Maurice Sendak, the author and illustrator that made childhood seem like a grotesque, beautiful dreamland, passed away today at the age of 83. He died in a Connecticut hospital due to complications from a stroke. Sendak, the child of Jewish immigrants, made a career for himself that spanned more than six decades. Through his work, readers experienced a wild rumpus of stories, from Little Bear’s sweetness to Max’s mischief. In everything he touched, Sendak brought a quality of truth to the solitude of childhood.
Sarah and Philip Sendak moved from Poland in the early 1900’s to Brooklyn, where they raised their three children. Philip, a dressmaker by trade, was a children’s author himself, a talent he would pass onto his son. In a 2009 documentary, “Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak,” the writer described the secret life he kept from his parents. Sendak spent decades keeping his homosexuality a secret. That, augmented with his Jewish upbringing, lower class status and chronic illnesses in youth, created a feeling of the outsider in Sendak, a quality that came out constantly in his work.
The Ridgefield, CT, resident was a noted recluse, though he stayed incredibly busy. His first job at 20 was with a comic strip, filling in lines with paint. Later, he would begin illustrating myriad works, like Else Holmelund Minarik’s iconic series of Little Bear books. He would eventually come to pen and illustrate his own titles as well, like “Where the Wild Things Are,” arguably his most famous, and other classics like “Outisde Over There,” “Seven Little Monsters” and “In the Night Kitchen.”
His efforts didn’t go unnoticed. A favorite with readers, 22 of his works were named the New York Times Best Illustrated Book of the year. Several of his publications were made into operas, television shows and movies, and he worked with artists from playwright Tony Kushner to musician Carole King. He won numerous literary awards, including the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal and the National Medal of Arts, which he received from President Bill Clinton.
Sendak was incredibly close with his brother and sister, both of whom he outlived, and his beloved dog Jennie, who died in 1967. Jennie popped up in every one of Sendak’s books during her lifetime, most notably in “Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or, There Must Be More to Life.” In the work, Jennie takes off to pursue a career as a stage actress, a theme of longing and exploration that echoes in the pages from Sendak’s prolific library of work. It was his talent of combining adult concepts with youthful perceptipon that won him a devoted fanbase, with generations of children brought up on his stories.
Sendak had no surviving immediate family. His partner of 50 years, Eugene Glynn, died in 2007.