Maurice Sendak, who wrote and illustrated beloved and beguiling children’s books, most notably “Where the Wild Things Are,’’ died at 83 in Danbury, Conn., on Tuesday, four days after suffering a stroke.
Creating volumes of dreamscapes and picture-book provocation, Mr. Sendak wrote and illustrated 20 books and provided the illustrations for dozens more. He injected the emotional realism of the “wild rumpus’’ - an irreverent explosion of childhood ecstasy - into a publishing genre that was more accustomed to rhyming reassurance.
When “Where the Wild Things Are’’ hit the children’s bookshelves in 1963, it shocked some readers. Populated by large, powerfully drawn monsters, eyes gleaming with menace, it didn’t look like soothing bedtime reading. The book went on to win the 1964 Caldecott Medal for “the most distinguished American picture book for children’’ but it also drew criticism from the likes of child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who worried that the book was too disturbing for children.
Too disturbing for parents was the more likely problem. Mr. Sendak acknowledged what every child knows: The world is a scary and unpredictable place, and adults aren’t always reliable. The heroes and heroines who populate his books - Max, Mickey, Pierre, and Rosie among them - set out to put the adult world to the test. Drawn with bold confident lines, the kids strut, stomp, and holler their defiance. They pout and disobey and loudly proclaim to their parents, in the words of Pierre, “I don’t care!’’ But of course they do care, and they are testing to see if their caring is reciprocated.
Along with fellow artistic iconoclasts William Steig Shel Silverstein, and Jules Feiffer, Mr. Sendak rescued children’s books from the sentimental and predictable. Political cartoonist and playwright Feiffer had been friends with Mr. Sendak since the 1950s.
“He had great sweetness, thoughtfulness, and empathy,’’ said Feiffer, and his death is “a major artistic and literary loss.’’
“He is responsible for a whole new generation of writers and illustrators who would not have gone into [the field] if not for Maurice.’’ Feiffer added, “Maurice Sendak established children’s books as a major art form.’’
Fellow children’s book author Chris Van Allsburg characterized Mr. Sendak as “terribly influential,’’ an artist of conviction and emotional honesty driven by the “pursuit of the authentic.’’ “Maurice’s genius was all his own. He wasn’t imitable.’’ Mr. Sendak, he said, wasn’t trying to be didactic and “didn’t seek to comfort or be useful in putting [children] to bed.’’
“There was no pretending that children didn’t face death, grief, and fear. He never worried that kids weren’t going to get it. He gave kids lots of credit,’’ said Roger Sutton, editor in chief of the Horn Book magazine, a friend who knew and worked with Mr. Sendak for over 30 years. He was also “magnificently grumpy,’’ said Sutton, and he had “a real gift for obscenity.’’
Born in Brooklyn in 1928, Mr. Sendak, by his own account, was miserable as a child. His family, diminished and scarred by the Holocaust, had little tolerance for play or creativity. He told children’s book historian and critic Leonard Marcus, “I only have one subject. The one question I am obsessed with is: how do children survive?’’
Mr. Sendak, over his father’s protest, never went to college, once worked as a window dresser for F.A.O. Schwarz, and was largely self-taught as an artist. Inspired by artists from Blake to van Gogh to Disney, he developed his own style, one he adapted to fit particular themes and moods. His pictures for the work of other authors often differed significantly from drawings for his own books. His illustrations for Randall Jarrell’s “The Bat-Poet’’ look like finely rendered etchings, while his colored drawings for his most recent book, “Bumble-Ardy,’’ evoke the crazy creatures of a street scene by Red Grooms or Saul Steinberg.
Despite health problems, Mr. Sendak continued working into his 80s and in 2011 published “Bumble-Ardy’’ the tale of an orphaned pig who has never had a birthday party and throws himself an uproarious one when he turns 9.
In January, Mr. Sendak appeared on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report’’ to talk about the book and bemoan the sorry state of most contemporary books written for kids. He even wrote a blurb for Colbert’s own mock children’s book, published Tuesday, “I Am a Pole (And So Can You!),’’ which reads, “The sad thing is, I like it.’’
Upon learning of Mr. Sendak’s death, Colbert said in a statement, “His art gave us a fantastical but unromanticized reminder of what childhood truly felt like. We are all honored to have been briefly invited into his world.’’
Mr. Sendak wrote “Bumble-Ardy’’ as his companion of 50 years, psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn, was dying. He worked on the book, he told NPR interviewer Terry Gross in 2011, “to save myself.’’ He talked of his grief and of his own failing health, but, he said, “I am in love with the world,’’ and called himself a “happy old man.’’ Glynn died in 2007. Mr. Sendak had no immediate survivors.
From his many books came offers for other kinds of artistic collaboration. “Where the Wild Things Are’’ was adapted as an opera in 1980, for which Mr. Sendak wrote the libretto, and was made into a hit movie in 2009. He worked with Carole King on the musical “Really Rosie,’’ designed sets for New York City Opera, and joined forces with Tony Kushner on the Czech opera “Brundibar.’’ He helped produce several animated television series based on his drawings.
The success of “Where the Wild Things Are’’ and the awards that followed didn’t immunize Mr. Sendak against further controversy. His 1970 book “In the Night Kitchen’’ was banned in communities across the country because the protagonist, Mickey, floats through a culinary dream sequence without his clothes. Mr. Sendak thrived on the criticism of the would-be censors but resented the patronizing attitude of critics of the art in children’s books.
He told Leonard Marcus that his sense of resentment was dissipating. “I like being a children’s illustrator; I’d rather be one. Children are the best living audience in the world because they are so thoroughly honest. ‘Dear Mr. Sendak, I love your book. Marry me. Yours truly.’ ‘Dear Mr. Sendak, I hate your book. Die soon. Cordially.’ How could you not love those responses?’’