Maurice Sendak, an author and illustrator whose dozens of works, notably “Where the Wild Things Are,” transformed children’s literature from a gentle playscape into a medium to address the psychological intensity of growing up, died early Tuesday at a hospital in Danbury, Conn. after a recent stroke. He was 83.
The death was confirmed by Sandee Roston, executive director of publicity for HarperCollins Children’s Books.
Mr. Sendak was shaped foremost by a sickly and homebound childhood in Depression-era Brooklyn, the deaths of family members in the Holocaust and vivid memories as a youngster reading about the kidnapping and murder of aviator Charles Lindbergh's infant son.
An admitted obsession with “children and their survival” and the “humongous heroism of children” fueled a career of groundbreaking darkness in children's literature. President Bill Clinton presented him with the National Medal of Arts in 1996, saying, “His books have helped children to explore and resolve their feelings of anger, boredom, fear, frustration and jealousy.”
Mr. Sendak's illustrations were instantly recognizable, whether of a mischievous child in a wolf costume who tames minotaurs in a wild kingdom (from “Where the Wild Things Are”) or of plump, red-nosed pastry chefs who fold children into their cake batter (“In the Night Kitchen”). His pen-and-ink drawings and watercolors — with their echoes of William Blake and Henri Matisse, among others — became the subject of numerous exhibitions.
Mr. Sendak illustrated more than 100 books, more than a dozen of which he also wrote. They were translated into dozens of languages, sold millions of copies and won almost every top honor in his profession, from the Caldecott Medal to the Hans Christian Andersen Award.
In addition, Mr. Sendak worked in film, television and opera. In the early 2000s, he collaborated with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner on a restaging and book adaptation of Hans Krasa's children's opera “Brundibar,” which had long been associated with being performed by children imprisoned at a Nazi concentration camp.
“The Holocaust has run like a river of blood through all my books,” Mr. Sendak once said, explaining that as the child of Jewish immigrants from Poland, the Nazi death camps were never far from his mind.
Mr. Sendak's greatest achievement was to elevate the picture book “to an individual, contained art form that integrates words and illustration,” said Cathryn M. Mercier, director of the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College in Boston.
Just as significant, Mercier said, was Mr. Sendak's success in introducing a dark, often surreal vision to a field long dominated by cuteness and the preciousness of childhood.