In “Where the Wild Things Are,” the masterpiece among masterpieces of the late Maurice Sendak, the word that first summons magic is a simple “his”: “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind / and another,” the opening pages read. Not “a wolf suit”; certainly not “the wolf suit his grandmother gave him for his birthday.” The wolf suit is a given. It already exists, and the story is already underway.
This was Sendak’s imaginative genius. In the wake of his death last week at age 83, the conventional thing to say about his work has been that it brought depth and darkness into children’s literature (or back into children’s literature, if you’ve read your Grimm). But his books were nothing like those in the children’s book genre that Amazon calls “Social Situations.” Too often, writers striving to make art for children believe that those darker shades are something to be expressed programmatically. Library shelves groan under the weight of Quality Children’s Books with explicitly described scenarios of poverty, orphanhood, or divorce—instead of that already-occupied wolf suit, the characters are carefully vested in sackcloth.