R.I.P. Maurice Sendak

Author and illustrator Maurice Sendak died this morning at his home in Danbury, Connecticut, four days after suffering a stroke. He was 83. One of the greatest figures in children’s literature, Sendak was a meticulous artist whose work showed a keen awareness of the power story and images have in making sense of the terrors of the world, and an ability to tap into primal emotions and anxieties and give them shape. The child of Polish Jewish immigrants who lost most of their extended family to the Holocaust, Sendak had a childhood plagued by illness and fear inspired by real-world horrors, such as the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. Bedridden much of the time, he learned early in life to be grateful for the escape that books could provide. He would later describe the creation of his breakthrough masterpiece, Where The Wild Things Are, as “an exorcism.”

Sendak started working as an illustrator while still in his teens, and was best known for his charming work on Else Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear series before his career as a writer of his own material really took off. His first published book as a writer-illustrator was Kenny’s Window in 1956, followed by The Sign On Rosie’s Door in 1960 and the four-volume The Nutshell Library in 1962. The material in those books would form the basis of Really Rosie, a stage musical featuring songs written with Carole King, which in turn inspired an animated TV special in 1975.

But t was Sendak’s next book, 1963’s Where The Wild Things Are, that made the greatest impact, and no degree of success that Sendak had enjoyed up to that point could have adequately prepared him for the world’s reaction to it. On the surface, the book is the simple story of a boy named Max who’s sent to bed without his supper for acting like a “wild thing” (or “vilde chaya,” to use the Yiddish expression that Sendak remembered his mother directing at him whenever he’d been working her last nerve) and temporarily escapes to a land of uninhibited monsters who accept him as their king—until he feels homesick enough to return to his bedroom, where his supper is waiting for him, still hot.

Appropriately, the book first caught on through word of mouth among children, whose passionate embrace of Wild Things helped it overcome the appalled responses of many parents, critics, and librarians, who banned the book in droves. The book’s ability to excite and upset people likely comes from the white-hot energy at its core, which marks it as the work of an obsessive craftsman working out something that’s been stuck in his craw for too long. Sendak would later confirm that the wild things—who in an early conception of the book were horses, until Sendak discovered that he couldn’t draw horses—were caricatures of his relatives. “They came every Sunday,” he once wrote. “My mother always cooked for them, and, as I saw it, they were eating up all our food.” When Sendak worked on an opera based on the book, he assigned the wild things the actual names of his relatives. The book has also inspired a short animated film directed by Gene Deitch—originally made in 1973, revised in 1988 with a new score by Peter Schickele—and a lovely 2009 live-action feature directed by Spike Jonze, from a script by Jonze and Dave Eggers.

 

Sendak’s other works as an author-illustrator include 1967’s Higglety Pigglety Pop!, as well as 1970’s In The Night Kitchen and 1981’s Outside Over There, which, with Where The Wild Things Are, form a rough trilogy dealing with, in Sendak’s words, “how children master various feelings... and manage to come to grips with the reality of their lives.” The ladder used by the kidnappers of the Lindbergh baby turns up in Outside Over There, and Night Kitchen—a dream book whose young hero is naked for a good part of its richly illustrated pages, and which features the most disarmingly whimsical visual references to the Holocaust on record—showed a continuing, sure instinct for what would simultaneously enthrall children and piss off librarians.

 

Sendak’s most notable work as an illustrator of other writers’ material includes Zlateh The Goat, a collaboration with Isaac Bashevis Singer that, he liked to joke, finally won him the respect of his parents; Brundibar, an adaptation by Tony Kushner of a children’s opera; and The Juniper Tree, a two-volume set of stories by the Brothers Grimm, as adapted by Lore Segal and Randall Jarrell. Sendak also dabbled in TV production, as the creator of the children’s series Seven Little Monsters, and indulged his theater jones by designing sets for many operas and ballets, including Mozart’s The Magic Flute for the Houston Grand Opera and Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen for the New York City Opera, both in 1981, and a Pacific Northwest Ballet production of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker that was captured in a 1986 movie directed by Carroll Ballard.

 

Much of Sendak’s work is collected in the 1980 book The Art Of Maurice Sendak and the follow-up volume, The Art Of Maurice Sendak: From 1980 To The Present.

To the end of his life, he gave some of the crankiest interviews ever heard by the ears of man, and good for him.

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