WYTHE COUNTY, Va., May 9, 2012 — Maurice Sendak, the author of the best-selling children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are,” has died at age 83. His long-time editor, Michael di Capua, told the author died in Danbury, Connecticut, after complications from a recent stroke.
Maurice Bernard Sendak was born in Brooklyn on June 10, 1928. His father, Philip, was a dressmaker in the garment district of Manhattan, and Sendak endured a seemingly endless parade of childhood illnesses and was considered a frail child. He grew up lower class, Jewish, and gay, so it is small wonder he would create a different take on life through the eyes of children.
While still in high school he worked part time for All-American Comics, filling in backgrounds for book versions of the “Mutt and Jeff” comic strip. At age 20 he took a job at F.A.O. Schwarz, building window displays, but more importantly it got him an introduction to Ursula Nordstrom, the editor of children’s books at Harper & Row.
This introduction led to him illustrating many well known children’s books, and eventually the publication of the first book written and illustrated by him, “Kenny’s Window,” published in 1956.
Considered by most to be the most important children’s book artist of the Twentieth Century, he reinvented the genre and firmly established his career when his book “Where the Wild Things Are” was published in 1963.
In 1964 this book was awarded the Caldecott Medal, considered the Pulitzer Prize of children’s book illustration. Sendak wrote 19 books and illustrated many more, including the works of Leo Tolstoy, Herman Melville, William Blake, and Hans Christian Anderson.
Prior to his works, children’s books featured clean-cut heroes and heroines with pure agendas and fairy tale endings. Sendak introduced a world less safe and sure, where the main characters were not always on their best behavior. Often the characters were less than likeable and prone to bad decisions and the trouble that follows them.
Teaching proper morals through gently cautionary tales was not his style either. He illustrated a children’s world that more realistically reflected the many recesses of a child’s mind, often drawing criticism for his departure from the more formulaic “They lived happily ever after” endings that dominated children’s books up to that point.
Growing up in the time of the Depression, World War II, and the Holocaust, in which many of his European relatives were lost, Sendak was made aware of the many dangers and vulnerabilities facing children, a fact reflected in his books time and again.
About the time his books became popular, the times they were a- changing. The Sixties and the societal upheaval that came with them forever closed the chapter on white picket fences and “Happily ever after,” a change in society that translated well in his works, and made identifying with his characters easy for the reader. This explains why the generation that was raised on his books are lifelong fans and pass this devotion on to their own children.
Known for his groundbreaking and often haunting illustrations, as well as his less than pearly white plots, it can be said that Sendak took children’s books from infancy, kicking and screaming, into puberty.
Firmly entrenched in the world of children’s literature, his work will be appreciated long past his death.
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