Boyd Tonkin: Maurice Sendak's stories teach young readers the art and psychology of survival

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From an early age, Maurice Sendak knew where the wild things were. His Brooklyn upbringing, he once recalled, was overshadowed by the death of his extended family in the Holocaust. "My childhood was about thinking about the kids over there... My burden is living for those who didn't."

With several false starts, detours and roadblocks along the way, he turned that burden into one of the century's best-loved and most consistent careers in illustrated children's books.

Not only in the iconic Where The Wild Things Are, now almost 50 years old, but in later picture books such as In the Night Kitchen, Higglety Pigglety Pop and Outside Over There, Sendak's captivating blend of word and image merged charm and menace, danger and delight. The creatures and ordeals that his questing children have to face present young readers with humour and horror on the same page.

His stories teach the art – and the psychology – of survival: the capacity to return from the nightmare unscathed but informed, and find supper on the table, as those long-lost relatives could not. Without Sendak's example, in both style and vision, Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler's Gruffalo could never have stomped through the bedtimes of Britain as they do today.

His books, peopled by wayward and often obstreperous kids, celebrate resilience and resourcefulness. In his final published work, Bumble-Ardy in 2011, an orphaned pig defies the power of aunts to give himself a first-ever birthday party. He's another Sendak rebel with a cause.