Maurice Sendak who died on May 8th at the age of 83 was a prolific and versatile illustrator the depth and breadth of whose contribution has been overshadowed in many recent commentaries by the fame of his picture books. Here Brian Alderson assesses Sendak’s remarkable and considerable contribution.
We have heard, I think, quite enough about Where the Wild Things Are . While it didn’t totally obsess Maurice Sendak’s obituarists, it and their choice interpretations of it, dominated their notices. I did not read much about – what? – The Big Green Book? Zlateh the Goat? or the utterly astonishing Pierre (and that’s by Herman Melville, not the Nutshell man).
Ah, yes, they liked to dwell on what Max brought back from Wild-Thing-Land at ‘the end of a long apprenticeship’ which was, in effect, the discovery of an enormous self-confidence. He may have had to wait a little while finishing his supper (the book took four years to leave its natal shores because publishers rather than children were frightened by it) but its eventual, and continuing, universal success gave him the freedom to engage himself fully in his own concerns. No one can deny the immense artistry of the elaborate picture books that were generated by Max after his return: In the Night Kitchen, Outside Over There, Dear Mili, We’re All in the Dumps, and it’s no surprise that they too attracted the obituarists. But is it lèse majesté to suggest that, in their incipient darkness and their open-ness to multiple interpretations – merry-go-rounds for the hermeneutic cadres – these books have a self-indulgent quality which prompts admiration but offers none of the readerly satisfactions of the impeccable Wild Things? Shirley Hughes, for instance, wrote convincingly of her enjoyment of In the Night Kitchen, but was that not because of the masterly design of the book and its engrossing townscapes rather than her pleasure at the outcome its ‘story’, that ‘thanks to Mickey we have cake every morning’? (I write as one privileged to be lampooned by the Master for holding such sentiments.)
The fundamental features of Sendak’s working life
This concentration on the manifold achievements of the years after Wild Things has served to divert attention from two fundamental features of Sendak’s working life: his profound critical understanding of the art of illustration and the stunning versatility of his response to a range of commissioned or collaborative ventures. One need look no further for evidence of both his critical sensibility and his articulacy than the ‘notes on books and pictures’ gathered in Caldecott & Co. (1988), whose wide-ranging, but often all-too brief, observations make one wish that he might have produced a definitive account of the illustrator’s craft. It is something of a Euro-centric volume, his praise for the nineteenth century craftsmen of England, France and Germany being especially telling (and there is much more on England in his outspoken critical exchanges with Jonathan Cott in Victorian Color Picture Books .)
It is in his conversation with Walter Lorraine in Caldecott & Co. that we get a definitive statement of his own philosophy: ‘I’ll tell you about [the category] I’m interested in and do well –interpretive illustration … a kind of vigorous working with the writer …which may mean sometimes yourself. You must not ever be doing the same thing, must not ever be illustrating exactly what you’ve written. You must leave a space in the text so the picture can do the work’. It is this recognition, which Sendak possessed almost by instinct, that can be found throughout those ‘apprentice years’ before Max and which resulted in collaborations that yield an almost educative pleasure in watching the matching of words with pictures.
One really needs space for a couple of dozen examples of this phenomenon, since what remains unspoken is the extent to which Sendak chooses, or works within, the format of his commission, and the command that he has over an illustrative technique that is to suit the nature of the work in question. At its simplest, look at the monochrome illustrations that he undertook for the seven stories in which he collaborated with Meindert DeJong. The tide of history has rather swept over this author, who won the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1962, and whose Wheel on the School, illustrated by Sendak, won the Newbery Medal in 1955. ‘We are a pair’ DeJong said of the artist in dedicating to him their final collaboration, The Singing Hill (1962) and not the least quality of the partnership was the serial insight which it gives of Sendak’s command of that essential weapon of the illustrator, the drawn line. ‘Command’ is a necessary word here because throughout the sequence his strategy varies according to what he sees as the story’s requirements so that he shifts from the pen-drawn chapter-heads and free vignettes of Shadrach (1953) to the pen and wash drawings for Wheel on the School and Along Came a Dog (1958 – full of perfectly-observed animals), to the powerful and moving cross-hatched designs for The House of Sixty Fathers (1956) and The Singing Hill.
As conventional children’s fiction, these stories were in predictable formats, but with the picture books that are interspersed between them we find far greater variations both in format and graphic style according to what the collaboration demanded. Thus, in Let’s Be Enemies (1961), Janice May Udry could give him one of those simple texts charting an on-off-on relationship between two boys, cast in their own voices, and he matches it with a small square book, with pictures economic as to line and colour but with a dramatic use of page-layouts that gives a sure momentum to what happens. On the other hand, a couple of years before, with The Moon Jumpers, she had dared a lyric text, celebrating children moon-struck on a summer night in their bosky garden, and Sendak had produced a remarkable, almost post-impressionist sequence of monochrome vignettes and full-colour spreads that both caught the all-too-warm sentiment of the text but modified it to a touching vision. He later reprobated his performance as ‘hollow and empty’ (and a curtailed English edition in 1979 did it no favours), but, along with another Chagall-esque experiment, Charlotte and the White Horse by Ruth Krauss (1955), it strikes me as bringing a rarely-seen poetic vision to picture-book art.
Showing not telling
The alleyways of that art explored by Sendak in his apprentice years led him cumulatively towards the synthesis of word and picture that would become Wild Things, but the fame of that book has occluded the near-perfection of his own earlier and seemingly unambitious, Sign on Rosie’s Door (1960) and the entire perfection of its close successor, The Nutshell Library. It’s generally accepted that Sendak’s own books are driven by an obsession with the nature of the child’s psyche and the child’s sense of its own vulnerability (first seen in the weird events of the barely readable Kenny’s Window of 1956) but, by avoiding the rather overwrought concerns that were to surface later, Rosie manages a naturalness of great appeal. She and .Kathy and the other Brooklyn kids, including the brash-awful Lennie, are the ones that Sendak knew on the block, or watched and sketched through his window, desperately trying to make something out of the boredom of the hot city-street in the holiday season. Understatement is all. This is showing, not telling, and what you get is a comédie humaine that is more convincing, and more touching, than some of the later delvings into the lower depths.
As for Nutshell – do we need anything beyond this to fulfill the aims of the National Curriculum? You have an alphabet, a counting book, a book of the seasons and a bracing moral tale – a complete educational vade mecum, all with explanatory drawings and neatly packaged for easy transport between home and school. In its easygoing good cheer it has a close affinity with Rosie (a supplementary reader?) and, as an early example of the spin-offs that could be engendered by Sendak’s work, the two creations were united in an animated film for television, Really Rosie and the Nutshell Kids, which was later actually circulated to schools through the Weston Woods organisation.
All these less-celebrated aspects of Sendak’s work (and indeed his magnificent ten-year incursion into the field of opera as designer and even librettist) bear witness to his dedication to ‘interpretive illustration’. From the time of Rosie onwards one could argue that the apprentice years were over since by then we find ‘interpretation’ as an accomplished fact. Whether one looks at the monochrome responses to stories by Randall Jarrell, or George MacDonald, or Isaac Bashevis Singer; whether one looks at the management of format, from Doris Orgel’s Sarah’s Room at one end of the scale to Lullabies and Night-Songs at the other; or whether one looks at the host of collaborative picture books – his own jokey Hector Protector, Charlotte Zolotow’s Mister Rabbit and the Lovely Present (singled out for praise by our current Laureate), and those two marvellous tales by Frank Stockton: The Griffin and the Minor Canon and The Bee-Man of Orn (‘my homage to Caldecott’ he said), we are confronted by faultless examples of interpretive illustration. I suppose it’s no wonder that the obituarists stayed close to the obvious, there were too many riches to cope with elsewhere.
A celebratory back-page on the two hundreth anniversary of the first publication of ‘Grimms’ Fairy Tales’ incorporates an assessment of the version illustrated by Sendak.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times.