1928 – 2012
Joanna Carey writes…
Maurice Sendak, who has died at the age of 83, was one of the most important illustrators of the twentieth century. 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 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. 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.
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.