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Maurice Sendak

Maurice SendakAKA Maurice Bernard Sendak

Born: 10-Jun-1928
Birthplace: Brooklyn, NY
Died: 8-May-2012
Location of death: Danbury, CT
Cause of death: Stroke

Gender: Male
Religion: Jewish
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Gay [1]
Occupation: Author, Artist

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Where The Wild Things Are

Maurice Sendak was an American author and artist best known for his classic children's books, including Where the Wild Things Are (1963), In the Night Kitchen (1970), and The Nutshell Library collection (1976). His later works include We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993), Swine Lake (1999), and the operatic Brundibar (2003).

As the illustrator of over 60 books, Sendak collaborated on a wide range of projects. Among these were Else Holmelund Minarik's original Little Bear books, which later spawned a popular children's TV series. Recognition for Sendak's work included the Hans Christian Andersen Award for children's book illustration (1970); a National Medal of the Arts, awarded by President Clinton (1997); and the first Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for Literature, awarded by the Swedish Government (2003). Toward the end of his life, Sendak harnessed his prodigious imagination in writing and designing for opera and ballet productions.

Maurice Sendak was born 10 June 1928 in Brooklyn, New York, to poor Polish immigrants of Jewish extraction. He was poor at sports as a child and often sickly, spending a great deal of his childhood at home with his mother. He loved to draw, often inspired by the efforts of his older brother. An avid reader, Sendak depended on his sister to bring home books from the library. Numbered among his favorite authors were Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain. But his father too was a favorite storyteller, interspersing fantastic tales with stories about the gruesome deaths suffered by relatives left in the old country. Phillip Sendak had his own versions of Old Testament tales as well. And Maurice, unaware that his father's racy embellishments were inappropriate for children, was once sent home from school for reiterating the details of one of these softcore Bible tales.

At the age of twelve, Sendak saw the film Fantasia and decided to become a cartoonist. A letter to Disney received no response, but by the time he was in high school he was already churning out professional work. He illustrated his high school biology teacher's book, Atomics for the Millions (1947), and was hired to do backgrounds for a comic book version of the famous Mutt and Jeff strip. After finishing high school he took a job with F.A.O. Schwartz as a window dresser, studying by night at the New York Art Students League. It wasn't long before he landed his first gig as a children's book illustrator, for Marcel Ayme's The Wonderful Farm (1951). A year later Sendak paired up with Ruth Kraus for A Hole Is to Dig (1952). Kraus and her husband Crockett Johnson, author of Harold and the Purple Crayon, both took an interest in Sendak, encouraging his work and sharing a wealth of wisdom and constructive criticism.

Despite his talents, Sendak found it impossible to work on any project that didn't resonate with his personal sensibilities. At the same time, selling publishers on his personal vision was extremely difficult. Time and time again, he found rejection, given chiding advice to familiarize himself with -- and imitate -- more conventionally American styles of children's book illustration. Sendak's whimsical work had a thoroughly unique style, and a distinctly European flavor with strong influences from Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse, as well as Francisco de Goya and Pablo Picasso. Furthermore, his characters looked rumpled and dumpy compared to the illustrations of fresh-scrubbed, athletic children then in fashion.

In 1963 Sendak at last broke through with a work totally of his own genius: Where the Wild Things Are. Although the work is now considered a cherished classic of children's literature, many reviewers trounced it when it first appeared, predicting that children would be terrified by the monstrous wild things. But children adored the book, especially lead character Max, who tames the wild things, and leads them in a gleefully wild rumpus. The American Library Association awarded Sendak a Caldecott Medal in 1964.

Many librarians were not so thrilled when Sendak's In the Night Kitchen emerged in 1970. In it a small boy named Mickey ends up naked as he explores the city work that goes on at night. According to Sendak this development is only sensible since Mickey goes romping through great vats of dough and milk – that is, skinny dipping is the pleasant alternative to slogging about in soggy, dough-sodden clothes. But a number of librarians and booksellers of the period promptly rejected the book. And a number of others accepted it only to turn around and deface it, giving Mickey little marker drawn shorts -- or possibly, says Sendak, taped on paper diapers.

Curiously, while Sendak admits the book is, in part, about a small boy glorifying in his sensuality, some critics have taken interpretation of the book to a Freudian sexual extreme, seeing the nudity, free-flowing milky fluids, and giant (supposedly) "phallic" milk bottle as convenient symbols within a subversive tale about masturbation. Little wonder given such conflicts, real or imagined, that the book routinely appears on the American Library Association's listings of frequently challenged and banned books: even in 2004, the book made the top-ten. Despite this fact, the book continues to be celebrated by children and parents everywhere and has become a well-loved classic.

Twenty-odd years later, with We're All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993), Sendak delivered another jolt. This time the troubling storyline revolved around a kidnapped black baby and two white homeless men, who first rescue the baby and then decide to keep it and raise it as their own. Some critics of the work, not content with griping about the obvious, managed to interpret various elements and symbols for additional offense. Most notably, they claimed, the two hobos might be gay. The illustrations, they argued, were nightmarish and too strong for children. Ironically few seemed to consider that much standard children's fare -- from lullabies about babies falling from trees to witches who eat children -- are quite scary and quite, upon deeper contemplation, "inappropriate for children".

Of course, not all of Sendak's works inspired controversy, and over the years he produced a number of beloved classics, both as a writer and as an illustrator. His works also cover a broad range, not only in subject matter, but also in style and tone. He produced everything from nursery rhyme stories, like Hector The Protector and As I Went Over The Water, to concept books, like Alligators All Around Us and the marvelous Chicken Soup With Rice. As an illustrator, his projects included Else Holmelund Minarik's Little Bear, the Newbery winners Wheel on the School and The House of Sixty Fathers with Meindert DeJong, and illustrations of works by Herman Melville (Pierre) and George MacDonald (Light Princess and Golden Key).

Impressively, all of this diversity is but a subset of his entire body of work. In addition to children's books, Sendak also developed productions of opera and ballet for stage and television. Utilizing his unique graphic design talents and prolific imagination, he designed sets and costumes, and even wrote librettos. Although his chief musical passion was Mozart, his productions ranged from Mozart's Magic Flute to Sergei Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges and Leoš Janácek's The Cunning Little Vixen. He even helped produce a paired revival of Ravel's L'Heure Espagnole and L'Enfant et les Sortileges. And despite years of vowing not to do so, he helped design an innovative an entertaining production of Hansel and Gretel.

Sendak's foray into the world of ballet productions includes a version of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker for the Pacific Northwest Ballet, and a stage adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. In 2003 Sendak, in collaboration with Tony Kushner, published Brundibar, a book based their opera of the same name. Sendak's various stage designs appeared in book form with The Art of Maurice Sendak: 1980 to the Present. He died in 2012, but Sendak's characters and designs continue to show up in an assortment of other media as well, from animated TV shows to huggable dolls, throw rugs and apparel.

[1] Patricia Cohen, "Concerns Beyond Just Where the Wild Things Are", The New York Times, 9 September 2008: "I just didn’t think it was anybody’s business... All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew."

Father: Philip Sendak
Mother: Sadie Schindler
Boyfriend: Eugene Glynn (psychoanalyst, cohabited 50 years, d. 2007)

    High School: Lafayette High School, Brooklyn, NY
    University: Art Students League of New York

    Caldecott Medal 1964 for Where the Wild Things Are
    National Medal of Arts 1996
    Library of Congress Living Legend 2000
    FAO Schwarz Window dresser
    Polish Ancestry
    Jewish Ancestry

    Far Out Isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story (5-Jul-2012) · Himself

Author of books:
Where the Wild Things Are (1964)
In the Night Kitchen (1970)
The Nutshell Library (1976)
We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993)
Swine Lake (1999)

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