Only a few days after the death of Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, more sad news has arrived today, with The New York Times reporting that Maurice Sendak, author of beloved children’s classics “Where The Wild Things Are” (which was turned into an acclaimed 2009 film by Spike Jonze) and “In The Night Kitchen,” among others, has passed away at the age of 83.
Sendak, the child of Polish Jewish immigrants, was born in Brooklyn in 1928, and set his heart on becoming an illustrator after seeing Walt Disney‘s “Fantasia” at the age of 12. He worked on books for other authors for years, most notably Else Holmelund Minarik‘s “Little Bear” series, before gaining fame of his own accord in 1963 for “Where The Wild Things Are,” the story of an unruly boy in a wolf costume who travels to a land full of the scary looking Wild Things, becoming their king. The book has become an enduring classic over the last fifty years, selling nineteen million copies worldwide to date.
He would then illustrate the Newberry Prize-winning “Zlateh The Goat” by Isaac Bashevis Singer, and his own books “In The Night Kitchen” and “Outside, Over There” also won acclaim (although nudity in the former has made it one of the most banned books in the U.S.), and remained prolific well into his eighties, with “Mommy?” and final book “Bumble-Ardy” being released in 2006 and 2011 respectively.
Sendak was never much involved in the movie world, although “Where The Wild Things Are” was turned into an animated short by Czech director Gene Deitch in 1973, and John Lasseter tried to get a version made at Disney in the 1980s. And he direct a half-hour animated TV special of his musical “Really Rosie,” co-written with Carole King, for CBS in 1975. But it was with filmmaker Spike Jonze that Sendak would achieve his biggest cinematic success. The pair met in the 1990s, when Jonze was working on an adaptation of another kid’s classic, “Harold and the Purple Crayon” (Sendak was the protege of the book’s author Crockett Johnson, and was serving as a producer on the film). That film never happened, but a decade later, the two would team up for a live-action version of “Where The Wild Things Are.”
The film was too sad, honest and heartfelt to become a box office smash, but it won critical acclaim (in this writer’s eyes, it was the best film of 2009), and the collaboration continued to two other spin-off projects: an adaptation of another Sendak book, “Higglety Piggelty Pop,” which Jonze produced, and is included on the Blu-Ray of “Where The Wild Things Are,” and “Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait Of Maurice Sendak,” an Oscar-shortlisted documentary about the master directed by Jonze and Lance Bangs (and distributed by Adam Yauch’s Oscilloscope Laboratories). We spoke to Jonze and Bangs about the film when it was released, and you can read that piece here.
The documentary in particular is a must-see for fans (you can watch it below), presenting a frank, unsentimental portrait that pays tribute to the man without becoming a hagiography, and contains a number of insights into his process and personal life (Sendak was gay: his partner of 50 years, psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn, passed away in 2007). It, along with “Where The Wild Things Are,” are required viewing, but Sendak was an author and artist first and foremost, and if you’ve never read any of his work, we can’t recommend it enough. He’ll be sorely missed.