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‘Where the Wild Things Are’ author Maurice Sendak dies

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Updated: June 11, 2012 8:59AM

Maurice Sendak, the legendary children’s book author and illustrator who died Tuesday, wasn’t interested in being loved.

His curmudgeonly persona became as much a part of his legend as his most famous children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, which earned him a Caldecott Medal for the best children’s picture book of 1964 and became a hit movie in 2009.

But loved he was. Mr. Sendak was among the most honored and adored of children’s authors, ranked with Dr. Seuss as a revolutionary force of the past half-century.

He told stories about children that were actually about children, and not what adults wished them to be, seeing and writing about the sometimes-dark side of childhood.

“It’s almost impossible to overstate his importance,” said Daniel Handler, known for the Lemony Snicket “A Series Of Unfortunate Events” books.

Handler, 42, said Mr. Sendak has been so much a part of his life he can’t think of a time he wasn’t aware of him.

“Both my son and my wife cried this morning at the news of his death,” Handler said. “That might sum up his career in a nutshell.”

Chris Raschka, a two-time recipient of the Caldecott Medal, remembers reading

Where the Wild Things Are as a child. Raschka, now 53, was at his best friend’s house, picked up a copy and felt as if he were “peeking into an illicit world.”

“It seemed like the first picture book that was very personal, and it was painted by an artist who combined the child and the adult in a new way,” says Raschka.

Mr. Sendak died at a hospital in Danbury, Conn., according to his caretaker and longtime friend Lynn Caponera. He was 83. He had a stroke on Friday and was hospitalized until he died, Caponera said.

Since the early 1960s, Mr. Sendak lived in Ridgefield, Conn., where he had a collection of Mickey Mouse and other Walt Disney toys displayed throughout his house.

He launched his career by doing the pictures for wholesome books such as Ruth Krauss’

A Hole Is To Dig and Else Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear . But he was best known for his quirkier and borderline scary works.

Where the Wild Things Are was quite controversial when it was published. It’s about a boy named Max who goes on a journey, at times a rampage, through his own imagination and into a world of monsters after being sent to bed without supper,

“Where the Wild Things Are starts with a boy being sent to his room and proceeds to take him to an enormous and irrational world without really telling us if it’s real,” said Handler. “But if you’re a small child, it does seem real. And that’s what matters.”

In Mr. Sendak’s 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,” said Leonard Marcus, author of Show Me a Story! Why Picture Books Matter.

Lisa Von Drasek, director of the Center for Children’s Literature at Bank Street College of Education in New York, said Mr. 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.”

Mr. Sendak also created costumes for ballets and staged operas, including the Czech opera Brundibar, which he put on paper with his friend Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, in 2003. And he served as producer of various animated TV series based on his illustrations, including “Seven Little Monsters,” “George and Martha” and “Little Bear.”

Still, Mr. Sendak accepted — and embraced — the label of “kiddie-book author.”

“I write books that seem more suitable for children, and that’s OK with me,” he told an interviewer in 2003. “Kids tell you what they think — not what they think they should think.”

When director Spike Jonze made the movie version of

Where the Wild Things Are , Mr. Sendak urged him to remember that childhood isn’t all sweetness and light. And he was happy with the result.

“There’s a cruelty to childhood,” Mr. Sendak said in an interview in 2009. “There’s an anger. And I did not want to reduce Max to the trite image of the good little boy that you find in too many books.”

Mr. Sendak’s own life was clouded by the shadow of the Holocaust. He said the events of World War II were the root of his raw and honest artistic style. Born in 1928 and raised in Brooklyn, Mr. Sendak remembered the tears shed by his Jewish-Polish immigrant parents as they’d get news of atrocities and the deaths of relatives and friends.

“My childhood was about thinking about the kids over there,” in Europe, he said. “My burden is living for those who didn’t.”

Mr. Sendak, his sister Natalie and his late brother Jack were the last of the family on his father’s side. His other relatives didn’t move to the United States before the war. The only family member Mr. Sendak really knew on his mother’s side was his grandmother.

His longtime partner, psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn, died in 2007. Mr. Sendak didn’t go to college.

His first real job, in 1948, was as a 20-year-old window-dresser at FAO Schwarz, the famous Manhattan toy store, which also sold books. He spent a lot of time hiding in the back room, reading. But the manager recognized Mr. Sendak’s artistic talent and introduced him to Ursula Nordstrom, a children’s book editor who worked with Krauss. That’s how Krauss spotted Mr. Sendak’s artwork on Nordstrom’s desk and how, in 1952, he came to illustrate Krauss’ A Hole Is to Dig.

It was his big 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,” Mr. Sendak once said.

By 1957, he was writing his own books. Of all his work, he was most proud of Brundibar — a folk tale about two children who need to make enough money to buy milk for their sick mother, which Mr. Sendak completed when he was 75 and called “the closest thing to a perfect child I’ve ever had.”

He stayed away from book-signings. He couldn’t stand the thought of parents dragging their kids to wait in line for hours to see a little old man in thick glasses.“Kids don’t know about best-sellers,” said Mr. Sendak. “They go for what they enjoy . . . and they don’t suck up. It’s why I like them.”

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