Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Maurice Sendak — 1928-2012

The author of many favorite books of children and adults — who were children once — has died.

Roundly praised, intermittently censored and occasionally eaten, Mr. Sendak’s books were essential ingredients of childhood for the generation born after 1960 or thereabouts, and in turn for their children. He was known in particular for more than a dozen picture books he wrote and illustrated himself, most famously “Where the Wild Things Are,” which was simultaneously genre-breaking and career-making when it was published by Harper & Row in 1963.

Among the other titles he wrote and illustrated, all from Harper & Row, are “In the Night Kitchen” (1970) and “Outside Over There” (1981), which together with “Where the Wild Things Are” form a trilogy; “The Sign on Rosie’s Door” (1960); “Higglety Pigglety Pop!” (1967); and “The Nutshell Library” (1962), a boxed set of four tiny volumes comprising “Alligators All Around,” “Chicken Soup With Rice,” “One Was Johnny” and “Pierre.”

I have very powerful memories of reading “The Nutshell Library” to my little brother so many times that I can’t hear “chicken soup” without reciting “chicken soup once, chicken soup twice…”

A lot of uptight parents and scolds criticized his books, especially “Where the Wild Things Are,” for being scary and not “age-appropriate,” but obviously they never read any of the original Brothers Grimm tales or, for that matter, the bible; both include a lot of blood and monsters. And no matter what the tales told, the artwork was delicate and evocative, illustrating both the story and the mood for the eager young reader and listener.

I did not know — or care — that he was gay until he shared it with us recently. But for some reason I sensed a kindred spirit behind the stories; of a soul that kept his secrets not out of fear but out of treasuring something that was his alone and only shared with those who knew instinctively that he was a friend.