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Maurice Sendak dies at 83; artist and writer best known for "Where the Wild Things Are"

Maurice Sendak, 83, artist and writer, who told stories about the truth, light and dark, to children and adults alike, died Tuesday in Danbury, Conn. He had had a stroke four days before.

Maurice Sendak relaxes with his "Rosie" and "Pierre" characters in a 1995 exhibit at Philadelphia's Please Touch Museum.
Maurice Sendak relaxes with his "Rosie" and "Pierre" characters in a 1995 exhibit at Philadelphia's Please Touch Museum.Read more

Maurice Sendak, 83, artist and writer, who told stories about the truth, light and dark, to children and adults alike, died Tuesday in Danbury, Conn. He had had a stroke four days before.

Studded with groundbreaking successes such as Where the Wild Things Are (which won the 1964 Caldecott Medal, for the best American picture book for children) and In the Night Kitchen (1970), Mr. Sendak's 65-year career was that of a son of immigrants, a high-school graduate who carved out a singular, permanent place in writing history - and not only for kids.

"He changed children's writing, and American culture with it," said Amy B. Jordan, director of the Media and the Developing Child sector at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "He wasn't afraid to explore the complex, dark, baffling side of children's minds."

An estimated 10,000 of Mr. Sendak's artworks and papers reside at the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia, a major depository of his work since 1968.

Jonathan Bartlett, a University of the Arts graduate, now a freelance illustrator in Brooklyn, said, "What matters to me most as an illustrator is that he was incredibly honest in his books. He had no qualms about speaking the truth to kids. That's why his work has had such visceral impact for so many years."

Jerry Spinelli, a children's book writer living in Wayne, said, "He focused on the fringes, the backwaters, the side-pools, the under-noticed areas of common human experience, and he could transform that into stories, told with pictures even more than with words."

Mr. Sendak was born to Polish Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn in 1928. He grew up during the Depression and World War II; his family would lose relatives to the Holocaust. Recurrent childhood illnesses rendered him bedridden for a while, allowing him to indulge his love of books. He often traced his art passion to the time he watched Walt Disney's Fantasia at age 12.

He graduated from high school and soon started a career as an illustrator.

Robert Byrd, who teaches a class in illustration at UArts, said, "One of his first jobs was to do window art for the children's store FAO Schwarz in New York. Then he started doing art for other people's books," from 1947 to the late 1950s, when he began to publish his own stories-with-art.

In 1963, Where the Wild Things Are appeared. "We artists knew it was something different and loved it," Byrd said. "So did kids, instantly. Parents were worried about its darkness, but kids don't worry about things like that. They got it right away."

The book served notice of Mr. Sendak's trademarks: an inerrant sense of composition and color; shadowed, crosshatched inkwork that gave body and weight to crazy, outlandish characters; original, idiosyncratic stories treating themes of fear, abandonment, and loss. Some of his books challenged and dismayed parents. In the Night Kitchen, with some images of naked children, was often on lists of banned library books.

Wild Things won the Caldecott in 1964. A book many people remember reading for the first time, it tells of Max, a little boy who learns to become King of the Wild Things - simply by telling rambunctious, fanged Wild Things to be still. Kaitlin Spellman, about to graduate from UArts with a B.F.A. in illustration, says, "I remember thinking how great it was that Max could face down fear, and that a little kid could do something great."

Jordan says, "It confronted anger, frustration, children's interest in sometimes being wild, and their confusion at being isolated when their impulses get out of control."

Judith Guston, curator and director of collections at the Rosenbach, says the work "was the first book I ever read as a child. I remember just thinking it was awesomely beautiful even before I could read the words, the stunning beauty of it, the aesthetic of it."

Mr. Sendak visited the Rosenbach in 1966 to see its large collection of Herman Melville, his favorite author. (He'd name a dog Herman.) Two years later, he began depositing his original work at the Rosenbach, which has a wing devoted him. (In June, the museum will launch an exhibition spanning his entire career.) He joined the board of trustees in 1973 and became honorary president in 2003. His last visit was in April to see the "Chertoff mural," which he painted on the wall of friends' New York apartment in 1961. It was moved to the Rosenbach in 2008.

Mr. Sendak had many other successes, including Higglety Pigglety Pop!, Chicken Soup with Rice, and Outside Over There. Honors included a National Book Award and the National Medal for the Arts. He designed sets for ballets and opera and was involved with early development of the TV children's show Sesame Street. He professed to love Spike Jonze's 2009 film version of Wild Things. His most recent book, Bumble-Ardy, was a bestseller last fall. In his private life, he and partner Eugene Glynn lived together for 50 years until the latter's death in 2007.

As he aged, he cultivated a cranky, curmudgeonly image. A recent interview on Comedy Central's Colbert Report was characteristically dark and opinionated, as was an interview in September with Terry Gross on WHYY-FM's Fresh Air. But he was also a much-involved mentor of other writers and artists. Many people, including Patrick Rodgers, traveling-exhibitions coordinator at the Rosenbach, recalls an "unfailingly generous man with his time and a close collaborator."

Nina Chertoff, who was (with her brother Larry) the inspiration for the Chertoff mural, said she and her children spent the day recently at Mr. Sendak's house.

"He was exactly as he was when I was a little kid," she said. "He had the same core, a combination of dark and light. I think he truly was ready, and that's the best time to go."

She said Mr. Sendak was still working in his studio on "just magnificent" abstract watercolors. "He was always breaking new ground, even at that stage of his life, that was his oxygen," she said. "It was wonderful to see him and be in the studio and to know he was in the place he wanted to be in, doing what he wanted to do, still producing, up until the very end, with humor and fun and spirit."

The Rosenbach's Sendak collection was open free all day Tuesday. Sendak devotees coursed in and out of the museum, including Laura Swartz of Philadelphia, who came when she heard of Mr. Sendak's death. His work spoke to her, she says, "because everyone has that feeling of wanting to have control over things and escape, but at the same time, in the end, you come home and you still have your family and your dinner is waiting for you on the table."

Aspiring children's writer Brian Hagerman of Fishtown says that, when he first read Wild Things, it "was so different from anything else I had ever read, really. And even at that age, I could tell how special it was." He likes the way Mr. Sendak's work is for both children and adults.

Temple University English major Jen King, also visiting the Rosenbach, says Wild Things shows that "the world is not as scary as it might seem and there is a lot to explore and a lot to imagine."

Perhaps the greatest accolades Tuesday, and the ones this pretend-curmudgeon would have cherished most, came from young people planning to pass his work on to their children. Like Kaitlin Spellman, who says, "I'd definitely read him to my kids. It goes back to what inspired me to become an illustrator, back to my dad reading us Sendak's books. I want to create something that will bring about the same memories for other children. I'd read Sendak to my children because I want them to have the same inspiration I had."

For video about reaction to Maurice Sendak's life and career, go to:


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Inquirer staff writers Amy Rosenberg and Tirdad Derakhshani contributed to this article.