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Maurice Sendak, ‘Wild Things’ Author-Illustrator, Dies at 83

Tuesday, 08 May 2012 09:26 AM

Maurice Sendak, whose “Where the Wild Things Are” upset parents and psychologists in 1963 and became an international best-seller that helped change the placid world of children’s books, has died. He was 83.

The New York Times reported his death on its website Tuesday.

Sendak, who wrote and illustrated more than 50 children’s books, also collaborated on operas, ballets, films and TV programs. His works featured outsized monsters and snotty brats, providing a refreshing change from traditional fare that tried to model children’s behavior.

“Wild Things” turned out to be wildly profitable. The 37-page, 338-word book has never been out of print. After a half-century and 17 million copies sold, its hardcover list price was $18, and $8.95 for soft-cover. It stars a little boy named Max, sent to bed without supper one night when “he wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another” — an opening line baby-sitters read to their charges and remembered years later.

Sendak, who also wrote “Chicken Soup With Rice,” later created another stir with “In the Night Kitchen,” a tale about a boy who fell into a batter and was almost baked in a cake. The American Library Association challenged the book — the boy was pictured naked — as unsuitable for children.

In 1981, Sendak’s “Outside Over There” caused fresh controversy with a story of goblins kidnapping a child under the nose of a much-too-casual babysitter — her sister. The book had a “quality of nightmare,” said a review in the New York Times.

Childhood Trauma

Born in Brooklyn on June 10, 1928, Sendak was the child of immigrant Polish Jews. He traced his love of books to a sickly childhood he spent often confined to bed and reading comics. Not yet 4, Sendak was traumatized when he heard on the radio that Charles Lindbergh’s baby son was kidnapped, he said.

If a famous figure’s child couldn’t be kept safe, “I had no chance. I was only a poor kid,” Sendak said. “It doesn’t make much sense to say it, but that’s the equation.”

“My life hung on that baby being recovered,” he told Bill Moyers on a 2004 PBS broadcast, saying “something really fundamental died in me” with the Lindbergh baby’s death.

Sendak said his dreams — and nightmares — of an evil world were born in his unhappy childhood, their dark shadows emerging later in his books and illustrations.

Some parents and children “don’t want to see those shadows,” he said, “I’m telling what it was like for me, and I know it was not unique.”

Early Illustrations

After high school, Sendak created window displays for the toy store FAO Schwarz, selling his first illustration in 1947 for a textbook, “Atomics for the Millions.” He went on to illustrate a score more books before “Wild Things.”

His 1993 book, “We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy,” brought a new discussion of whether his work was appropriate for children. “Every time I do a book, they all carry on,” he told the Times. “It may be good for business, but it’s tiresome for me.”

“In the Dumps” is about a homeless black baby boy who is kidnapped by giant rats, finally finding guardians in two street characters, Jack and Guy, who vow to bring him up.

Sendak said the book’s inspiration came from a homeless child he saw asleep in Los Angeles, his legs sticking out of a cardboard box.

Grownups say they try to shelter children from such unpleasant facts, he said, “but they’re really protecting themselves. Besides, you can’t protect children. They know everything.”

Childhood ‘Not Easy’

Children didn’t need over-protection, he said, because necessity made them tough. “Childhood is not easy,” he said.

Honors and acclaim accompanied the controversy Sendak aroused. “Where the Wild Things Are” in 1964 received the Caldecott Medal, a top award for children’s literature. In 1970 his illustrations won the Hans Christian Andersen Award. Among other honors, he received a National Book Award in 1982 and the National Medal of Arts in 1996.

As he aged, Sendak seemed a bit like one of his monstrous characters to a writer for England’s Guardian newspaper in 2011. He had ”beady eyes, pointy eyebrows” and was “still enraged by almost everything that crosses his landscape,” she wrote after a visit to Sendak’s home in rural Connecticut.

At 83, he ranted that he ”hated” e-books, she wrote, and called his native New York City “too tumultuous, too crazy,” then added that Rupert Murdoch (owner of his book publisher HarperCollins) “represents how bad things have become.”

‘Typical Old Man’

And then Sendak smiled. “I can’t believe I’ve turned into a typical old man,” he said. “I was young just minutes ago.”

Even late in his career, Sendak didn’t win praise from all readers. Vanity Fair writer Bruce Handy said he’d been “left cold” by "Wild Things" as a child. His children Isaac and Zoe also found the book “boring,” he wrote in the Times in 2009, saying the kids seemed to agree with Publishers Weekly: In 1963 it called the book “pointless and confusing.”

Sendak said his characters “were like me as a child, like the children I knew growing up in Brooklyn — we were wild creatures.”

Still, he was never tough enough to inform his parents that he was gay, he told the Times in 2008: “All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew.”

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