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R.I.P. ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ Creator Maurice Sendak (1928-2012)

Renowned children’s book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak has died at the age of 83. The The Associated Press reports the creator of Where The Wild Things Are, In The Night Kitchen and Outside Over There passed away this morning due to complications from a stroke.

Sendak was the grand master in his field and one of the greats of modern American literature. When we talk about comics we often forget that children’s picture books provide many of the medium’s most successful and inventive expressions, yet Sendak’s works have been among the first favorite comics for generations of fans. Most of us must surely still count his works among our favorites today. Sendak’s imagination and talent place him in the top tier of cartoonists, alongside Charles Schulz, Will Eisner and Jean “Moebius” Giraud.Sendak was born to Polish immigrant parents in Brooklyn, New York, in 1928. He was a reclusive youth who was so frequently sick with measles, pneumonia, yellow fever, that his grandmother made him dress all in white so that death would think him already an angel and pass him by. He remembered being profoundly affected by the abduction and death of the Lindbergh baby when he was not yet four years old, believing that if the blond-haired, blue-eyed baby of a wealthy gentile hero could die, there was no hope for a sickly Jewish boy like himself.

Sendak sought out adventure in the pages of dime novels and comic books, and on the big screen at the Roxy, and he wrote and drew his own comics inspired by newspaper strips and Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse. The spark for Sendak’s love of stories also came from his father, who would invent fantastical tales rich with memories of the Old World – evocations that survived into Sendak’s own work.

Yet the Old World also brought him a knowledge of horror and evil that affected him profoundly. Sendak was still a child when stories of the Holocaust reached America. His mother would admonish his bad behavior by reminding him that his cousins had died in concentration camps and he was lucky to be alive. The reality of evil in the world, and the struggle to preserve innocence in the face of it, were prevailing themes in his work – and it was the honest and uncompromising way that he explored these themes that made him celebrated, controversial, and great.

Sendak worked a ten-year apprenticeship as a children’s book illustrator for other writers’ works before his editor agreed to let him write and draw his own book. It was originally pitched as Where The Wild Horses Are, but Sendak realized he could not draw horses, and replaced them with monsters inspired by his memories of uncles, aunts and cousins that fled to America from Poland, people who had seemed wild, unkempt and monstrous to his younger self.

The resulting work, Where The Wild Things Are, published in 1963, was Sendak’s masterpiece; an enduring parable about the reckless exuberance and misbehavior of children everywhere. It was a sensation, but its popularity brought condemnation both from those who deemed its monsters too scary and from those who thought it irresponsible to show a child talking back to his mother, or a mother sending her son to bed without any food.

Sendak was not chastened. In book after book, he overturned the traditions of sentimentality and moralizing that had dominated American children’s literature. Through the beautiful diversity of his penmanship he created worlds of adventure and excitement where there was no room for the lies parents tell their children to get them to behave.

Sendak would insist that he did not write books for children, and that was surely the secret of his success. “I don’t believe in children,” he noted in a documentary about his life and work. “I don’t believe in childhood. I don’t believe there’s a demarcation of ‘you mustn’t tell them this, you mustn’t tell them that.’ You tell them anything you want. Just tell them if it’s true. If it’s true, you tell them.”

Maurice Sendak lived for more than 50 years with his partner, children’s psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn, who died in 2007, and they never had children of their own. Yet Sendak’s obstinate honesty ensured him a place as the grandly prickly godfather to more than half a century of children, and that legacy will endure for generations to come.

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