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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

'Wild Things' author Maurice Sendak dies

In the world of children's picture books, where cute and cuddly know few limits, Maurice Sendak was neither.

Maurice Sendak at home in Ridgefield, Conn., in 2005 with his dog, Herman. By Todd Plitt, USA TODAY

Maurice Sendak at home in Ridgefield, Conn., in 2005 with his dog, Herman.

By Todd Plitt, USA TODAY

Maurice Sendak at home in Ridgefield, Conn., in 2005 with his dog, Herman.

Sendak, the author and illustrator best known for his 1963 classic, Where the Wild Things Are, died Tuesday at 83 in Danbury, Conn., after complications from a stroke.

He leaves behind no survivors, just millions of readers from several generations who were amused, scared and inspired by his work.

"He was the pre-eminent children's book artist of the last half-century," says Leonard Marcus, author of Show Me a Story! Why Picture Books Matter. "He can be said to have been the first picture book artist to draw insight and inspiration from the work of Freud."

In his books, from In The Night Kitchen (1970), which shocked some by its youthful nudity, to Bumble-Ardy (2011), about an orphaned pig whose parents were eaten, "he showed, more candidly than any picture book artist had previously done that young children are a tangle of vulnerability and resilience," Marcus says. "And his books continue to show children that their resilient side can win out."

Lisa Von Drasek, director of the Center for Children's Literature at Bank Street College of Education in New York, says: "Sendak smashed the perception of childhood as a time of pleasantness, a time of unicorns and rainbows, sweetness and light. He appalled the 'gatekeepers' of the time who said he was too scary."

But, she says, "his joyful sketches reflect everyday childhood."

Sendak called Max, the mischievous boy who imagines a land of monsters in Wild Things, "a rotten kid."

Which is part of the appeal. Author Dave Eggers, who worked with Sendak on the 2009 film adaptation of Wild Things, recalls his mother reading the book to him when he was a toddler: "I was really scared by it. I was used to tidier narratives with a clear message of who's good and who's bad. But Sendak's monsters weren't simple or cute."

At 7, Eggers started "writing and illustrating my own stories, and they involved a boy who befriended monsters who were misunderstood. I was always into monsters, but nobody did them better than Sendak."

Parents and other readers reacted on Facebook and Twitter:

Uhura Russ: "R.I.P. Maurice Sendak!!! A joy to read your books during my childhood and a joy to see you on the Colbert Report in my adulthood!"

Diana Abu Jaber: "My toddler went as Wild Thing for Halloween. She perfected her roar. To our dismay."

Chuy Gonzalez: "I was a little boy 35 years ago. … I was scared and drawn to Where the Wild Things Are at the same time. It's probably the only book I remember fondly from my youth."

Tom Romano: "Where the Wild Things Are helped get me through an abusive childhood. I escaped repeatedly to Sendak's magical land where I could be King."

The son of Jewish immigrants, Sendak said his earliest influences were the Holocaust and the 1923 kipnapping of Charles Lindbergh's infant son. "Here was a rich, gentile child, and he couldn't make it," Sendak said. "How was I, a poor Jewish child, going to manage?"

His first job in 1948 was as a 20-year-old window dresser at FAO Schwarz, the famous Manhattan toy store, which also sold books. He said he spent a lot of time reading while hiding in the back room.

But the manager recognized Sendak's artistic talents and introduced him to an "angel," Ursula Nordstrom, a children's book editor who worked with author Ruth Krauss. That is how Krauss spotted Sendak's artwork on Nordstrom's desk and how, in 1952, Sendak came to illustrate Krauss' A Hole Is to Dig.

It was Sendak's big career break and the start of a lifelong friendship with Krauss and her husband, illustrator Crockett Johnson (Harold and the Purple Crayon).

"They knocked all the conventional stuff out of my head," Sendak said. "They were the divine parents I wanted to have."

They also helped him with Where the Wild Things Are. "It was like Max was our love child," he said.

In person, he was gruff. At a 2005 interview at his home in Ridgefield, Conn., he introduced his German shepherd, Herman.

Named for Melville, one of Sendak's literary influences?

"Of course," Sendak shot back. "What did you think, Goering?"

He publicly acknowledged being gay only after the death in 2007 of his longtime partner, psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn.

He said he never wanted to be a parent: "I never wanted the obligations. I don't think I'd be good at it. I'd be in the studio too much, or I'd want to be in the studio … and how could you live with that kind of failure?"

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