are. Activities include reading and math anchor charts; reading, grammar, and math worksheets; writing prompts; a mini-book on the history of clocks; and a sundial creation activity. Cost: $5