With the passing of author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, the world of children's literature loses a colorful, beautifully rendered giant. But despite the fact that he was best known for his child-friendly creations, Sendak wasn't all rooms full of teddy bears and vague gentle platitudes about how he believed The Children were The Future; he was a sharp-witted smart aleck with an eye for beauty and no time for the disingenuous.
Sendak began his career as an illustrator, lending his artistic talents to several books, including the Little Bear series and Mrs. Piggle Wiggle's Farm before rising to international acclaim by creating Where the Wild Things Are in 1963. After that book's wild rumpus through the American imagination, he went on to publish In the Night Kitchen, which was roundly censored for showing a little boy running around naked in a magical dreamworld (parents took umbrage to the nudity, not the magic). He was also behind Outside, Over There, a 1981 book about a girl who must rescue her baby sister after the child is kidnapped by goblins. Add a little David Bowie and half a dozen years and you've got something that sounds a lot like Labyrinth.
His career wasn't limited to children's literature; in addition to his writing and illustrating, he designed sets for theatrical productions including The Nutcracker and The Magic Flute. His fingerprints are also on Sesame Street; he served on the Children's Television Workshop's Board of Advisors while the series was being developed.
Being constantly asked about his most famous work Where the Wild Things Are grew understandably annoying to Sendak through the years (even though "And it was still hot" is probably the best closing line in the history of children's lit). But my favorite work of his was from a set I ordered from a Scholastic book order when I was in kindergarten. The two volume pack contained the books Pierre and Chicken Soup with Rice along with a two-sided cassette tape that had set the words of the stories to music. Pierre starred a noncommittal little boy who never expressed an opinion when it was solicited from him, instead responding with "I don't care." Naturally, this results in him being eaten by a lion, a stern lesson against childhood apathy. Chicken Soup with Rice was a little more lighthearted, an illustrated ode to comfort food as it can be enjoyed in all months of the year. Riding a crocodile down a Nile made of chicken soup! Eating it while skating on a frozen pond! Diving to the bottom of the ocean and eating chicken soup with rice there! His words and illustrations expressed an unobstructed vision of where the imagination can take you, if you only resist the engrained urge to dismiss the absurd, the slightly naughty, the impossible. I still know all the words to those books.
Through his career, he faced the threat of ostracization from his parents. Sendak was gay and lived with his partner, psychoanalyst Dr. Eugene Glynn, for 50 years before Glynn died about 5 years ago. But even though his life was with Glynn, his sexuality was a secret. He told the Times in 2008 that he never came out to them, "All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew."
Sendak dismissed the notion that children were simple creatures who were easy to please and believed that most children's literature was crap. He would occasionally respond to letters from fans with original illustrations, and was famously delighted by a letter he received from the mother of a child who had received such a letter; according to Sendak, the child loved his drawing so much that he ate it, and that was the best compliment that he possibly could have gotten.
In a hilarious series of interviews with Stephen Colbert earlier this year, Sendak told him, among other things, "It is a miracle that I have lived this long without having destroyed a person," and that Colbert's attempt at illustration had a "terrible quality of ordinariness." When Colbert asked him what he needed to do to succeed in the modern world of children's literature, Sendak responded, "Well, you started already by being an idiot." And the interview just got better from there.
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But Sendak wasn't all quick retorts and self-aware curmudgeonliness; he reflected fondly on his life, a well-lived life, and looked forward to the next stage. In a December 2011 interview with NPR, Sendak said, "I have nothing now but praise for my life. I'm not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can't stop them. They leave me and I love them more. ... What I dread is the isolation. ... There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I'm ready, I'm ready, I'm ready."