Maurice Sendak, the legendary creator of "Where the Wild Things Are," brought his wit and genius to Buffalo State College on Thursday.
"I still have critics who say 'Wild Things' is too scary for children," he told a rapt group of students, faculty and staff.
"When the book first came out, in 1963, I needed the comfort of my editor because of the critics. But then we heard the kids were going ape. Kids loved the book. How could this be? Kids don't read reviews. They don't read critics."
The book, about a wild and naughty boy named Max who becomes king of the Wild Things, was soon seminal in children's literature as one of the first to allow a child the power to defy a parent.
Sendak, both illustrator and author, was awarded the Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picture book for children.
"Then the word 'classic' stepped in," he told the art, English and education students. "I felt a little skeptical, going from being feathered and tarred to being Mr. Classic." But the book -- which was followed by "In the Night Kitchen" and "Outside Over There" -- gave Sendak something he needed.
"Prosperity," he said. "This allowed me the freedom to investigate and create. How many other 5-year-olds (like Max) do you know who went out and made a living for his father?"
Now in his 70s, Sendak is the author and illustrator of 19 books, and the illustrator of more than 60 others. He has designed sets and costumes for numerous operas, and is currently working on three books and an opera. Appearances like Thursday's at Buffalo State are rare.
"Why did I make the child in the 'Night Kitchen' naked? Because in our most fervent dreams we are naked," he told a student who asked.
"I had no idea at the time that I was crossing any lines. The book was banned very early on. Some brave librarians sent me copies of the book where the little boy's penis had been painted over -- with kinky, strange things. I could not have imagined the stupidity of some people."
Sendak, at Buffalo State to receive a State University of New York honorary doctorate of humane letters, smiled when a student asked him about Harry Potter.
"I knew he was going to come up," he said, confessing "mixed feelings" about the contemporary phenomenon that is J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books.
"I was stunned by the phenomenon," Sendak said. "So I read the first one and found it boring. But then, I don't like reading children's books."
But, he cautioned, "I can't disapprove. Other books today are so bad, so cheap, so commercial that they make Harry Potter look good."
Sendak spoke with sadness of children's book publishing today.
"Now the books are done purely for commercial reasons," he said, lamenting the passing of quality production. "When I see the type on the other side of the paper, I know it is unnecessary," he said. "Artists over 50 care. Young artists don't know."
Mary Ellen Bossert of Hamburg and Amy Keenan of East Amherst, students working for teacher certification in art education, got to meet Sendak and thank him for his books. "He shows me how human art can be," Bossert said.
Before returning to New York -- where he is working on a version of the Czech children's opera "Brundibar" composed and first performed in a Nazi concentration camp -- Sendak went to a dinner at Fanny's in Amherst with Buffalo State President Muriel A. Howard and other guests.