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Why Maurice Sendak was delighted when a little boy ate the letter and drawing he sent him

Even the smallest original drawings from the "Where the Wild Things Are" author go for thousands of dollars at auction.

Clarence Patch/Wikimedia

Maurice Sendak published "Where the Wild Things Are" in 1963.

Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are" is one of those timeless, classic children's books that holds a special place in the hearts of people of all ages. I read it so much as a child that I had it memorized when I read it to my own kids, and they will surely pass along the Wild Things love to the next generation as well.

Though "Where the Wild Things Are" is his most famous book, it's one of many that Sendak wrote and/or illustrated during his prolific career. We see his illustrative work in the "Little Bear" series, in "The Phantom Tollbooth," and dozens more—not too shabby for a largely self-taught artist.

Sendak's ability to tap into a child's imaginary world—both its light and dark places—was what made his work so beloved. But a story he shared of an interaction with a child in the real world demonstrates how well he understood his audience.

The story has been passed through multiple people and platforms over the years, but the website Letters of Note says it came from an NPR "Fresh Air" interview with Terri Gross in 1986. Gross asked Sendak to share some of his favorite comments he'd received over the years, and Sendak responded:

"Oh, there’s so many. Can I give you just one that I really like? It was from a little boy. He sent me a charming card with a little drawing. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters—sometimes very hastily—but this one I lingered over. I sent him a postcard and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, 'Dear Jim, I loved your card.' Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, 'Jim loved your card so much he ate it.' That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it."

Those who know "Where the Wild Things Are" will recognize the boy's impulse in the line, “But the wild things cried, 'Oh please don’t go - we’ll eat you up - we love you so!'"

And those who know the value of original art will recognize that the little boy gobbled up a one-of-a-kind Maurice Sendak drawing that would likely go for thousands of dollars at auction today.

The fact that Sendak was tickled and saw it as the highest compliment is exactly why he could write so well for kids. He was able to tap into what made children different than grown-ups. But he also didn't talk down to them or pretend that childhood was all sunshine and roses. His childhood certainly wasn't a happy one and he was known for having a bit of a gruff exterior, but his ability to tap into the darkness of childhood without being overly frightening was unique.

"I refuse to lie to children," Sendak said in his final interview with The Guardian in 2011. "I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence."

Sendak passed away in 2012 at age 83 with 150 illustrated books to his name and the honor of being the most honored children's book author in history.