Most likely, Where the Wild Things Are, by author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, is hanging out in your kids’ room right now. It’s one of the most popular children’s books of all time, it’s sold over seventeen million copies, and truly, it’s the stuff childhood dreams (and more than a few nightmares) are made of. If this is the only Maurice Sendak book sitting on your shelf though, something’s got to change.
We’re big fans of the late Sendak here at Fatherly, not just for his gritty writing and bonkers illustrations, but because he was kind of a badass, too. The thing that makes new generations of parents buy Wild Things almost sixty years after it was first published is the thing that should make you want to buy (or borrow) more of Sendak’s books: he writes just as much for parents as he does for kids. In fact, he really wishes you wouldn’t call him a children’s book writer. “I don’t write for children,” he said in his final interview, “I write, and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’”
So whether you get these seven amazing Maurice Sendak books for your kids or just for you, it doesn’t matter; just go get them.
If you loved Jim Hensons’ movie from the late eighties, Labyrinth, you have Sendak to thank. Outside Over There is basically just the plot of the Labyrinth, sans Bowie in tight pants. Rumor has it Sendak wasn’t super thrilled that his long-time buddy Henson kind of stole his story, and even threatened legal action as Labyrinth was in production. Henson changed the name of the creepy red and orange creatures who can exchange heads from “wild things” to “fireys”, and begrudgingly thanked Sendak in the credits. Long story short, Outside Over There is fantastic, it’s Sendak’s favorite book he ever made, and you should probably go read it and then watch the Labyrinth to compare and contrast.
Sendak paired with writer Else Holmelund Minarik to illustrate these five short Little Bear books: Little Bear, Father Comes Home, Little Bear’s Friend, Little Bear’s Visit, and A Kiss for Little Bear. The Little Bear series is a tamer beast than Sendak’s usual works, both in the simplicity of Minarik’s stories and in the sweetness of Sendak’s illustrations. Even so, these books are quintessential childhood material, and especially wonderful for little kids stringing together their first words.
A little boy named Kenny has a dream about a beautiful tree with the sun on one side, the moon on another. He wakes up and tries to get back into the dream, wishing to visit this place again. A rooster gives him seven riddles he needs to answer in order to do so. This is Sendak’s first book, published when he was only 28. While his artistic style is more simplified than in his later works, and his writing is a little more round-around (that freaking rooster needs to edit down his riddles to like, three) Kenny's Window is absolutely worth your time. This book is full of philosophical gems and trippy questions that get you thinking about your life in all the right ways, like “do you always want what you think you want?” Plus, the ending will give you goosebumps.
The Animal Family was written by esteemed poet, author, and feared literary critic Randall Jarrel, and lovingly “decorated” by Sendak. Together, they made a book that feels like coming home after a long time away. The Animal Family is about a hunter who lives a lonely but peaceful life in a cabin in the woods on the edge of the sea. He’s visited by a mermaid, who decides to live with him in the cabin. The hunter finds (steals? this part’s kind of creepy) other animals and a little boy and together with the mermaid, they create a makeshift family. If you have ever wished to be part of someone else’s family, or to live in a little cabin in the woods on the edge of the sea, this book’s for you.
A young boy named Mickey dreams of a strange world where milk jugs and egg beaters replace skyscrapers, and three jolly bakers follow him around as he helps make a cake for the morning. Don’t overthink this one; sure, there are deep Holocaust themes if you want to look closer (the bakers have little Hitler mustaches and Mickey is almost baked alive in the oven. Most of Sendak's extended family died in concentration camps.) But you and your kiddo can totally enjoy Night Kitchen simply for the crazy illustrations and strangely addicting storyline. And, please, don’t be like the American Library Association and freak out that Mickey’s naked on some pages. If you don’t make a big deal out of it, your kid won’t either.
First, go make a big batch of chicken soup with rice. Then, read this book while eating chicken soup with rice. Otherwise you’re just going to dream about it all night long and end up in an In The Night Kitchen-esque scenario. This short Maurice Sendak book is great for helping little kids learn their months and for inducing nostalgia in grownups. It has easy-peasy rhymes and ridiculously cute illustrations and, seriously, go make chicken soup with rice before reading this.
What kid (or, let’s be honest, parent) hasn’t wanted to run away from time to time? Higgelty-Piggelty Pop! tells the story of Jennie (named and written in tribute for Sendak’s late dog), a terrier who leaves her extremely comfortable home in search of something more. The story can get a little funky and dark in places (a potted plant tries to get Jennie to stay, so she eats it, and a baby is left abandoned by its parents) but try to just go with it– it's part of what makes Sendak so good. If you like the book, check out the weird and wonderful live-action/animated short film of the same name, produced by Spike Jonze and Sendak himself. (Jennie the dog is voiced by Meryl Streep.)