Maurice Sendak's dark visions delighted generations of children
On Tuesday Sendak died at his home in Connecticut, aged 83. The man considered by many to be the most important children's author of the 20th century suffered a stroke on Friday, according to his longtime friend and carer, Lynn Caponera, and died as a result of complications.
"We are terribly saddened at the passing of Maurice Sendak," said Susan Katz, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children's Books, which published his books. "He was a glorious author and illustrator, an amazingly gifted designer, a blisteringly funny raconteur, a fierce and opinionated wit, and a loyal friend to those who knew him. His talent is legendary; his mind and breadth of knowledge equally so.
"Every once in a while, someone comes along who changes our world for the better. Maurice Sendak was such a man."
In a six-decade career, Sendak provided the illustrations for more than 100 children's books, writing and illustrating 20 more and winning a host of prizes including, in 1970, the Hans Christian Andersen award for children's book illustration, the most prestigious award in the field. His early work, including images for Ruth Krauss's A Hole is to Dig, published in 1952 – a collection of children's sometimes quirky definitions of everyday words – and Else Holmelund Minarik's Little Bear series from 1957, conjured comfortably wholesome images of childhood.
It was with Where the Wild Things Are in 1963, however, that Sendak would achieve international acclaim. The book tells the story of a boy called Max who is sent to bed without supper and embarks on a dreamlike journey to a country inhabited by a population of fanged "wild things" that were both lovable and disturbing. The book attracted controversy on publication thanks to its unsettling theme, but proved a phenomenal success. It has sold more than 17m copies worldwide and in 2009 was adapted into a Hollywood movie.
In the late 1940s Sendak was working as a commercial illustrator – his first book, in 1947, was a physics textbook called Atomic for the Millions – and as a window dresser at FAO Schwartz, the New York toy store. An introduction to the children's book editor Ursula Nordstrom led to a commission to illustrate his first book for younger readers, Michel Aymé's The Wonderful Farm.
Where the Wild Things Are was not the only work to attract controversy. In the Night Kitchen (1970), the story of another surreal adventure, this time by a boy called Mickey through a baker's kitchen, has frequently been banned or censored because of Sendak's depictions of the young boy's nudity. His favourite among his own works was Outside Over There (1981), about a young girl whose baby sister has been stolen by goblins.
Sendak also created costumes for ballets and staged operas, including the Czech opera Brundibar in 2003, with his collaborator and close friend, the Pulitzer-winning playwright Tony Kushner.
He produced various animated TV series based on his illustrations. He returned last year to children's books, with Bumble-Ardy, the first work to which he had contributed both words and pictures in three decades. Its theme was characteristically troubled, concerning a naughty piglet who loses his parents to a bacon slicer.
Though he never acknowledged the relationship to his parents, Sendak shared his life for 50 years with Eugene Glynn, a psychoanalyst. His partner's death in 2007, and those of increasing numbers of friends, had left him "caved in" with grief, he said, and his own view of death was typically unsentimental.
"I want to be alone and work until the day my heads hits the drawing table and I'm dead. Kaput," he told one interviewer. "I feel very much like I want to be with my brother and sister again. They're nowhere. I know they're nowhere and they don't exist, but if nowhere means that's where they are, that's where I want to be."