This week the world lost a unique talent. Maurice Sendak, the author and illustrator perhaps best know for his Caldecott winning Where the Wild Things Are, passed away at age 83. A pioneer in children’s literature, he influenced generations of readers and writers. The New York Times called him “the most important children’s book artist of the 20th Century.” He also authored one of the books most frequently challenged in libraries, 1970’s charming In the Night Kitchen.
Sendak was born in 1928 in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrants from Poland. He describes his childhood as a “terrible situation” because of the steady news of family members dying in the Holocaust. He was a sickly child and fell in love with books during a period when he was confined to his bed. He decided to become an illustrator after seeing Disney’s Fantasia; his first major work was illustrating the Little Bear books written by Else Holmelund Minarik.
Sendak was also gay, a fact few knew until late in his life. He lived with his partner, Dr. Eugene Glynn, for 50 years before Glynn’s death in May 2007. In an interview with the New York Times in 2008, he was asked if there was any question he hadn’t been asked before.
‘Well, that I’m gay…I just didn’t think it was anybody’s business,’ Mr. Sendak stated. He never told his parents: ‘All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew.’ A gay artist in New York is not exactly uncommon, but Mr. Sendak said that the idea of a gay man writing children books would have hurt his career when he was in his 20s and 30s.
He was also a philanthropist, most famously giving $1 million in 2010 to the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, a mental-health and social services agency that provides services to New York’s needy families. Sendak gave the gift in honor of his partner, who was a psychiatrist.
Leading a selfish life is unbearable…what Eugene did to save lives, I am trying to do artistically. You can’t memorialize someone like Eugene, there are few people like him in the world with his heart and social consciousness…all I’m doing is contributing to something he would have wanted to do.
I fell in love with Sendak’s work as a young child (like so many did). Although I was a precocious reader and quickly moved past most picture books, his quirky sense of story and astonishing attention to detail kept bringing me back. I particularly love Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life which was published just after I was born. When I was visiting Philadelphia, I stumbled across the Rosenbach Museum, which features the Sendak collection, the official repository of his work. In includes his collection of nearly 10,000 works of art, manuscripts, books and ephemera. It was a wonderful experience and gave me a whole new appreciation for the man and the artist (including his deep fondness for the work of Herman Melville.) Known to the world at large as a grumpy curmudgeon, he was described by his friends as the kindest and most loyal man they knew. Farewell, Mr. Sendak. The world will miss you, and so will I.