May 21, 2012 12:00 PM

Over the last 50 years, Maurice Sendak wrote and illustrated some of the most beloved children’s books of all time. Not that he intended to. “I don’t write for children. I write. And somebody says, ‘That’s for children,'” he said in an interview with Stephen Colbert in January. “I don’t sit down to make children happy…. I like them as few and far between as I do adults. Maybe a bit more. I don’t like adults.”

There was no denying he was a prickly-if comically curmudgeonly-guy. But Sendak, who died at 83 near his Ridgefield, Conn., home May 8 from complications of a stroke, infused his stories with a complexity rarely seen before. His signature work, Where the Wild Things Are (1963), depicts a naughty boy who, after being sent to bed without supper, sails off to a land of equally naughty monsters. “I did not want to reduce Max to the trite image of the good little boy,” Sendak told the Associated Press. Despite fan appetite for a sequel, Sendak declared the thought of revisiting his masterpiece (which was adapted for opera, film and stage) “the most boring idea imaginable.”

Instead, he kept pushing boundaries, exploring themes inspired by his own traumas, from depression to losing extended family in the Holocaust to growing up gay. (“All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy,” the Brooklyn-born Sendak told the New York Times.) Yet his life had its solaces: He lived with partner Eugene Glynn, a psychiatrist who died in 2007, for 50 years. And the controversy that books like In the Night Kitchen (often banned from libraries for its nude drawings) inspired pleased him. “Most books for children are very bad,” he said. “You know the formula.”

He knew it and avoided it. “He understood children’s toughness, cruelty and vulnerability,” says playwright Tony Kushner, a close friend. “He made art out of all of it.” Right up to the end. Two weeks ago Kushner visited him at home, where he was recovering from cataract surgery. “He was bent over his drawing table,” he says, “working on illustrations for his new book.”

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