June 10, 1928, is the birthdate of artist Maurice Sendak, who created some of the most best-known and admired children’s books in the English language, in part by defying the conventional wisdom that said children’s literature must avoid themes such as aggression and fear.
Maurice Bernard Sendak was born in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up there, the youngest of the three children of Philip Sendak and the former Sadie Schindler. Both his parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland; Philip, a dressmaker and the son of a rabbi, had originally come to America, according to his son, in pursuit of “a girl who had committed herself to every living human male in the village.”
As a child, Maurice was frail and sickly, spending much of his time indoors and pursued by guilt and fears. He recalled in adulthood how his father had received news of the destruction of his family and native village in the Holocaust on the day of his bar mitzvah. The son insisted that his father attend his celebration, and he did, but later Sendak told The Believer magazine, “I remember … looking at him when they broke into ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’ … And my father’s face was vivid, livid, and I knew I had done something very bad.”
Seeing the Disney film “Fantasia” at age 12 convinced Maurice he wanted to be an artist. While still a student at Lafayette High School in Bath Beach, Brooklyn, he began working for All American Comics, illustrating strips like “Mutt and Jeff.” In 1947, he provided the illustrations for a physics textbook, “Atomics for the Millions.” Soon after, while Sendak was working as a designer of window displays at F.A.O. Schwarz toy store, a colleague arranged an introduction for him to an editor of children’s books at Harper & Row, which led to a number of assignments.
After making a name for himself illustrating books by other writers, including one by his own brother, Jack Sendak, Maurice was encouraged to create a work fully his own. “Kenny’s Window” (1956), his first, was followed by such titles as “Chicken Soup and Rice” and “Pierre” (whose eponymous hero knows only how to say “I don’t care”), in 1962, and in 1963, Sendak’s most acclaimed work, “Where the Wild Things Are.” Adapted twice for the screen, and once for the operatic stage, and winner of the 1964 Caldecott Medal, the book tells the story of Max, who, sent to his room for misbehaving, sees that room turn into a jungle before he sails off to an island inhabited by scary but appealing “wild things.” Max tames them and becomes their king, but then realizes that home is where he wants to be. He sails back home, only to find his supper waiting for him – “and it was still hot.”
Although Sendak was writer and illustrator of a dozen books, he provided illustrations alone for nearly a hundred titles, including the children’s book “Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories,” by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Late in his career, he also began doing set design for theater and opera. In 2003, he and playwright Tony Kushner produced an adaptation, in both book form and for the stage, of the children’s opera “Brundibar,” originally written by Hans Krasa and produced in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
Sendak was gay and had a relationship that lasted 50 years with the psychoanalyst and art critic Eugene Glynn, but he only went public with this aspect of his life after Glynn’s death in 2007. Though all of his work was intended for children (among others), Sendak never became a father, and told interviewers that he would not have been a good one.
“I refuse to lie to children,” Sendak told Emma Brockes of The Believer, shortly before his death. “I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.”
Maurice Sendak died on May 8, 2012, after a stroke, at age 83. Eight months before his death, he published “Bumble-Ardy,” and “My Brother’s Book,” dedicated to the memory of his brother, Jack, was published posthumously in February 2013.