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Originally published May 8, 2012 at 7:35 PM | Page modified May 9, 2012 at 2:30 PM

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'Wild Things' author Maurice Sendak dies at 83

Maurice Sendak, proclaimed "the Picasso of children's books" by Time magazine and best known for his iconic book "Where the Wild Things Are," has died at 83.

Los Angeles Times

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LOS ANGELES — Maurice Sendak, the children's book illustrator and author whose unsentimental approach to storytelling revolutionized the genre and whose best-known tale was the dark fantasy "Where the Wild Things Are," has died. He was 83.

Mr. Sendak, who also was a set designer for opera and film, died Tuesday at a hospital in Danbury, Conn., said his friend and caretaker, Lynn Caponera. He had suffered a stroke Friday.

Among Mr. Sendak's best-known works are the internationally recognized sets and costumes he designed for Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Nutcracker" — visual images that are powerful, bold, even scary.

"It's the most enduring production he ever designed, and Seattle is very lucky that it's become part of the cultural heritage of the city," said Kent Stowell, the ballet company's former co-artistic director.

Stowell said he and Mr. Sendak shared a vision of producing a "Nutcracker" that wasn't sugary sweet, but more faithful to E.T.A. Hoffman's original story in its dreamlike and nightmarish qualities.

The production, which debuted in 1983, has entertained generations of Seattle-area patrons and brought PNB wide acclaim. A film version of it was released nationwide in 1986.

Stowell said he and Mr. Sendak stayed in touch through the years and had even talked about working together on a production that would combine "Sleeping Beauty" and "Beauty and the Beast."

"He had a wicked sense of humor and he had no compunction about saying what he thought," Stowell said. "He could deliver a stiletto, but not really as a hard push, more like a gentle poke."

Top 10

Mr. Sendak already had been proclaimed "the Picasso of children's books" by Time magazine when, in his 30s, he wrote and illustrated "Where the Wild Things Are." It became one of the 10 best-selling children's books of all time.

The work, published in 1963, was a startling departure from the sweetness and innocence that ruled children's literature. "Wild Things" tapped into the fears of childhood and sent its main character — an unruly boy in a wolf costume — into a menacing forest to tame the wild beasts of his imagination.

Librarians banned the book as too frightening. Psychologists and many adults condemned it for being too dark. But a 1964 Los Angeles Times review echoed many critics: The "aggressive flight of fantasy" was "the best thing of its kind in many a year."

By then, "Wild Things" had won the Caldecott Medal for most distinguished American picture book for children. The author began receiving mail from young fans captivated by the grinning monsters Mr. Sendak said he modeled after the obnoxious relatives who populated the Sundays of his youth.

One boy wrote to ask: "How much does it cost to get to where the wild things are? If it is not expensive, my sister and I would like to spend the summer there."

When President Obama read from "Wild Things" to children at the White House Easter Egg Roll in 2009, he called it one of his favorite books.

Mr. Sendak bristled at the notion that he was an author of children's books and told People magazine in 2003 that he wrote stories "about human emotion and life."

"They're pigeonholed as children's books, but the best ones aren't — they're just books," he said.

Upon awarding Mr. Sendak the National Medal of Arts in 1997, President Clinton remarked: "Perhaps no one has done as much to show the power of the written word on children, not to mention on their parents, as Maurice Sendak."

An illustrator of about 80 books and author-illustrator of another 20, Mr. Sendak had won almost every important prize in children's literature.

In 2002, The New York Times pointed out that Mr. Sendak had dominated its 50-year-old annual list of the year's best-illustrated children's books "and the public consciousness of children's books in the second half of the 20th century."

Years before "Sesame Street" popularized playful teaching of the young, Mr. Sendak unleashed his frolicsome humor in 1962's "The Nutshell Library." The four tiny volumes include lessons on ABCs, counting and a morality tale told through Pierre, the boy who does not care even when a lion fancies him for dinner.

Of the books he wrote, Mr. Sendak said "Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or There Must be More to Life" (1967) was his favorite. The nonsense tale starred a terrier who decides there must be more to life than having everything. The dog was based on Jennie, his Sealyham terrier and companion of 14 years, who had gone "to Castle Yonder," as he wrote in the book.

He considered "Wild Things" part of a loose trilogy of books that included the award-winning "In the Night Kitchen" (1970), about the nocturnal adventures of Mickey, who barely escapes being baked into a cake, and "Outside Over There" (1981), the tale of a baby kidnapped by goblins.

"Night Kitchen" was also about his "victory over death," he later said. In 1967, he not only lost his beloved dog, but his mother died of cancer and he had a heart attack during an interview on British TV. Two years later his father died.

Again, Mr. Sendak stirred controversy because "Night Kitchen's" comic-style illustrations showed the child-hero Mickey falling through the air naked. Some librarians drew diapers on Mickey to cover the nudity.

"Night Kitchen's" illustrations were a "farewell to New York," Mr. Sendak said, as he relocated to Connecticut in search of a quieter life.

He viewed the trilogy as "variations on the same theme: how children master various feelings — anger, boredom, fear, frustration, jealousy — and manage to come to grips with the realities of their lives," the author said in "The Art of Maurice Sendak" (1980).

Much of his work was influenced by his nightmarish recollections of a childhood that he once recalled as "D-A-R-K."

Bedtime stories

Maurice Bernard Sendak was born June 10, 1928, in Brooklyn and grew up there. He was the youngest of three children of Philip and Sadie Sendak, Polish Jews who emigrated to the United States just before World War I.

A sickly child, he spent a great deal of time drawing. His father, a dressmaker, told him elaborate bedtime stories.

Many relatives died in the Holocaust, and his father lost most of the family fortune in the stock-market crash of 1929.

"My childhood was completely misshapen by what was going on in the world," Mr. Sendak, a guilt-plagued worrier, said on National Public Radio in 2005.

At 9, he started writing stories with his brother, Jack. His sister, Natalie, took him to see his first Walt Disney feature, which led to a lifelong fascination with Mickey Mouse.

In high school, he was an indifferent student who worked on backgrounds for comic strips such as "Mutt and Jeff." He had a comic in the school newspaper and illustrated a physics textbook for a teacher.

After graduating in 1946, Mr. Sendak worked for a window-display company. Two years later, he built mechanical wooden toys that his brother, an engineer, designed. Impressed by his creativity, FAO Schwarz executives hired Mr. Sendak as a window dresser.

His work caught the eye of noted children's-book editor Ursula Nordstrom, who hired him to illustrate the 1951 Marcel Ayme book "The Wonderful Farm" and became his mentor.

Nordstrom arranged for him to illustrate "A Hole Is to Dig," a whimsical 1952 book of childhood definitions by Ruth Krauss that established Mr. Sendak as an illustrator.

To make a living, he illustrated about 20 books in a few years and learned to draw in a variety of styles. He admitted that he owed an artistic debt to classic Victorian book illustrators but said that most of his original work was influenced by his Brooklyn childhood.

An opera fanatic, Mr. Sendak was dumbfounded when innovative opera director Frank Corsaro — long a fan of "Wild Things" — asked him to design costumes for a 1980 Houston Grand Opera production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute."

Critics called Mr. Sendak's resulting set designs "sumptuous" with intriguing undertones of foreboding.

Over the next decade, he designed sets for about 10 operas, including writing lyrics and designing costumes for his own "Where the Wild Things Are," a 45-minute opera that premiered in Belgium in 1980.

Mr. Sendak said he didn't particularly want to make a "Wild Things" movie, but told Entertainment Weekly in 2003 "that's all anybody wanted from me."

When an imaginative film adaptation of "Wild Things," directed by Spike Jonze, was released in 2009, Mr. Sendak expressed pleasure that it was not seen as a film for children.

"It's not cute and cuddly! It's a real movie," Mr. Sendak told the Los Angeles Times.

In 1993, Mr. Sendak illustrated "We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy," which he described as "an in-your-face-book about homelessness." Based on two rhymes, it also is about sickness and hunger — and was inspired by homeless children Mr. Sendak saw sleeping in a box in Los Angeles.

A decade later, Mr. Sendak illustrated a picture book of the opera "Brundibar," with libretto by playwright Tony Kushner. The parable about evil had been repeatedly performed by Jewish children in a Nazi concentration camp. Mr. Sendak considered the book "a crowning achievement."

For 50 years, he shared his life with Dr. Eugene Glynn, a psychoanalyst who died in 2007. Mr. Sendak had no immediate survivors.

A lifelong insomniac, he kept a strict regimen that included a lengthy dog walk. At his death, Mr. Sendak had a German shepherd he named Herman for his favorite author, Melville.

Of his ability to easily relate to children even though he was not surrounded by them, he once said: "We've all passed the same places. Only I remember the geography, and most people forget it."

Seattle Times reporter Jack Broom contributed to this report.

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