Beloved children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, author of the classic boyhood adventure tale “Where the Wild Things Are,” died on Tuesday (May 8) at the age of 83.
The New York Times reported that Sendak’s death was a result of complication from a recent stroke.
Controversial, irascible and not entirely convinced that he was a children’s author, Sendak wrote literate, dark and moody picture books that explored the anxieties and fears of children, and their parents.
Best known for 1963’s “Wild Things,” Sendak also wrote and illustrated the equally groundbreaking “In the Night Kitchen” (1970) and 1981’s “Outside Over There,” which completed a trilogy started with “Wild Things.”
The self-taught author couldn’t be bothered with the traditions of children’s books, in which the Times noted, “young heroes and heroines were typically well scrubbed and even better behaved; nothing really bad ever happened for very long; and everything was tied up at the end in a neat, moralistic bow.”
Instead, his subjects were often rude, selfish, obstinate and occasionally annoying and sometimes they ran away from home, or were kidnapped or, worst of all, their parents disappeared. Sendak’s illustrations looked like sepia-toned pages from a a 19th-century etching, sprinkled with sly wordplay and references that his youngest readers were unlikely to understand.
Though not prolific, Sendak’s work was highly influential. In addition to the abovementioned books, he also created 1960’s “The Sign on Rosie’s Door,” the 1962 boxed set collection of four tiny booklets called “The Nutshell Library” and 1967’s “Higglety Pigglety Pop!” His first writing and illustration effort in 30 years, 2011’s “Bumble-Ardy,” told the story of an orphaned pig who throws a wild birthday party for himself.
In addition to his writing, Sendak also designed theater sets and illustrated dozens of other works, including ones by such legendary authors as Hans Christian Andersen and Herman Melville to William Blake and Leo Tolstoy.
But amid all the accolades for his work, it was the story of “Wild Things” hero Max that captured the hearts and minds of generations of readers. The irritable boy who likes to wear a wolf costume and sets sail for unforeseen adventures after being sent to his room without dinner was adapted by director Spike Jonze into a moody feature film in 2009. He was also the subject of a documentary, “Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak,” by Lance Bangs, which was released by late Beastie Boys member Adam Yauch’s Oscilloscope Laboratories.
His books were not always a hit with some critics, who complained about the horrifying monsters in “Wild Things” and the nudity of the young hero of “Night Kitchen,” which subjected the book to censorship. But Sendak was undeterred, arguing that life is full of horrors and that children are not immune to the reality of death, loneliness and confusion.
Born in Brooklyn, New York on June 10, 1928, Maurice Bernard Sendak was the son of Polish Jewish immigrant parents. The deaths of much of his extended family in the Holocaust imbued him with a sense of mortality early in life, which could explain the often bleak, danger-filled nature of many of his books and the peril of the children he wrote about. He was also a sickly child, which resulted in many days and weeks in bed that allowed his fertile imagination to bloom.
He began his professional career as an illustrator working on window displays for F.A.O. Schwarz and segued into illustrating other author’s children’s books in the 1950s before venturing off to write his own books. A solitary man by nature, Sendak lived in Ridgefield, Connecticut with his companion of 50 years, psychiatrist Eugene Glynn, who died in 2007, as well as his dogs and his beloved Mozart records.
Sendak appeared on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” earlier this year and shared his wit and wisdom about children’s books with the host.
“There is something in this country that is so opposed to understanding the complexity of children,” he said of the controversy kicked up by some of works. “I don’t write for children. I write … and somebody says, ’That’s for children.’ I didn’t set out to make children happy or make life better for them or easier for them.”