Maurice Sendak

From monsters under the bed to the horrors of the Holocaust, the artist and author knows his way around a child's brain.

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Nights, Kitchens, and Nazis

Seven years later, controversy struck again. Sendak's story In the Night Kitchen depicted a young boy, Mickey, who woke up in the middle of the night and "fell through the dark and out of his clothes," tumbling into a gigantic bowl of dough in the kitchen of his house. Though it is tangential to the book's plot--which tells the story of Mickey fleeing in a suit of dough, chased by three huge bakers who want to roast him inside a cake--the panel that seized the public's attention was a picture of Mickey falling through the sky, naked, with his penis visible.

Again, parent groups were up in arms. That page, and sometimes the whole book, was banned from some libraries and bookstores. Again, the public seemed to miss the true emotional center of the book: the confused and distorted world of a child's dreams. The three bakers sported Hitler-like moustaches, and their determination to bake Mickey into a cake was his internalized fear of the Holocaust. Mickey's final escape--aided by a Lindbergh-like toy biplane--wasn't just an escape from a few wily bakers, but a full-fledged escape from being baked alive.

In this case, too, Sendak remained curiously indifferent to public opinion. He continued to produce a steady stream of his own work, to illustrate the books of others, and he involved himself in adaptations of his books. In the 1970s, an animated version of his book Really Rosie was made for television, with Carole King starring and writing original songs. In 1979, he helped an opera company produce a stage version of Wild Things.

The Second Coming

Throughout his life, Sendak had been adamant about both his own privacy and that of his creations. His low-key announcement that he is gay--in a New York Times article about his 80th birthday, published in September 2008--was uncharacteristic of the artist; for the better part of his life, he has volunteered surprisingly few biographical details.

For years, requests for licensing his illustrations and his characters, especially the Wild Things, were refused by Sendak or his representatives. It wasn't until the late 1980s, when Sendak was more than 60 years old, that he permitted his characters to be commercially licensed--first for use in Bell Atlantic phone company commercials, and later in games and clothing.

Sendak continued more enthusiastically to engage in creative projects, such as a walk-through version of his books at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia (1995), and the record "Pincus and the Pig"--a shtetl-inspired retelling of "Peter and the Wolf" narrated by Sendak and performed by the Shirim Klezmer Orchestra (2004).

And he has continued releasing some startling projects. His 1992 book We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, which takes its words from two old English nursery rhymes, portrays the AIDS crisis, homelessness, environmental destabilization, and race riots without overtly mentioning any of them.

In October 2009, after a delay of several years, the Hollywood film adaptation of Wild Things was released. It was directed by Spike Jonze; Sendak was a producer. Before the film's release, its distributors expressed concerns that the film was too dark in tone. Sendak himself convinced them to release it. In a documentary about the film, he raved that it "has an entire emotional, spiritual, visual life," but warned that "there will be controversy." It was a familiar sentiment from someone who has seen his own creative work under fire more than once.

From one point of view, it seems as though the work of Sendak is going through a renaissance. In another, it's the same old story of Sendak's life--adults are slowly discovering the secret universes that children have known existed all along.

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Matthue Roth

Matthue Roth created Jewniverse. He also co-created G-dcast, the animated Torah film series. His most recent book is My First Kafka, a picture book for children. He's also the author of the memoir Yom Kippur a Go-Go and three novels. He lives in Brooklyn with his family, and he keeps a secret diary at www.matthue.com.