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literature

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Sendak, Maurice (1928-2012)  
 
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Tony Kushner called Outside over There "a picture book unlike any other. Its gripping quest-story tumbles out of the cave of the unknown and the uncanny, . . . out of E. T. A. Hoffmann and the less well-lit corners of Hans Christian Andersen, out of the dark of the unconscious . . . . [The illustrations] are so strong they seem to menace the very text they're meant to illustrate, illuminating if not igniting the ambiguities of every sentence."

Sendak again presented a bleak and challenging story in We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993). Set in a community of homeless children, the tale chronicles the lives of the two street-wise title characters as they kidnap and care for an abandoned infant.

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Questioned in 1993 about whether the book had a "hidden meaning" such as the representation of a gay couple adopting a child, Sendak denied such an intention, saying, "I like these overtones, but I can't be either praised or blamed for putting them in." He added that he was writing on "the continuation of my oldest theme: the tenaciousness of children to survive . . . . They don't stop and say, 'Oh, this is a same-sex marriage.'"

Nevertheless, in the same interview, Sendak endorsed the idea of a chosen family by citing the experience of a friend who had received an advance copy of the book, read it to his daughter, and called the story sad. When the daughter countered, "It's all right, because the baby has a family," the father attempted to "correct" her, saying, "It's not really a family, honey," but, reported Sendak, the daughter persisted: "The baby has a family."

"And," he concluded, "she got it."

Various of Sendak's books have been called controversial or disturbing for reasons great and small. In Dear Mili (1988), the retelling of a tale by Wilhelm Grimm, the child protagonist dies at the end as she tries to reunite with her aged and blind mother, a far darker prospect than even the fearsome goblins of Outside over There or, certainly, than the easily tamed monsters in Where the Wild Things Are.

More trivially, some adults were scandalized when the little boy Mickey "fell through the dark, out of his clothes, past the moon," and into a huge bowl of cake batter in In the Night Kitchen. There was a report of a librarian using white-out to put a diaper on Mickey to hide his penis after he lost his pajamas.

Similarly, there were some expressions of outrage at the depiction of a dog defecating in Some Swell Pup, or Are You Sure You Want a Dog? (1976, co-authored with Matthew Margolis). Reviewer Jerome Cushman, however, recognized the book's value as a guide for families considering adopting a dog, stating that "it mixes dog training with a bit of child training," and he also took note of Sendak's genius as an illustrator, writing, "Just as I got used to the fast-paced cartoon format, up comes Sendak with a couple of stunning dream sequences that reinforce our belief that this artist/author knows a lot about paint and people."

Sendak's art was not limited to print and prose. In 1975 he directed and wrote the lyrics for Really Rosie, a half-hour television special based on The Sign on Rosie's Door. He subsequently contributed to operatic adaptations of two of his other works, serving as lyricist and set and costume designer for Where the Wild Things Are in Belgium in 1980 and at the New York City Opera in 1984, and as librettist and set and costume designer for Higglety, Pigglety, Pop!, a charmingly fanciful tribute to his beloved terrier, Jennie (1984).

Sendak also won plaudits for his costume and set designs for Nutcracker: The Motion Picture, a film version of Pyotr Tchaikovsky's classic ballet (1986, directed by Carroll Ballard). He also designed the sets for a 1983 stage production of The Nutcracker as well as for a number of operas. The latter was particularly rewarding for him since he has been a lifelong aficionado, with a special fondness for the works of Mozart. His credits included designs for Mozart's The Magic Flute (1981) and Iodomeneo (1990), Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel (1997), and Leos Janácek's The Cunning Little Vixen (1981).

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