Maurice Sendak June 1928 – May 2012
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This issue’s cover illustration is from Lunchtime by Rebecca Cobb. Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books for their help with this March cover and to Little Tiger Press for their support of the Authorgraph interview with David Roberts.
Maurice Sendak, who has died at the age of 83 was one of the most important illustrators of the twentieth century. Joanna Carey assesses his career for Books for Keeps
The broad sweep of Sendak’s talent, his fierce individuality and his wonderfully strange volatile imagination allowed his picture books to ignore the commonly perceived boundaries that separate children’s books from the rest. He didn’t fit in that enclosure, he preferred not to call them “children’s books”: “I write for myself,” he said. And in subtly different ways, his books are accessible across all levels of understanding.
One book in particular that has touched the lives of just about everybody is Where the Wild Things Are. It explores a child’s anger, fear and frustration when, after an outbreak of disobedience, his mother sends him to bed with no supper: “That very night in Max’s room a forest grew/ and grew/ and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around. “
And in that forest of the night Max’s blind fury turns into a glorious feeling of omnipotence and he is transported to another place where he not only encounters the hideous, gruesome terrifying Wild Things, but moves fearlessly among them as their leader, encouraging them in a wild rumpus, before finally feeling the need for home, and reconciliation.
Many thought the book was too dark and frightening, but it marked a turning point in children’s literature and its success was due to Sendak’s passionate commitment to telling the truth about a child’s emotions: it was both thrilling and cathartic. It changed people’s perceptions and expectations of books for children. It won him the Caldecott medal in 1964 and continues to sell in its millions.
It’s difficult not to put on a bit of a show when reading Where the Wild Things Are aloud and its three strategically placed, wordless spreads allow an important moment for readers – and listeners – to catch their breath, to absorb the drama and boldly confront the scary illustrations in which the relentless, daringly dark cross-hatching so aptly echoes the textures of 19th century engravings of Cruickshank and Tenniel.
Sendak was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of poor immigrant Jewish parents from Poland. A sickly, solitary child, he spent his time drawing what he saw from the apartment window, and he once explained that the monsters in Wild Things were developed from caricatures of the relatives who regularly visited the family when he was young. He became a ( largely self taught ) illustrator and it was while he was working for a toy store, making drawings for the window display that his talent was brought to the attention of the legendary publisher and editor Ursula Nordstrom, who set him on the road to success. During the ‘50s he illustrated myriad books by various authors, including A Hole is to Dig: A First Book of First Definitions by Ruth Krauss with those instantly recognizable robust, almost stumpy little characters who appear throughout his work, toiling away cheerfully at the business of being children. Then, in 1963, he created Where the Wild Things Are, the first in a picture book trilogy that would include In the Night Kitchen (197O) and Outside over There (1981).
I once met Maurice Sendak at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art book in Amherst, Massachusetts. We talked about Sendak’s admiration for the comic strip Little Nemo, created by the American Winsor McCay in the early 1900s. ”An elaborate and audacious fantasy,” as Sendak described it in an essay.
In Sendak’s equally elaborate and audacious fantasy, In the Night Kitchen, Mickey, a pudgy toddler (Sendak loved to draw babies), is portrayed stark naked as he enjoys surreal nocturnal adventures in the bakers’ kitchen – where a wealth of imagery and symbolism rewards any amount of imaginative interpretation. But controversy again ensued and in some states, prudish, censorious librarians banned the book unless the child’s genitals were inked over, or had paper nappies stuck on (not only destroying the fantasy but also defacing the book). It was laughable really but Sendak – even 20 years on – was clearly still seething with fury about that small-mindedness and for a moment one could see how he’d earned the nickname Morose Sendak.
The third book in that trilogy, Outside over There was Sendak’s own favourite. Intensely beautiful with glorious landscapes and classical figure drawing, it was about the search for a baby stolen by goblins. The story grew out of his love for his older sister who had so often cared for him and his fear of death – as a child he was haunted not only by stories of relatives lost in the holocaust but also by a photograph of a dead baby in a news report of a notorious kidnapping. His imagination was further stimulated by his father’s enthusiastic retellings of fairy tales and folk lore, embellished with all the original gory nightmarish details.
Darkness surfaced again in We are all in the Dumps, another controversial picture book inspired by two old Mother Goose nursery rhymes, tackling themes of abuse, homelessness, poverty.
But Sendak wasn’t all doom and gloom – he was a witty. perceptive intellectual and besides illustrating many classics he collaborated with countless authors on a diversity of titles abounding in humour, mischief and absurdity. His cultural influences ranged from Mickey Mouse to Mozart, William Blake to Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson.
All his picture books have an element of theatre, and Sendak enjoyed a second career as a designer in the world of opera and film: this not only involved his lifelong passion for Mozart, but also led him to work with Oliver Knussen on two very well received operas based on his own books (Where The Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop! the latter an eccentric tale about his beloved pet Sealyham).
Way back in 1970, Sendak won the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award, for his lasting contribution to children’s literature. Last September saw the publication of a new – and final picture book, Bumble-Ardy. It was Sendak’s first children’s book for 30 years and writing it had helped him through the final illness and death of his partner of 50 years, the psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn. And next year an illustrated poem My Brother’s Book will be published posthumously, inspired by his love for his late brother Jack.