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Maurice Sendak dies at 83; author of 'Where the Wild Things Are'

The enduringly popular children's book illustrator and writer radically changed the genre with tales of outsized monsters and frolicsome humor that tapped into the fears of childhood. He also collaborated on numerous operas, films and TV programs.

May 09, 2012|By Valerie J. Nelson, Los Angeles Times
  • Maurice Sendak, pictured with a "Where the Wild Things Are" character in 2002, has died four days after having a stroke. He was 83.
Maurice Sendak, pictured with a "Where the Wild Things Are"… (Spencer Platt, Getty Images )

He had already been proclaimed "the Picasso of children's books" by Time magazine when Maurice Sendak, then in his 30s, wrote and illustrated "Where the Wild Things Are," a dark fantasy that became one of the 10 bestselling children's books of all time.

Published in 1963, the book was a startling departure from the sweetness and innocence that then ruled children's literature. "Wild Things" tapped into the fears of childhood and sent its main character — an unruly boy in a wolf costume — into a menacing forest to tame the wild beasts of his imagination.

Librarians banned the book as too frightening. Psychologists and many adults condemned it for being too grim. But a 1964 Los Angeles Times review echoed many critics: The "aggressive flight of fantasy" was "the best thing of its kind in many a year."

Sendak, whose unsentimental approach to storytelling revolutionized children's books, died Tuesday at a hospital in Danbury, Conn., four days after having a stroke, said his friend and caretaker, Lynn Caponera. He was 83.

"Somehow it doesn't feel possible that Maurice Sendak is gone; he is as essential and eternal as Mother Goose," Eva Mitnick, manager of youth services at the Los Angeles Public Library, told The Times on Tuesday. "His books are story-time favorites and a crucial part of the children's literature canon."

In 1971, Sendak was hailed as "the Norman Mailer of children's books" by Digby Diehl, then The Times' book critic.

Sendak had attained the same preeminence in storytelling for children that Mailer had in adult literature, Diehl wrote, and made "the same incredibly instinct-trusting leaps of imagination, risks of fantasy and marvelous journeys of delightful mental meandering ... only Sendak does it for kids."

"Wild Things" was awarded the Caldecott Medal in 1964 for the most distinguished American picture book for children, and the author began receiving mail from young fans captivated by the grinning monsters Sendak said he modeled after the obnoxious relatives who populated the Sundays of his youth.

One boy wrote to ask: "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."

When President Obama read from "Wild Things" to children at the White House Easter egg roll in 2009, he called it one of his favorite books.

Sendak bristled at the notion that he was an author of children's books and told People magazine in 2003 that he wrote stories "about human emotion and life."

"They're pigeonholed as children's books, but the best ones aren't — they're just books," he said.

Upon awarding Sendak the National Medal of Arts in 1997, President Clinton remarked, "Perhaps no one has done as much to show the power of the written word on children, not to mention on their parents, as Maurice Sendak."

An illustrator of about 80 books and author-illustrator of 20 more, Sendak had won almost every important prize in children's literature.

In 2002, the New York Times pointed out that Sendak had dominated its 50-year-old annual list of the year's best illustrated children's books "and the public consciousness of children's books in the second half of the 20th century."

Years before "Sesame Street" popularized playful teaching of the young, Sendak unleashed his frolicsome humor in 1962's "The Nutshell Library." The four tiny volumes include lessons on ABCs, counting and a morality tale told through Pierre, the boy who does not care even when a lion fancies him for dinner.

Of the books he wrote, Sendak said "Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or There Must Be More to Life" (1967) was his favorite. The nonsense tale starred a terrier who decides there must be more to life than having everything. The dog was based on Jennie, his Sealyham terrier and companion of 14 years, who had gone "to Castle Yonder," as he wrote in the book.

Sendak considered "Wild Things" part of a loose trilogy of books that included the award-winning "In the Night Kitchen" (1970), about the nocturnal adventures of Mickey, who barely escapes being baked into a cake, and "Outside Over There" (1981), the tale of a baby kidnapped by goblins.

"Night Kitchen" was also about his "victory over death," he later said. In 1967, he not only lost his beloved dog, his mother died of cancer and he had a heart attack during an interview on British TV. Two years later his father died.

Again, Sendak stirred controversy because "Night Kitchen's" comic-style illustrations showed the child-hero Mickey falling through the air naked. Some librarians drew diapers on Mickey to cover the nudity.

"Night Kitchen's" illustrations were a "farewell to New York," Sendak said, as he relocated to Connecticut in search of a quieter life.

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