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The wild one

'Just some kiddie book artist.' That's the label Maurice Sendak, author, artist, and opera designer, fought against for years.

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For generations of children who are now parents and grandparents, author and illustrator Maurice Sendak inhabits a special realm where the demigods of our youth have gone to live.

Simply put, he changed the lives of children around the globe with his stories about Max who wouldn't eat dinner, and Rosie who bossed everyone from her front stoop, and Pierre who could only say I don't care.

These were not the sugarcoated tots of our parents' kiddie books – these were cantankerous, lively, mischievous beings that many among us believed finally told the real stories of how we lived and felt as young children.

When "Where the Wild Things Are" was published in 1963, it caused a furor – librarians banned it for being "too frightening" and psychologists condemned it as "too dark." But children embraced it and the story about the boy who went to rumpus with the Wild Things changed not only their lives, but the literature forever.

"He made his mark both by being a very good artist and breaking down the taboos that had characterized children's books," says art critic and author Leonard Marcus. "The emotional range he brought was unprecedented."

The book won him the coveted Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picture book, but not the respect he craved as an artist. He never forgot that he was basically a boy from Brooklyn who had never gone to college. When the awards began to come in, he craved larger recognition. "I wanted to be acknowledged as an artist," he says, "not just some kiddie-book artist."

While he has written or illustrated more than 90 books, Mr. Sendak also has collaborated with numerous opera companies and even a modern dance company, continually pushing the boundaries of his art. A feature film based on "Wild Things" is slated for next year. Now, two museum shows, one on each coast, place Sendak securely at the forefront of a broader national discussion about the lines between functional art and fine art.

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