The most charismatic children's illustrator of his generation, Maurice Sendak always chose to interpret texts rather than merely decorate them. Regarding himself as the wholly equal partner to the many authors he worked with, he brought his own personal vision into their work as well as to the picture books he wrote himself, repeating numbers of favourite themes and characters over the years. His best-known book, Where the Wild Things Are, proved highly controversial before finally settling into the well-loved classic it is today.
Sendak was born in Brooklyn, the third child of immigrant Polish-Jewish parents, his otherwise settled childhood blighted by a series of severe illnesses. Spending much of his time looking out of the window, he was a prime target for his loving parents' sometimes obsessive anxieties. Disliking school, where he was the shortest boy in his class, he found compensation at home in comics and visits to the movies. His love of Mickey Mouse films led him to decide aged 12 to become a cartoonist. He later assembled a collection of Mickey memorabilia, describing Mozart and the famous mouse as the two principal influences upon his cultural life.
By his last year at school Sendak's talents were evident, his illustrations appearing in Atomics for the Millions (1947), a physics textbook by one of his teachers. Yet he preferred studying art in the evening while working during the day for a window display company. But he was soon receiving commissions, and in 1952 illustrated A Hole is to Dig; A First Book of First Definitions, by the author-poet Ruth Krauss, who with her husband Crockett Johnson, a newspaper cartoonist, became close friends with the young Sendak.
During the next 10 years he illustrated more than 50 picture books, preferring a pen-and-ink technique which, with his penchant for cross-hatching, gave his pictures the look of 19th century steel engravings. Particularly influenced by British artists from William Blake to Randolph Caldecott, Sendak was producing truly distinctive work. His popular The Sign on Rosie's Door (1960), which he wrote and illustrated, featured an exuberantly streetwise child able to whisk her companions away into flights of her own personal fantasy. Chicken Soup with Rice (1962), one of four books in his The Nutshell Library, taught young readers the names of the months through a small boy romping through its pages.
This whole series was another great success, reintroducing to the market those tiny book sizes always more popular with children than they are with booksellers, who find them difficult to display. That year he also illustrated Charlotte Zolotow's Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present in nostalgic style reminiscent of Winslow Homer.
Sendak was moving on to what has been described as his "fat" period, creating forceful and unabashed child characters with large heads, stumpy bodies and loads of self-confidence. Max, the hero of Where the Wild Things Are (1963) was one such child. In trouble with his mother after some epic bad behaviour, he is exiled supperless to his room. He imagines sailing away to meet grotesque Wild Things, all looking like fanged medieval gargoyles and based on the Jewish relatives who used to visit when Sendak was a boy. Like the Wild Things, they used to threaten to eat up the often sullen little child but Max tames them, turning out to be "the most wild thing of all". Order is restored by the end when Max feels lonely and wants his dinner, but unapologetic to the last, he sails home to find it waiting for him, "and it was still hot".
Many critics felt the images were too disturbing, with the influential child psychologist Dr Bruno Bettelheim – renamed Beno Brutalheim by Sendak – condemning its general direction without having read it. But librarians and parents, also with misgivings, found that most children relished these ultimately cosy monsters, symbolic for Sendak of infants' occasionally murderous feelings towards those they also love. This new guilt-free acceptance of a child's capacity for imaginary violence, allied to his haunting text and brilliant artwork, all worked to win him the coveted Caldecott Medal for 1964.
Higglety Pigglety Pop! (1967) was one of a number of books where the artist takes over a nursery rhyme and expands it through pictures, in this case drawing on memories of the loneliness and boredom of his own over-sheltered childhood. This book was later turned into a one-act opera by Oliver Knussen, to accompany his other short opera based on Where the Wild Things Are.
But in other ways this was a bad year for Sendak, seeing him only just surviving a heart attack and then having to face the death after 14 years of his beloved Sealyham terrier, Jennie. She had been a frequent character in his illustrations and was described by the author without irony as "the love of my life". He was by now deeply into psychoanalysis, and living in Ridgefield, Connecticut in a sprawling white house with his long-time partner Dr Eugene Glynn, also a psychoanalyst.
His next major picture book, In the Night Kitchen (1970) was again controversial. This describes how one night a boy named Mickey goes on a dream journey to a bakery run by multiple versions of Oliver Hardy. Surrounded by adverts and kitchen furnishings from the 1930s, he is deputed to fetch the milk necessary for the baking. This he does, but his state of nudity once he had shed his pyjamas proved too much for prudish librarians, and this title became one of the most frequently banned books in America. But in the same year he was the first American artist to win the Hans Christian Andersen Award for children's book illustration.
A year later he visited Germany looking for inspiration in its landscapes and architecture for his illustrations for Lore Segal's translation of Grimms' Fairy Tales. The two-volume result, The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm (1973) was a stunning success, but with Sendak still responding too fully for some to the violence of these stories. Succeeding picture books proved troubling in other ways, possibly reflecting a severe emotional crisis suffered by the artist in 1977. Outside Over There (1981), the story of a baby kidnapped by goblins, left some critics feeling uneasy. We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993), which describes the plight of homeless children living in cardboard boxes within blanket tents where they are plagued by rats, also worried numbers of previous supporters.
Sendak was developing a career as an opera and ballet set and costume designer; starting with Prokofiev's The Love of Three Oranges at Glyndebourne, he then worked on an award-winning American production of The Nutcracker Suite in 1983. He was involved in 17 more productions in as many years, including The Magic Flute, Hansel and Gretel and The Cunning Little Vixen. In 2003 he illustrated a picture book version of the children's opera Brundibar, first performed in Terezin concentration camp in 1943, having designed sets and costumes for its performance by Chicago Opera Theatre.
Occasionally irascible, but possessing great charm and a lively sense of humour, Sendak remained creative to the end. His occasional despair at the injustices of a world in which many of his relatives perished in the Holocaust and in which close friends were to die of Aids never stopped him from channelling his energies into hosts of different projects, all with positive outcomes. In 1990 he founded a children's theatre company, The Night Kitchen, and in 1999 he created a Wild Things fun house in San Francisco – an immense playroom crammed with areas to explore. In 2003 he shared the first Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award with the writer Christine Nöstlinger.
Three years later came his pop-up book Mummy?, based on memories of old horror films. "Scaring children is my particular hobby," he joked, but most children continued to enjoy this latest example of the Sendak experience, with ostensibly menacing pictures of Dracula or Frankenstein's monster rendered safe by the artist's obvious affection for what he was illustrating. A towering figure in the world of books, always on the side of children and not only when they were being good, constantly and creatively drawing on his vivid memories of his own experiences when young, he was a true genius for all time.
Maurice Bernard Sendak, writer, illustrator and set designer: born New York 10 June 1928; partner to Eugene Glynn; died Ridgefield, Connecticut 8 May 2012.