Sendak was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Polish Jewish immigrants Sadie (née Schindler) and Philip Sendak, a dressmaker. Sendak described his childhood as a "terrible situation" due to the death of members of his extended family during the Holocaust which introduced him at a young age to the concept of mortality. His love of books began when, as a child, he developed health issues and was confined to his bed. When he was 12 years old, he decided to become an illustrator after watching Walt Disney's film Fantasia. One of his first professional commissions was to create window displays for the toy store FAO Schwarz. His illustrations were first published in 1947 in a textbook titled Atomics for the Millions by Maxwell Leigh Eidinoff. He spent much of the 1950s illustrating children's books written by others before beginning to write his own stories.
His older brother Jack Sendak also became an author of children's books, two of which were illustrated by Maurice in the 1950s.
Maurice was the youngest of three siblings. When he was born, his sister Natalie was 9 years old and his brother Jack was 5.
A little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children's letters – sometimes very hastily – but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, 'Dear Jim: I loved your card.' Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said: 'Jim loved your card so much he ate it.' That to me was one of the highest compliments I've ever received. He didn't care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.
Almost 50 years later, School Library Journal sponsored a survey of readers which identified Where the Wild Things Are as a top picture book. The librarian who conducted it observed that there was little doubt what would be voted number one and highlighted its designation by one reader as a watershed, "ushering in the modern age of picture books". Another called it "perfectly crafted, perfectly illustrated ... simply the epitome of a picture book" and noted that Sendak "rises above the rest in part because he is subversive."
When Sendak saw a manuscript of Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories, the first children's book by Isaac Bashevis Singer, on the desk of an editor at Harper & Row, he offered to illustrate the book. It was first published in 1966 and received a Newbery Honor. Sendak was delighted and enthusiastic about the collaboration. He once wryly remarked that his parents were "finally" impressed by their youngest child when he collaborated with Singer.
His book In the Night Kitchen, originally issued in 1970, has often been subjected to censorship for its drawings of a young boy prancing naked through the story. The book has been challenged in several U.S. states including Illinois, New Jersey, Minnesota, and Texas.In the Night Kitchen regularly appears on the American Library Association's list of "frequently challenged and banned books". It was listed number 21 on the "100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–1999".
His 1981 book Outside Over There is the story of a girl named Ida and her sibling jealousy and responsibility. Her father is away, so Ida is left to watch her baby sister, much to her dismay. Her sister is kidnapped by goblins and Ida must go off on a magical adventure to rescue her. At first, she is not really eager to get her sister and nearly passes her sister right by when she becomes absorbed in the magic of the quest. In the end, she rescues her baby sister, destroys the goblins, and returns home committed to caring for her sister until her father returns home.
Sendak was an early member of the National Board of Advisors of the Children's Television Workshop during the development stages of the Sesame Street television series. He also adapted his book Bumble Ardy into an animated sequence for the series, with Jim Henson as the voice of Bumble Ardy. He wrote and designed three other animated stories for the series: Seven Monsters (which never aired), Up & Down, and Broom Adventures.
In 1993, Sendak published a picture book, We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy. Later in the 1990s, Sendak approached playwright Tony Kushner to write a new English-language version of the Czech composer Hans Krása's children's Holocaust opera Brundibár. Kushner wrote the text for Sendak's illustrated book of the same name, published in 2003. The book was named one of The New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Illustrated Books of 2003.
In 2004, Sendak worked with the Shirim Klezmer Orchestra in Boston on their project Pincus and the Pig: A Klezmer Tale. This Klezmer version of Sergei Prokofiev's best-known musical story for children Peter and the Wolf featured Maurice Sendak as the narrator. He also illustrated the cover art.
Sendak mentioned in a September 2008 article in The New York Times that he was gay and had lived with his partner, psychoanalystEugene David Glynn (February 25, 1926 – May 15, 2007), for 50 years before Glynn's death in May 2007. Revealing that he never told his parents, he said, "All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew." Sendak's relationship with Glynn had been mentioned by other writers before (e.g., Tony Kushner in 2003) and Glynn's 2007 death notice had identified Sendak as his "partner of fifty years". After his partner's death, Sendak donated $1 million to the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services in memory of Glynn, who had treated young people there. The gift will name a clinic for Glynn.
Sendak was an atheist. In a 2011 interview, he stated that he did not believe in God and explained that he felt that religion, and belief in God, "must have made life much easier [for some religious friends of his]. It's harder for us non-believers."
Maurice Sendak drew inspiration and influences from a vast number of painters, musicians, and authors. Going back to his childhood, one of his earliest memorable influences was actually his father, Philip Sendak. According to Maurice, his father would relate tales from the Torah; however, he would embellish them with racy details. Not realizing that this was inappropriate for children, little Maurice would frequently be sent home after retelling his father's "softcore Bible tales" at school.
Growing up, Sendak developed from other influences, starting with Walt Disney's Fantasia and Mickey Mouse. Sendak and Mickey Mouse were born in the same year and Sendak described Mickey as a source of joy and pleasure while growing up. He has been quoted as saying, "My gods are Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Mozart. I believe in them with all my heart." Elaborating further, he has stated that reading Emily Dickinson's works helps him to remain calm in an otherwise hectic world: "And I have a little tiny Emily Dickinson so big that I carry in my pocket everywhere. And you just read three poems of Emily. She is so brave. She is so strong. She is such a passionate little woman. I feel better." Likewise, of Mozart, he has said, "When Mozart is playing in my room, I am in conjunction with something I can't explain. ... I don't need to. I know that if there's a purpose for life, it was for me to hear Mozart."
Ursula Nordstrom, director of Harper's Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 until 1973, was also an inspiration for Sendak.
Sendak died on May 8, 2012, at age 83, in Danbury, Connecticut, at Danbury Hospital, from stroke complications, a month before his 84th birthday. In accordance with his wishes, his body was cremated and his ashes were scattered at a location that is not confirmed.
The New York Times obituary called Sendak "the most important children's book artist of the 20th century." Author Neil Gaiman remarked, "He was unique, grumpy, brilliant, wise, magical and made the world better by creating art in it." Author R. L. Stine called Sendak's death "a sad day in children's books and for the world."
Comedian Stephen Colbert, who interviewed Sendak in one of his last public appearances on his television program The Colbert Report, said of the author: "We are all honored to have been briefly invited into his world." Sendak's appearance on a January 2012 episode of the show saw him teach Colbert how to illustrate and provide a book blurb for Colbert's own children's book, I Am a Pole (And So Can You!), and the day that Sendak died was also the book's official release date.
In 1968, Sendak lent the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the bulk of his work, including nearly 10,000 works of art, manuscripts, books and ephemera. From May 6, 2008, through May 3, 2009, the Rosenbach presented There's a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak. This major retrospective of over 130 pieces pulled from the museum's vast Sendak collection featured original artwork, rare sketches, never-before-seen working materials, and exclusive interview footage.
Exhibition highlights included the following:
Original color artwork from books such as Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, The Nutshell Library, Outside Over There, and Brundibar;
"Dummy" books filled with lively preliminary sketches for titles like The Sign on Rosie's Door, Pierre, and Higglety, Pigglety, Pop!;
Never-before-seen working materials, such as newspaper clippings that inspired Sendak, family portraits, photographs of child models and other ephemera;
Stories told by the illustrator himself on topics like Alice in Wonderland, his struggle to illustrate his favorite novels, hilarious stories of Brooklyn, and the way his work helps him exorcise childhood traumas.
Since the items had been on loan to the Rosenbach for decades, many in the museum world expected that the Sendak material would remain there. But Sendak's will specified that the drawings and most of the loans would remain the property of the Maurice Sendak Foundation. In 2014, representatives of his estate withdrew the works, saying they intended to follow Sendak's directive in his will to create "a museum or similar facility" in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where he lived, and where his foundation is based, "to be used by scholars, students, artists, illustrators and writers, and to be opened to the general public" as the foundation's directors saw fit.
The Rosenbach filed an action in 2014 in state probate court in Connecticut, contending that the estate had kept many rare books that Sendak had pledged to the library in his will. In a ruling in Connecticut probate court, a judge awarded the bulk of the disputed book collection to the Sendak estate, not to the museum.
In 2018, the Maurice Sendak Foundation chose the University of Connecticut to house and steward the Collection. Under an agreement with, and supported by a grant from, the Foundation, Sendak's original artwork, sketches, books, and other materials (totaling close to 10,000 items) will be housed at UConn's Archives and Special Collections in the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. UConn will also host exhibits of and digitize Sendak materials. The Foundation will retain ownership of the materials.
Awards and honors
Internationally, Sendak received the third biennial Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration in 1970, recognizing his "lasting contribution to children's literature". He received one of two inaugural Astrid Lindgren Memorial Awards in 2003, recognizing his career contribution to "children's and young adult literature in the broadest sense". The citation called him "the modern picture-book's portal figure" and the presentation credited Where the Wild Things Are with "all at once [revolutionizing] the entire picture-book narrative ... thematically, aesthetically, and psychologically."
In the U.S., he received the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal from the professional children's librarians in 1983, recognizing his "substantial and lasting contributions to children's literature". At the time it was awarded every three years.
Only Sendak and the writer Katherine Paterson have won all three of these premier awards.
Caldecott Medal from the ALA as illustrator of "the most distinguished American picture book for children", Where the Wild Things Are, 1964 (Sendak was also one of the Caldecott runners-up seven times from 1954 to 1982, more than any other illustrator, although some have won multiple Medals)
^Bermudez, Caroline (August 12, 2010). "Famed Children's Book Author Gives $1-Million for Social Services". The Chronicle of Philanthropy. XXII (16): 28.
^On Maurice Sendak's death (May 8, 2012), the host of NPR's Fresh Air, Terry Gross, aired 2003 and 2011 interviews she had conducted with Sendak. In September 2011 she said, "You're very secular, you don't believe in God." Sendak replied, "I don't," and elaborated. Among other things, he remarked, "It [religion, and belief in God] must have made life much easier [for some religious friends of his]. It's harder for us non-believers."