RIP: Maurice Sendak

Fuck. This hits hard. Maurice Sendak, who obviously wrote where the Wild Things Are, had a huge affect on my childhood. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that book spoke to me as a little kid in ways that no other book ever did.

Sendak died after complications from a recent stroke. He was 83.

In book after book, Mr. Sendak upended the staid, centuries-old tradition of American children’s literature, in which young heroes and heroines were typically well scrubbed and even better behaved; nothing really bad ever happened for very long; and everything was tied up at the end in a neat, moralistic bow.

Mr. Sendak’s characters, by contrast, are headstrong, bossy, even obnoxious. (In “Pierre,” “I don’t care!” is the response of the small eponymous hero to absolutely everything.) His pictures are often unsettling. His plots are fraught with rupture: children are kidnapped, parents disappear, a dog lights out from her comfortable home.

A largely self-taught illustrator, Mr. Sendak was at his finest a shtetl Blake, portraying a luminous world, at once lovely and dreadful, suspended between wakefulness and dreaming. In so doing, he was able to convey both the propulsive abandon and the pervasive melancholy of children’s interior lives.

His visual style could range from intricately crosshatched scenes that recalled 19th-century prints to airy watercolors reminiscent of Chagall to bold, bulbous figures inspired by the comic books he loved all his life, with outsize feet that the page could scarcely contain. He never did learn to draw feet, he often said.

I love the expression “shtetl Blake” and the notion that he never did learn to draw feet. Sigh. Watch an excerpt from the documentary Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak here.

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