'Where the Wild Things Are' scribe revolutionized kids' books

Maurice Sendak, the author of seminal children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are,” revolutionized the genre and how we think about childhood simply by leaving in what so many writers before had excluded.

Sendak, died early Tuesday in Danbury, Conn., four days after suffering a stroke. He was 83.

Dick and Jane were no match for his naughty Max. His kids misbehaved and didn’t regret it and in their dreams and nightmares, they fled to the most unimaginable places. Monstrous creatures were devised from his studio, but no more frightening than the grown-ups in his stories or the shadow of the Holocaust that darkened his every page.

“From their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions — fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can,” he said upon receiving the Caldecott Medal in 1964 for “Where the Wild Things Are.” “And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming wild things.”

Communities attempted to ban him, but his books sold millions of copies and his curmudgeonly persona became as much a part of his legend as “Where the Wild Things Are,” which became a hit movie in 2009. He seemed to act out everyone’s fantasy of a nasty old man with a hidden and generous heart.

Sendak’s other books, standard volumes in so many children’s bedrooms, included “Chicken Soup With Rice,” “One Was Johnny,” “Pierre,” “Outside Over There” and “Brundibar,” a folk tale about two children who need to earn enough money to buy milk for their sick mother.

Besides illustrating his own work, he also provided drawings — sometimes sweet, sometimes nasty — for Else Holmelund Minarik’s series “Little Bear,” George MacDonald’s “The Light Princess” and adaptations of E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Nutcracker” and the Brothers Grimm’s “King Grisly-Beard.” His most recent book that he wrote and illustrated was 2011′s naughty pig party “Bumble-Ardy,” which was based on an old animated skit he worked up for “Sesame Street.” In recent months, he had said he was working on a project about noses.

Sendak also created costumes for ballets and staged operas, including the Czech opera “Brundibar,” which in 2003 he put on paper with playwright Tony Kushner. He designed sets for several productions at New York City Opera and he wrote the libretto for composer Oliver Knussen’s opera adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are,” which premiered at Brussels’ Theatre de la Monnaie in 1980 as “Max et les Maximontres.” A revised final version debuted in 1984 in London.

He designed the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Nutcracker” production that later became a movie shown on television, and he served as producer of various animated TV series based on his illustrations, including “Seven Little Monsters,” ”George and Martha” and “Little Bear.” He collaborated with Carole King on the musical “Really Rosie.”

Sendak’s books were all personal, if only for their celebrations of disobedience and intimations of fear and death and dislocation, sketched in haunting waves of pen and ink.

“He drew children in a realistic way, as opposed to an idealized way,” children’s books historian Leonard S. Marcus said Tuesday. “His children weren’t perfect looking. They didn’t resemble the people seen on advertising or in sitcoms. They looked more like immigrant children. It was a big change for American children’s books, which tended to take the melting pot approach and present children who were generic Americans.”

Revenge helped inspire “Where the Wild Things Are,” his canonical tale of the boy Max’s mind in flight in a forest of monsters, who just happen to look like some of Sendak’s relatives from childhood. “In The Night Kitchen,” released in 1971, was a forbidden dance of Laurel and Hardy in aprons and the flash of a boy’s genitals, leading to calls for the book to be removed from library shelves.

The son of Polish immigrants, he was born in 1928 in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. The family didn’t have a lot of money, and he didn’t have a lot of friends besides his brother and sister. He was an outsider at birth, as Christians nearby would remind him, throwing dirt and rocks as he left Hebrew school.

At the movies, he surrendered to the magic of “Fantasia,” and later escaped into “Pinocchio,” a guilty pleasure during darkened times. The Nazi cancer was spreading overseas and the U.S. entered the war. Sendak’s brother joined the military, relatives overseas were captured and killed. Storytelling, after the Holocaust, became something more than play.

“It forced me to take children to a level that I thought was more honest than most people did,” he said. “Because if life is so critical, if Anne Frank could die, if my friend could die, children were as vulnerable as adults, and that gave me a secret purpose to my work, to make them live.”

Sendak didn’t go to college and worked a variety of odd jobs until he was hired by toy store FAO Schwarz as a window dresser in 1948. But illustration was his dream, and his break came in 1951 when he was commissioned to do the art for “Wonderful Farm” by Marcel Ayme. By 1957 he was writing his own books.

Claiming Emily Dickinson, Mozart and Herman Melville as inspirations, he worked for decades out of the studio of his shingled 18th century house in Ridgefield, Conn.

Rarely was a man so uninterested in being loved so adored. Starting with the Caldecott, the great parade marched on and on. He received the Hans Christian Anderson award in 1970 and a Laura Ingalls Wilder medal in 1983. President Bill Clinton awarded Sendak a National Medal of the Arts in 1996 and in 2009 President Obama read “Where the Wild Things Are” for the Easter Egg Roll.

Sendak’s longtime companion, Eugene Glynn, died in 2009.

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more