Author Maurice Sendak, a forever favorite of children around the world for his magical stories and inventive illustrations — including his classic “Where The Wild Things Are” — died Tuesday at the age of 83.
His publisher said Sendak, who had a long history of heart trouble, died in Danbury, Connecticut after complications from a recent stroke.
Critics and admirers have said it is impossible to imagine children’s literature without Sendak, whose whimsical works penned throughout a 60-year career have been read by millions and translated into dozens of languages.
Playwright Tony Kushner has called Sendak “one of the most important writers and artists ever to work in children’s literature.
“In fact, he’s a significant writer and artist in literature. Period,” said Kushner.
In “Where The Wild Things Are,” Sendak’s 1963 masterpiece, a little boy named Max, as a punishment for misbehaving, is sent to his room without supper by his mother.
He is transported to a make-believe world inhabited by fearsome monsters, whom he tames before making his way back home again — with supper waiting for him after all.
Sendak won the Caldecott medal, the highest honor in US children’s literature, for the book, notable for its terrifying yet oddly lovable monsters.
“If Max were not in control of them, they could indeed be in control of him,” Sendak said in an interview rebroadcast recently on National Public Radio.
“The fun of that book,” Sendak told NPR, “is the perilous tightrope between him being a little boy, very vulnerable to these huge creatures, and the absurdity of his having control over them by staring into their yellow eyes.”
Sendak was born in Brooklyn, New York on June 10, 1928 to Polish-Jewish immigrant parents. A sickly child, he turned at a young age not only to reading, but to penning and sketching his own stories.
At the age of 12, he went with this family to see the Walt Disney movie “Fantasia” which inspired him to create his own inventory of fictional characters.
He said that writing as a child saved him from an unhappy, stifling childhood raised by too-strict parents.
“I was expected to be a decent child… and to just shut up and be a quiet kid. I hated them (his parents) for a long time, but I don’t anymore because God knows, it’s a blessing to have a quiet kid,” he told the US radio broadcaster.
As an adult, Sendak started his career as a freelance book illustrator, creating the illustrations for nearly 50 children’s books including the acclaimed “Little Bear” series.
Memorable works from his extensive oeuvre include “Pierre” about a mischievous, quarrelsome child whose constant refrain throughout the book is “I don’t care!”
Other perennial favorites are “Really Rosie,” “In the Night Kitchen,” and “Outside Over There.”
In addition to the Caldecott, Sendak has been honored with a Newbery medal, the international Hans Christian Andersen Award, a National Book Award, the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award and a National Medal of Arts.
He also created memorable set designs for numerous leading American ballet and opera companies.
While Sendak’s books are beloved by millions, they also have been controversial.
Some critics believed that “Where The Wild Things Are” was far too frightening for small children, while “In The Night Kitchen” was frequently banned from American libraries because it dared to show the male member of its naked young protagonist.
The whimsy and exuberance of Sendak’s art belies an underlying darkness in much of his work which aimed to explore children’s sometimes nightmarish fears and anxieties. It is also tied to his Jewish heritage and the decimation of his family during the Holocaust.
“That’s the tradition into which Sendak was born,” John Cech, author of “Angels and Wild Things: The Archetypal Poetics of Maurice Sendak,” told The New York Times in a 2005 interview.
“His whole life’s work in some way is an attempt to understand and fathom the complexity of that heritage, with its almost unbearable legacy of loss,” said Cech, who also is a professor of children’s literature at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Sendak revealed in a 2008 New York Times article that he was gay, and that he and his partner — psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn, who died the previous year — had lived together secretly for half a century.
Despite a life dedicated to the literary exploration of the inner lives of children, Sendak and Glynn never had any of their own.
“I thank God that I never did,” he told NPR. “There’s too much hard work involved, and I am devoted to being an artist.”
His most recent book, released in 2011, was “Bumble-ardy,” about an orphaned pig who, having reached the age of nine without ever having a birthday party, decides to throw himself a huge celebration.
“I did ‘Bumble-ardy’ to save myself,” Sendak confessed in an interview that same year, revealing the book was written while Glynn was dying.
“I did not want to die with him. I wanted to live as any human being does,” the writer said.
“Bumble-ardy was a combination of the deepest pain and the wondrous feeling of coming into my own,” Sendak said.
[Author Maurice Sendak, left, and film director Jonathan Demme attend a party for the flim “Where The Wild Things Are.” AFP Photo/Jemal Countess]