Little-known fact: Maurice Sendak's children's classic Where the Wild Things Are was conceived as Where the Wild Horses Are. "But I made a horrible discovery," Sendak says. "I couldn't draw horses." It didn't hold him back: For more than 40 years author and illustrator Sendak, 75, has created fanciful books he describes not as yarns for children but as stories "about human emotion and life. They're pigeon-holed as children's books, but the best ones aren't—they're just books." With his latest, Brundibar, recently released and a retrospective, The Art of Maurice Sendak: 1980 to the Present, now in stores, Sendak discussed his best-loved creations with PEOPLE contributor Mary Green.
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
Sendak modeled the monsters in his most famous book on his relatives, "Jews from Eastern Europe [who] were always grabbing your face and saying, 'We could eat you up,' so they became the wild things."
IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN
Set in a vaguely menacing Manhattan, the tale is "a farewell to New York, because I was recovering from a heart attack and knew my health would not permit me to live in the magical city anymore."
THE NUTSHELL LIBRARY
"A parody of the homilies children had to read in the 18th century." Chicken Soup with Rice pokes fun at Sendak's mother, for whom "every solution to life was chicken soup."
OUTSIDE OVER THERE
The Lindbergh kidnapping and "the nightmare of being the youngest of the family," says Sendak (who had two older siblings), inspired this tale of a snatched baby.
"Brundibar was a beautiful opera written by a Jewish composer, sung by the young inmates of Terezin," a camp outside Prague designed by the Nazis as a showplace. Sendak, who lost many relatives in the Holocaust, created an English version with playwright Tony Kushner. "Most of the important books I've done have been about the Holocaust, some very subtly," he says. "This closes the topic for me."