Maurice Sendak, Children’s Author Who Upended Tradition, Dies at 83
Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times
By MARGALIT FOX
Published: May 8, 2012
Maurice Sendak, widely considered the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century, who wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery and plunged it into the dark, terrifying and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche, died on Tuesday in Danbury, Conn. He was 83 and lived in Ridgefield, Conn.
Times Topic:Maurice Sendak
The cause was complications from a recent stroke, said Michael di Capua, his longtime editor.
Roundly praised, intermittently censored and occasionally eaten, Mr. Sendak’s books were essential ingredients of childhood for the generation born after 1960 or thereabouts, and in turn for their children. He was known in particular for more than a dozen picture books he wrote and illustrated himself, most famously “Where the Wild Things Are,” which was simultaneously genre-breaking and career-making when it was published by Harper & Row in 1963.
Among the other titles he wrote and illustrated, all from Harper & Row, are “In the Night Kitchen” (1970) and “Outside Over There” (1981), which together with “Where the Wild Things Are” form a trilogy; “The Sign on Rosie’s Door” (1960); “Higglety Pigglety Pop!” (1967); and “The Nutshell Library” (1962), a boxed set of four tiny volumes comprising “Alligators All Around,” “Chicken Soup With Rice,” “One Was Johnny” and “Pierre.”
In September, a new picture book by Mr. Sendak, “Bumble-Ardy” — the first in 30 years for which he produced both text and illustrations — was issued by HarperCollins Publishers. The book, which spent five weeks on the New York Times children’s best-seller list, tells the not-altogether-lighthearted story of an orphaned pig (his parents are eaten) who gives himself a riotous birthday party.
A posthumous picture book, “My Brother’s Book” — a poem written and illustrated by Mr. Sendak and inspired by his love for his late brother, Jack — is scheduled to be published next February.
Mr. Sendak’s work was the subject of critical studies and major exhibitions; in the second half of his career, he was also renowned as a designer of theatrical sets. His art graced the writing of other eminent authors for children and adults, including Hans Christian Andersen, Leo Tolstoy, Herman Melville, William Blake and Isaac Bashevis Singer.
In book after book, Mr. Sendak upended the staid, centuries-old tradition of American children’s literature, in which 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.
Mr. Sendak’s characters, by contrast, are headstrong, bossy, even obnoxious. (In “Pierre,” “I don’t care!” is the response of the small eponymous hero to absolutely everything.) His pictures are often unsettling. His plots are fraught with rupture: children are kidnapped, parents disappear, a dog lights out from her comfortable home.
A largely self-taught illustrator, Mr. Sendak was at his finest a shtetl Blake, portraying a luminous world, at once lovely and dreadful, suspended between wakefulness and dreaming. In so doing, he was able to convey both the propulsive abandon and the pervasive melancholy of children’s interior lives.
His visual style could range from intricately crosshatched scenes that recalled 19th-century prints to airy watercolors reminiscent of Chagall to bold, bulbous figures inspired by the comic books he loved all his life, with outsize feet that the page could scarcely contain. He never did learn to draw feet, he often said.
In 1964, the American Library Association awarded Mr. Sendak the Caldecott Medal, considered the Pulitzer Prize of children’s book illustration, for “Where the Wild Things Are.” In simple, incantatory language, the book told the story of Max, a naughty boy who rages at his mother and is sent to his room without supper. A pocket Odysseus, Max promptly sets sail:
And he sailed off through night and day
and in and out of weeks
and almost over a year
to where the wild things are.
There, Max leads the creatures in a frenzied rumpus before sailing home, anger spent, to find his supper waiting.
As portrayed by Mr. Sendak, the wild things are deliciously grotesque: huge, snaggletoothed, exquisitely hirsute and glowering maniacally. He always maintained he was drawing his relatives — who, in his memory at least, had hovered like a pack of middle-aged gargoyles above the childhood sickbed to which he was often confined.
Maurice Bernard Sendak was born in Brooklyn on June 10, 1928; his father, Philip, was a dressmaker in the garment district of Manhattan. Family photographs show the infant Maurice, or Murray as he was then known, as a plump, round-faced, slanting-eyed, droopy-lidded, arching-browed creature — looking, in other words, exactly like a baby in a Maurice Sendak illustration. Mr. Sendak adored drawing babies, in all their fleshy petulance.
A frail child beset by a seemingly endless parade of illnesses, Mr. Sendak was reared, he said afterward, in a world of looming terrors: the Depression; the war; the Holocaust, in which many of his European relatives perished; the seemingly infinite vulnerability of children to danger. The kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby in 1932 he experienced as a personal torment: if that fair-haired, blue-eyed princeling could not be kept safe, what certain peril lay in store for him, little Murray Sendak, in his humble apartment in Bensonhurst?
An image from the Lindbergh crime scene — a ladder leaning against the side of a house — would find its way into “Outside Over There,” in which a baby is carried off by goblins.
As Mr. Sendak grew up — lower class, Jewish, gay — he felt permanently shunted to the margins of things. “All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy,” he told The New York Times in a 2008 interview. “They never, never, never knew.”
His lifelong melancholia showed in his work, in picture books like “We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy” (HarperCollins, 1993), a parable about homeless children in the age of AIDS. It showed in his habits. He could be dyspeptic and solitary, working in his white clapboard home in the deep Connecticut countryside with only Mozart, Melville, Mickey Mouse and his dogs for company.
It showed in his everyday interactions with people, especially those blind to the seriousness of his enterprise. “A woman came up to me the other day and said, ‘You’re the kiddie-book man!’ ” Mr. Sendak told Vanity Fair last year.“I wanted to kill her.”
But Mr. Sendak could also be warm and forthright, if not quite gregarious. He was a man of ardent enthusiasms — for music, art, literature, argument and the essential rightness of children’s perceptions of the world around them. He was also a mentor to a generation of younger writers and illustrators for children, several of whom, including Arthur Yorinks, Richard Egielski and Paul O. Zelinsky, went on to prominent careers of their own.
As far back as he could remember, Mr. Sendak had loved to draw. That and looking out the window had helped him pass the long hours in bed. While he was still in high school he worked part time for All-American Comics, filling in backgrounds for book versions of the “Mutt and Jeff” comic strip. His first professional illustrations were for a physics textbook, “Atomics for the Millions,” published in 1947.
In 1948, at 20, he took a job building window displays for F. A. O. Schwarz. Through the store’s children’s book buyer, he was introduced to Ursula Nordstrom, the distinguished editor of children’s books at Harper & Row. The meeting, the start of a long, fruitful collaboration, led to Mr. Sendak’s first children’s book commission: illustrating “The Wonderful Farm,” by Marcel Aymé, published in 1951.
Under Ms. Nordstrom’s guidance, Mr. Sendak went on to illustrate books by other well-known children’s authors, including several by Ruth Krauss, notably “A Hole Is to Dig” (1952), and Else Holmelund Minarik’s “Little Bear” series. The first title he wrote and illustrated himself, “Kenny’s Window,” published in 1956, was a moody, dreamlike story about a lonely boy’s inner life.
At the start of the story, Jennie, who has everything a dog could want — including “a round pillow upstairs and a square pillow downstairs” — packs her bags and sets off on her own, pining for adventure. She finds it on the stage of the World Mother Goose Theatre, where she becomes a leading lady. Every day, and twice on Saturdays, Jennie, who looks rather like a mop herself, eats a mop made out of salami. This makes her very happy.
“Hello,” Jennie writes in a satisfyingly articulate letter to her master. “As you probably noticed, I went away forever. I am very experienced now and very famous. I am even a star. ... I get plenty to drink too, so don’t worry.”
By contrast, the huge, flat, brightly colored illustrations of “In the Night Kitchen,” the story of a boy’s journey through a fantastic nocturnal cityscape, are a tribute to the New York of Mr. Sendak’s childhood, recalling the 1930s films and comic books he adored all his life. (The three bakers who toil in the night kitchen are the spit and image of Oliver Hardy.)
Mr. Sendak’s later books could be much darker. “Brundibar” (Hyperion, 2003), with text by the playwright Tony Kushner, is a picture book based on an opera performed by the children of the Theresienstadt concentration camp. The opera, also called “Brundibar,” had been composed in 1938 by Hans Krasa, a Czech Jew who later died in Auschwitz.
Reviewing the book in The New York Times Book Review, Gregory Maguire called it “a capering picture book crammed with melodramatic menace and comedy both low and grand.” He added: “In a career that spans 50 years and counting, as Sendak’s does, there are bound to be lesser works. ‘Brundibar’ is not lesser than anything.”
With Mr. Kushner, Mr. Sendak collaborated on a stage version of the opera, performed in 2006 at the New Victory Theater in New York.
Despite its wild popularity, Mr. Sendak’s work was not always well received. Some early reviews of “Where the Wild Things Are” expressed puzzlement and outright unease. Writing in Ladies’ Home Journal, the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim took Mr. Sendak to task for punishing Max:
“The basic anxiety of the child is desertion,” Mr. Bettelheim wrote. “To be sent to bed alone is one desertion, and without food is the second desertion.” (Mr. Bettelheim admitted that he had not actually read the book.)
“In the Night Kitchen,” which depicts its young hero, Mickey, in the nude, prompted many school librarians to bowdlerize the book by drawing a diaper over Mickey’s nether region.
But these were minority responses. Mr. Sendak’s other awards include the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award and, in 1996, the National Medal of the Arts, presented by President Bill Clinton. Twenty-two of his titles have been named New York Times best illustrated books of the year.
Many of Mr. Sendak’s books had second lives on stage and screen. Among the most notable adaptations are the operas “Where the Wild Things Are” and “Higglety Pigglety Pop!” by the British composer Oliver Knussen, and Carole King’s “Really Rosie,” a musical version of “The Sign on Rosie’s Door,” which appeared on television as an animated special in 1975 and on the Off Broadway stage in 1980.
In 2009, a feature film version of “Where the Wild Things Are” — part live action, part animated — by the director Spike Jonze opened to favorable notices. (With Lance Bangs, Mr. Jonze also directed “Tell Them Anything You Want,” a documentary film about Mr. Sendak first broadcast on HBO that year.)
In the 1970s, Mr. Sendak began designing sets and costumes for adaptations of his own work and, eventually, the work of others. His first venture was Mr. Knussen’s “Wild Things,” for which Mr. Sendak also wrote the libretto. Performed in a scaled-down version in Brussels in 1980, the opera had its full premiere four years later, to great acclaim, staged in London by the Glyndebourne Touring Opera.
With the theater director Frank Corsaro, he also created sets for several venerable operas, among them Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” performed by the Houston Grand Opera in 1980, and Leos Janacek’s “Cunning Little Vixen” for the New York City Opera in 1981.
For the Pacific Northwest Ballet, Mr. Sendak designed sets and costumes for a 1983 production of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker”; a film version was released in 1986.
Among Mr. Sendak’s recent books is his only pop-up book, “Mommy?,” published by Scholastic in 2006, with a scenario by Mr. Yorinks and paper engineering by Matthew Reinhart.
Mr. Sendak’s companion of a half-century, Eugene Glynn, a psychiatrist who specialized in the treatment of young people, died in 2007. No immediate family members survive.
Though he understood children deeply, Mr. Sendak by no means valorized them unconditionally. “Dear Mr. Sun Deck ...” he could drone with affected boredom, imitating the semiliterate forced-march school letter-writing projects of which he was the frequent, if dubious, beneficiary.
But he cherished the letters that individual children sent him unbidden, which burst with the sparks that his work had ignited.
“Dear Mr. Sendak,” read one, from an 8-year-old boy. “How much does it cost to get to where the wild things are? If it is not expensive, my sister and I would like to spend the summer there.”