“He drew children in a realistic way, as opposed to an idealized way,” children’s books historian Leonard S. Marcus said Tuesday. “His children weren’t perfect-looking. They didn’t resemble the people seen on advertising or in sitcoms. They looked more like immigrant children. It was a big change for American children’s books, which tended to take the melting pot approach and present children who were generic Americans.”
Revenge helped inspire “Where the Wild Things Are,” his canonical tale of the boy Max’s mind in flight in a forest of monsters, who just happen to look like some of Sendak’s relatives from childhood. “In The Night Kitchen,” released in 1971, was a forbidden dance of Laurel and Hardy in aprons and the flash of a boy’s genitals, leading to calls for the book to be removed from library shelves.
“It was so fatuous, so incredible, that people would get so exercised by a phallus, a normal appendage to a man and to a boy. It was so cheap and vulgar. Despicable,” Sendak said last fall. “It’s all changed now. We live in a different country altogether. I will not say an improved version. No.”
His stories were less about the kids he knew — never had them, he was happy to say — than the kid he used to be. The son of Polish immigrants, he was born in 1928 in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. The family didn’t have a lot of money and he didn’t have a lot of friends besides his brother and sister. He was an outsider at birth, as Christians nearby would remind him, throwing dirt and rocks as he left Hebrew school. The kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s baby son terrified him for years.
He remembered no special talent — his brother, Jack, was the chosen one. But he absorbed his father’s stories and he loved to dream and to create, like the time he and his brother built a model of the 1939 World’s Fair out of clay and wax. At the movies, he surrendered to the magic of “Fantasia,” and later escaped into “Pinocchio,” a guilty pleasure during darkened times. The Nazi cancer was spreading overseas and the U.S. entered the war. Sendak’s brother joined the military, relatives overseas were captured and killed. Storytelling, after the Holocaust, became something more than play.
“It forced me to take children to a level that I thought was more honest than most people did,” he said. “Because if life is so critical, if Anne Frank could die, if my friend could die, children were as vulnerable as adults, and that gave me a secret purpose to my work, to make them live. Because I wanted to live. I wanted to grow up.”
Sendak didn’t go to college and worked a variety of odd jobs until he was hired by the famous toy store FAO Schwarz as a window dresser in 1948. But illustration was his dream and his break came in 1951 when he was commissioned to do the art for “Wonderful Farm” by Marcel Ayme. By 1957 he was writing his own books.
“He began to be honest in the ‘50s,” said “Wicked” author Gregory Maguire, one of Sendak’s closest friends. “He was laceratingly honest at a time when few others were.”
Claiming Emily Dickinson, Mozart and Herman Melville as inspirations, he worked for decades out of the studio of his shingled 18th century house in Ridgefield, Conn., a country home reachable only by a bumpy road that seemed designed to shield him from his adoring public. The interior was a wonderland of carvings and cushions, from Disney characters to the fanged beasts from his books to a statuette of Obama.
Sendak spoke often, endlessly, about death in recent years — dreading it, longing for it. He didn’t mind being old because the young were under so much pressure. But he missed his late siblings and his longtime companion, Eugene Glynn, who died in 2009. Work, not people, was his reason to carry on.
“I want to be alone and work until the day my head hits the drawing table and I’m dead. Kaput,” he said last fall. “Everything is over. Everything that I called living is over. I’m very, very much alone. I don’t believe in heaven or hell or any of those things. I feel very much like I want to be with my brother and sister again. They’re nowhere. I know they’re nowhere and they don’t exist, but if nowhere means that’s where they are, that’s where I want to be.”
• Associated Press writers Dave Collins in Hartford and Samantha Critchell in New York contributed to this report.