On June 10, 1928, author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, who revolutionized children’s literature with such best-selling books as Where the Wild Things Are and became one of the most celebrated children’s authors in contemporary history, is born in Brooklyn, New York. First published in 1963, Where the Wild Things Are was pioneering in its realistic depiction of childhood anxieties and rebellious behavior at a time when many stories for young readers presented a sugar-coated version of life.
Sendak, whose parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland, described his own childhood as unhappy. He was sickly and spent much of his time indoors. His father, a dressmaker, lost a number of family members during the Holocaust, and that tragedy that haunted the younger Sendak. After graduating from high school in Brooklyn, Sendak, who developed a love of drawing as a boy, took art classes at night and in 1948 found work as a window display designer at FAO Schwarz, the Manhattan toy store. While there, he was introduced to book editor Ursula Nordstrom (who during her career worked with a number of popular children’s book authors, including Margaret Wise Brown, E.B. White and Shel Silverstein). Nordstrom commissioned Sendak to illustrate his first children’s book, The Wonderful Farm, written by Marcel Ayme and published in 1951. Sendak illustrated books for a variety of children’s authors before writing and illustrating a picture book of his own, Kenny’s Window, published in 1956.
Sendak rose to international prominence with the publication of Where the Wild Things Are, which he wrote and illustrated. It tells the story of Max, a disobedient boy who, after being sent to his bedroom without dinner, travels to a land of fanged, hairy monsters and eventually faces them down. (Sendak based his drawings of these monsters, or “wild things,” on the obnoxious relatives who visited his family for Sunday dinners when he was a child.) Although initially criticized by some reviewers as too frightening for children and banned by some libraries, Where the Wild Things Are was awarded the Caldecott Medal in 1964 for most distinguished American picture book for children, and went on to sell millions of copies worldwide. A big-screen adaptation of the book, directed by Spike Jonze and co-written with Dave Eggers, was released in 2009.
In addition to Where the Wild Things Are, many of Sendak’s books–which include Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or There Must Be More to Life (1967), In the Night Kitchen (1970) and Bumble-Ardy (2011)—are dark and subversively humorous. In a January 2011 interview on “The Colbert Report,” the author, who was sometimes referred to by friends as “Morose Sendak,” said in response to a question about why he wrote for children: “I don’t write for children. I write—and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’ I didn’t set out to make children happy or make life better for them, or easier for them.”Sendak, who wrote or illustrated close to 100 books during his career, also designed productions for operas, plays and ballets. He died of complications from a stroke at age 83 on May 8, 2012, at a Danbury, Connecticut, hospital. Sendak was preceded in death by his partner of more than 50 years, psychiatrist Eugene Glynn.