Anyone who’s ever encountered “wild things” with their “terrible roars” rolling their “terrible” eyes recently lost a good friend. On May 8, renowned children’s book writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak, 83, considered by many to be the greatest children’s book artist of our time, died from complications of a stroke in a Danbury, Conn. hospital. Sendak, whose work encompassed terror, anger, darkness and anarchy along with humor, delight and warmth, is beloved by kids and adults, straight and LGBT. Born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., he grew up Jewish, lower-class and gay.
Everyone’s been saying how much Sendak’s books mean to them – from “Pierre” to “Where the Wild Things Are” – and how saddened they are by his death. Yet, I can’t help but wonder: do Sendak’s books have a particular resonance for LGBT people, and what impact did his sexuality have on his work?
Sendak’s most recent picture book “Bumble-Ardy” – the story of an orphaned pig – was published in September. Next February, “My Brother’s Book,” a picture book written and illustrated by Sendak about his late brother Jack, will be released. During his long career, Sendak wrote and illustrated more than 20 books and illustrated many others. His energies weren’t confined to children’s literature. He designed sets for “The Magic Flute” and other operas.
Sendak is best known for his trilogy “Where the Wild Things Are,” “In the Night Kitchen” and “Outside Over There” in which children, after encountering colorful monsters and surreal Laurel and Hardy-like bakers return to the safety of their homes.
Some of his work touched on darker subjects. A 1993 Sendak picture book is the story of homeless children in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. In 2003, Sendak illustrated “Brundibar,” a picture book with text by playwright Tony Kushner. The book is based on an opera that was performed by children in Theresienstadt, a concentration camp.
The many distinguished honors awarded to Sendak include the Caldecott Medal and the National Medal of Arts (bestowed on him by President Bill Clinton in 1996).
Sendak, though perhaps open to some of his friends, was closeted for most of his life about his sexuality. His partner of 50 years, psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn, died in 2007. Sendak came out in a 2008 interview with the New York Times. All he wanted, growing up, Sendak told the Times “was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew.”
If he’d have been open about being gay when he began writing children’s books, it would have hurt his career, Sendak told the Times.
Sendak was a genius – a category unto himself, Malka Drucker, a children’s book author, who is lesbian, told the Blade in a telephone interview. “He was a man, Jewish and gay,” she said, “many things made him who he was.”
“Being Jewish and gay, Sendak understood the vulnerability for many of us in this life,” added Drucker, who is a rabbi in Santa Fe, N.M. “When he grew up, society wasn’t inclusive for gays. Sendak had an empathy for kids who are vulnerable.”
Many (LGBT) people are on the high end of creativity, Drucker said, “you need imagination when your life is different from others.”
Roger Sutton, editor-in-chief of The Horn Book Magazine, a children’s literature journal, was a friend of Sendak’s for many years. “Sendak was still completely in touch with what it was to be a little boy,” Sutton told the Blade in a telephone interview, “his allegiance was always to the kids’ point of view.”
Yet, Sendak wasn’t childlike in a sentimental or “innocent” way, Sutton said, “he either loved or hated something. He was very direct. Sometimes he loved something for a few minutes – then hated it.”
Thank you, Mr. Sendak, for being on the side of the outsiders. Whenever we have a wild rumpus, we’ll think of you. R.I.P.