Maurice Sendak, who has died aged 83, was an author and illustrator whose books – notably Where the Wild Things Are – kicked in the doors of the cosy, protected nursery world and ushered in the dark, dangerous and frequently rebellious; as a result they have proved fantastically popular with children.
He contributed to more than 80 books, but it was Where the Wild Things Are, which has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide since its publication in 1963, that brought him international recognition. At the time, to Sendak’s irritation and surprise, the story provoked a collective gasp of disapproval from parents, teachers and child experts. Not only did the young hero, Max, yell at his mother, but the pages were also populated by hideous monsters that grown-ups felt sure would terrify young readers.
Maurice Bernard Sendak was born in Brooklyn on June 10 1928, the same year as one of his major influences, Mickey Mouse. He was the third and youngest child of poor Polish-Jewish immigrants. His father, Philip, ran a dressmaking business which was hit by the Depression, and Sendak’s childhood was further blighted by ill health which instilled a terror of dying that haunted him throughout his life.
One of his earliest memories was, aged four, hearing news of the kidnapping and murder of the infant son of the aviator Charles Lindbergh – a case that gripped America. In a recent documentary, Sendak described seeing a photograph of the dead baby in a newspaper, an experience which powerfully disabused him of the notion that childhood was a fortress unbreachable by the evils outside.
As a sickly child, he spent much time at home, watching and sketching the world from his window. His loathing of school, where he was branded a sissy, encouraged him to observe rather than participate. Greatly influenced by the tales his father would improvise from the Old Testament and Jewish folklore, he was conscious, from an early age, of gathering material for his own stories.
He attended Lafayette High School where, though an indifferent scholar, he was considered a talented artist. His first commission was to illustrate his science teacher’s guide to nuclear physics, Atomics for the Millions.
It was in 1951, when Sendak was working as a window-dresser in the toy shop FAO Schwarz, that he first encountered the work of the great children’s book illustrators and was introduced to Ursula Nordstrom, the children’s book editor at Harper Brothers. After seeing his sketches, she commissioned him to illustrate The Wonderful Farm by Michel Aymé. Over the next decade she shaped his career, and during this time he illustrated more than 40 books. He had his first major success with A Hole to Dig, a book in which the author Ruth Krauss had collected children’s own definitions of words (“A hand is to hold up when you want your turn”).
Some of his most memorable illustration work of this period can be found in Else Minarik’s “Little Bear” series. But its reassuring forest atmosphere was in direct contrast to the direction his own writing would take. This became clear in the miniature Nutshell Library (1962), a boxed set of four tiny volumes, the last of which, Pierre, is centred around an archetypal Sendak anti-hero (to every situation Pierre replies: “I don’t care!”). The publications brought success and elevated Sendak’s reputation to the point that one critic proclaimed him “the Picasso of children’s books”.
During these years Sendak emulated the works of master illustrators to expand his repertoire. He was particularly influenced by English Victorian artists (notably Arthur Hughes and Randolph Caldecott). Though he later acknowledged his debt to American popular art, particularly cartoons and comics, his emerging style was quite unlike the bright, abstract work of contemporary American illustrators. Largely self-taught, he remained firmly tied to European 18th- and 19th-century traditions, with subdued wash colours and careful line-work and cross-hatching reminiscent of wood engravings.
His first book as author and illustrator had been Kenny’s Window (1956). But it was not until his fourth, Where the Wild Things Are, that Sendak successfully managed to communicate his private vision of childhood. For Sendak its success was a double boon. On top of the acclaim, it also earned him the financial freedom thereafter to pursue projects of his own choosing. These included illustrating various Randall Jarrell books; reissuing George Macdonald stories; and developing other picture-books of his own, such as Hector Protector (1965).
But just when everything appeared to be going well he suffered, in 1967, the worst year of his life. While on a trip to England he was struck by a heart attack; meanwhile Jennie, his beloved Sealyham terrier and “best friend”, died. His longest book, Higglety Pigglety Pop, published later that year, is a meticulously crafted tribute to her and was later adapted for an opera at Glyndebourne.
By contrast, In the Night Kitchen (the second of a trilogy which had begun with Where the Wild Things Are) was, with its bold comic book style and Oliver Hardy trio of bakers, by far his most cheerful book to date.
The Juniper Tree, a collection of Grimm fairy tales, translated by Lore Segal, was published in 1973. For these illustrations Sendak received a second Caldecott Medal, a rare honour which paid tribute to his versatility and unrivalled consistency as an artist.
But it was his trilogy’s final work, Outside Over There (1981), a surreal tale about sibling rivalry, that Sendak considered his masterpiece. The story, in which a young girl called Ida, resentful of her baby sister, allows the infant to be carried off by goblins, again tapped effortlessly into the hopes and fears of children.
He then took a break from publishing children’s books and, instead, pursued a highly successful career as a theatrical designer. Sendak had always loved music and used to say that, given the choice, he would have been a composer. He was quick to accept the stage director Frank Cosaro’s invitation to design The Magic Flute for the Houston Opera (1981), and proceeded to design at opera houses across America. He worked (again with Frank Cosaro) on a Glyndebourne production of Prokofiev’s L’Amour des Trois Oranges (1982) and, with Oliver Knussen, on a double-bill of Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop which was staged in 1984. He returned to Glyndebourne in 1987 to design sets and costumes for Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges and L’heure Espagnole.
Following this opera work, Sendak embarked on various new projects. In 1988 he was appointed artistic director of Robert Redford’s Sundance children’s theatre in Utah, and in 1992 he founded a children’s theatre in New York called The Night Kitchen. That year he illustrated Iona and Peter Opie’s collection of rhymes, I Saw Esau, the first book by another author he had illustrated since the 1960s, and the first of his books to be published in Britain before the United States.
His recent books include Mommy? (2006) – the only pop-up work in his catalogue – and, last September, Bumble-Ardy. Typically subversive, the latter features the plans of a young pig to throw a raucous party while his aunt is away. Inevitably the party gets out of hand, but that, Sendak suggests, is a far better fate than the alternative. “Bumble-Ardy had no party when he turned one (his immediate family frowned on fun),” the book explains. His parents, who deny Bumble-Ardy his birthday treats, find themselves being eaten. A film of Where The Wild Things Are was released in 2009.
Sendak was passionate about most things in life, whether wildly enthusing about a favourite book or morbidly railing against the world. But he confessed that he was essentially a glum, cynical character. His friends accordingly dubbed him “morose Sendak”, and unsuspecting strangers could get a shock. When one peppery old lady remarked about Where the Wild Things Are: “I wouldn’t have it in my bedroom at night,” Sendak snapped back: “Lady, you wouldn’t have anything in your room at night.”
Such pithy (and frequently self-deprecating) remarks made him a highly entertaining lecturer in the time, during the 1970s, that he spent teaching at Yale and the Parsons School of Design. Although he could be intolerant and uncharitable to colleagues, students and younger illustrators frequently saluted his kindness and generosity.
Sendak described himself as “the tiresome child who had to get his homework done”, but he was only truly happy when creatively stimulated. Always something of an outsider, he did not seek out, or appear to need, company. Although he had a handful of good friends, he lived by himself in the depths of Connecticut. Never trusting himself to be a good parent, dogs provided a substitute. On one occasion, he cancelled all his business appointments for a fortnight when one of them was due to have puppies.
In 1970 Maurice Sendak became the first American to receive the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the highest accolade in children’s literature. He remarked, characteristically, that it should be renamed the “Hans Jewish Andersen” award.
He was unmarried. An illustrated poem, My Brother’s Book, inspired by his love for his late brother, Jack, is to be published next year.
Maurice Sendak, born June 10 1928, died May 8 2012
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