Obituary - Maurice Sendak 1928-2012

Adi Bloom

"Scaring children is my particular hobby," Maurice Sendak once remarked. And indeed, the author and illustrator took children's books - though he despised the term - to new, dark places.

He confronted children's fears head on, and they loved him for it. Where the Wild Things Are, his most famous book, sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.

Maurice Bernard Sendak was born in New York in June 1928. The child of Polish-Jewish immigrants, he was raised in a world of impending terrors: the Depression, the Second World War. He subsequently lost much of his extended family in the Holocaust.

A sickly child, he spent a lot of time at home, sketching the world outside the family's tenement apartment. He did, however, negotiate a deal with his science teacher: he would illustrate the teacher's physics textbook, Atomics for the Millions, in return for a "pass" grade.

After school, he took a job as a window dresser for toy shop FAO Schwarz. Then, one Christmas, he decided to fill the shopfront with his own drawings. "It was like putting a huge hook in the water and waiting for a fish to be caught," he said.

The fish bit: an editor commissioned him. Over the next decade, he illustrated more than 40 books. His style was heavily influenced by English Victorian artists, as well as by William Blake and the Brothers Grimm.

His first book as author as well as illustrator was published in 1956. Though he was writing children's books, he hated the term, believing it denigrating. "I wanted to kill her," he said of a woman who referred to him as "the kiddie-book man".

It was his fourth book, Where the Wild Things Are, which made his name. Published in 1963, it tells the story of obstreperous Max, who is sent to bed with no supper. He sets sail to the land of the wild things and is named their king, before returning to his bedroom to find dinner waiting for him. The wild things are huge, lumbering creatures, fanged and hairy. Mr Sendak always maintained that he had based them on the middle-aged relatives who hovered around his childhood sick bed.

The darkness of his books regularly caused controversy. And images of a naked boy tumbling into a bowl of cake batter in his 1970 book In the Night Kitchen shocked middle America. Several school librarians drew nappies over the illustrations.

Children, however, loved the books. When one boy wrote him a fan letter, Mr Sendak sent a drawing of a wild thing in return. He later received a note from the boy's mother: "Jim loved your card so much he ate it." And there were other, more conventional accolades. In 1996, he received the US National Medal of Arts.

Eugene Glynn, his partner of 50 years, died in 2007. Mr Sendak had not told his parents about the relationship. "All I wanted was to be straight, so my parents could be happy," he said in 2008.

Maurice Sendak died on 8 May.

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Adi Bloom

Adi Bloom is Tes comment editor

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