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His imagination ran wild

But the wild things cried, "Oh please don't go — we'll eat you up — we love you so!"

What the monsters say to naughty boy Max in Where the Wild Things Are may be the best-known line from Maurice Sendak's work. It's also a perfect encapsulation of the world he created in his widely beloved (and sometimes banned) books for children, a world where beauty and adventure are always shadowed by danger and loss, a world of love and dread.

Mr. Sendak died Tuesday (May 8, 2012) at age 83, at a hospital near his home in Ridgefield, Conn., three days after suffering a stroke. He left no immediate family, but he is mourned by millions of children and former children whose imaginations were fired by his art and writing.

Perhaps only Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, is Mr. Sendak's peer as an influential children's author of the 20th century. Mr. Sendak's work always ran contrary to the modern tendency to sugarcoat storytelling for children, harking back to the much darker tradition of works like the original Grimm's Fairy Tales.

From Mr. Sendak's careermaking Where the Wild Things Are in 1963, in which a stubbornly rambunctious boy runs away to romp with monsters, to Bumble-Ardy in 2011, in which a lonely pig holds a birthday party for itself after its parents are eaten, he scorned the sunny and predictable and refused to write down to his young readers.

"I don't write for children," he said in a January interview on The Colbert Report. "I write."

Mr. Sendak's early life echoes in many ways in his books. Born in 1928 in Brooklyn to Polish immigrant parents, he grew up in a working-class neighborhood and became an avid reader during many bouts of childhood illness. Those years were darkened by the Depression, World War II and the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of many of Mr. Sendak's Jewish relatives in Europe; he also recalled being terrified as a small boy by stories about the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, a crime that helped inspire his 1981 book Outside Over There.

Mr. Sendak said that seeing the 1940 Disney film Fantasia when he was 12 made him want to become an illustrator, and he began working part time for All-American Comics while still in high school. He first illustrated children's book written by other authors, including Ruth Krauss' A Hole Is to Dig and the Little Bear series by Else Holmelund Minarik. A largely self-taught and accomplished artist in a wide variety of styles, he would continue to illustrate dozens of books by other writers throughout his life.

His first solo effort as both author and illustrator, Kenny's Window, was published in 1956. His best-known book, Where the Wild Things Are, came seven years later. Mr. Sendak often said in interviews that he wanted the book's monsters to be unique, but when he finished drawing them, he realized they looked like his older relatives.

The book would be a long-running bestseller, win the Caldecott Medal in 1964 for the most distinguished American picture book for children, and inspire a movie directed by Spike Jonze and a full-length novel, The Wild Things, by Dave Eggers, both released in 2009 (not to mention spawning several generations of boys named Max).

In a 2011 profile in Vanity Fair, Eggers, also the author of such books as What Is the What and Zeitoun and an artist himself, wrote of Mr. Sendak, "No one has ever been more uncompromising, more idiosyncratic, and more in touch with the unhinged chiaroscuro subconscious of a child."

Mr. Sendak's most controversial book was In the Night Kitchen, published in 1970. A picture book about a toddler named Mickey who dreams he slips naked into a kitchen full of bakers, falls into a bowl of batter, escapes by making an airplane out of bread and returns to his bed to crow at sunrise, it boasts richly detailed illustrations influenced by the comic books and movies Mr. Sendak loved as a boy in the 1930s. Mickey's nudity and what some readers have seen as sexual innuendo or references to the Holocaust have caused it to be pulled from school libraries. It ranked 24th on the "100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2000-2009" compiled by the American Library Association.

Mr. Sendak was unmoved by such censorship, saying, "It is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things."

He wrote most of his books between 1960 and 1981; in the decades since, he often designed sets and costumes for operas and ballets. In 2003 he collaborated with playwright Tony Kushner on Brundibár, a book based on an opera performed by children in the Theresienstadt concentration camp; it was staged in New York in 2006.

Although he received a National Medal of the Arts, a National Book Award and many other accolades, Mr. Sendak shunned most of the trappings of fame, choosing to live a private life in rural Connecticut. His partner of 50 years, Eugene Glynn, a psychoanalyst who treated young people, died in 2007.

One more book by Mr. Sendak will be published in February. My Brother's Book is an illustrated poem dedicated to his brother, Jack Sendak, also a children's author, who died in 1995.

In an interview on NPR in 2003, Mr. Sendak said that he was not religious. "You know who my gods are, who I believe in fervently? Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson — she's probably the top — Mozart, Shakespeare, Keats. These are wonderful gods who have gotten me through the narrow straits of life."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Times wires were used in this report.

His imagination ran wild 05/08/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 9, 2012 12:22am]

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