Maurice Sendak is considered by many to be the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century. He died on May 8 aged 83 from complications arising from a recent stroke.
Sendak was widely praised throughout his career and his creations are considered an essential part of the childhood of people born around and after 1960. His most famous book is perhaps ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ which arguably redefined the genre and made his career.
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.”
What set Sendak apart from his peers is that he broke the conventions of American children’s literature which prescribed young heroes to be well groomed and well behaved, living in an idyll where any negative happenings or consequences were at most brief and temporary, whose adventures ended in a neat moral parcel. Sendak introduced character flaws into his main characters and his pictures were often controversially unsettling at the time.
Sendak was a largely self taught illustrator who received the 1964 Caldecott Medal, essentially the equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize for children’s book illustration. The award from the American Library Association was given for ‘Where the Wild Things Are’.
It is said that his style arose from a personal melancholia arising from growing up on the fringes of society. He grew up lower class, Jewish and gay and felt he had to hide his sexuality from his parents until their death. While the increasingly dark tone of his later work such as ‘We are all in the dumps with Jack and Guy’, an AIDS parable, and ‘Brundibar’, based on an opera performed by children at a concentration camp, suggests that the lifelong melancholia theory is probably accurate, Sendak will be widely remembered for bringing joy to millions of young adults.
In 2009 a feature film version of ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ was released by director Spike Jonze, showing that his work still lives on vibrantly in the memories of the children who read his work.
Sendak reportedly cherished one fan letter from a young boy, as he tended to love the unbidden letters sent by individual children whose lives he had enhanced:
“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.”
Maurice Sendak was born on June 10 1928 in Brooklyn and died May 8 in Connecticut.