Award winning illustrator and author, Maurice Sendak (born 1928), has been a major force in the evolution of children's literature since 1960. He is considered by many critics and scholars to be the first artist to deal openly with the emotions of children in his drawings both in books and on the stage, in his opera and ballet sets and costumes. This ability to accurately depict raw emotion is what makes him so appealing to children.
Most people born in the last half of the twentieth century have read at least one of the more than 80 children's books written or illustrated by Sendak. Some critics contend that his drawings depict emotions too strongly for children to handle. In spite of this criticism, he has won almost every major American and international award for children's books and has been a major influence on several generations of children's writers.
A Sickly Child
Sendak was born in Brooklyn, New York on June 10, 1928. He was the youngest son of Phillip and Sarah Schindler Sendak, Polish immigrants from small Jewish villages outside of Warsaw. Along with his sister Natalie, and brother, Jack, he grew up in a poor section of Brooklyn. His family moved to a new apartment every time one of their landlords decided to paint because his mother could not stand the smell of fresh paint. Suffering from measles, double pneumonia, and scarlet fever between the ages of two and four, Sendak was very rarely allowed outside to play. Between the frequent moves and the many illnesses, he did not make many friends and spent most of his time in bed, watching the other children play.
To pass the time, Sendak drew pictures and read comic books. His favorite was Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse. When he was well enough, he and his parents attended the local movie houses. Occasionally his older sister would take him to Manhattan to see movies at the Roxy or Radio City Music Hall. Films of the 1930s, including the Busby Berkeley musicals and Laurel and Hardy comedies, had a profound influence on some of his illustrations.
The other great influence on his young life was his background as the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland. A portrait of his bearded maternal grandfather, who had died before Sendak's birth, was a prominent memory, as were his parents' stories of life in Poland. His mother told of hiding in the basement during attacks by the Cossacks on her village, while his father shared memories of a more comfortable middle class life. Sendak developed a rather pessimistic view of life from his parents' tales, which found its way into many of his own stories. Though his family was not particularly religious, they did attend services on High Holy Days and lived in an immigrant Jewish neighborhood. These were the people who populated his first illustrations, which some reviewers criticized as being too European. According to Sendak in Lane's Down the Rabbit Hole: Adventures and Misadventures in the Realm of Children's Literature, "There is not a book I have written or picture I have drawn that does not, in some way, owe [those neighborhood children] its existence."
School proved difficult for the young Sendak. He was obese and sometimes stammered. Creativity was not encouraged. Sendak was not a particularly good student and only excelled in his art classes. At home, he and his brother Jack made up their own storybooks by combining newspaper photographs or comic strip segments with drawings they made of family members. Sendak's father had the ability to create wonderful, imaginative tales that sometimes lasted for several nights. Both boys inherited this storytelling gift which they would later use to create books of their own.
World War II contributed to Sendak's view of the world as a dark and frightening place. All of his aunts and uncles in Poland died in the Holocaust; Natalie's fiancé was killed; and Jack was stationed in the Pacific. Sendak spent the war years in high school, working on the school yearbook, literary magazine, and newspaper. After school, he worked at All-American Comics, drawing background details for the Mutt and Jeff comic strip.
The summer of 1946 to the summer of 1948 were the happiest two years in Sendak's young life. He worked in the warehouse of a Manhattan window-display company called Timely Service and lived away from home for the first time. Sendak met the kinds of people he had not known in Brooklyn-real artists, who considered their work for Timely Service just a job that allowed them to paint seriously at night.
After leaving his first full time job in 1948, Sendak and his brother Jack created models for six wooden mechanical toys in the style of German eighteenth-century lever-operated toys. They were designed to portray parts in nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Jack engineered the toys, and Sendak did the painting and carving. Natalie sewed the costumes. The brothers took the models to the F.A.O. Schwartz toy store, where the prototypes were admired but considered too expensive to produce. Richard Nell, the window-display director, was impressed with Sendak's talent and hired him as an assistant in the window display department. This enabled Sendak to earn a living in the daytime and attend the Art Student's League at night. He took classes in oil painting, life drawing, and composition. He also spent time in the children's book department studying the great nineteenth-century illustrators (George Cruikshank, Walter Crane, and Randolph Caldecott) as well as the new postwar European illustrators (Hans Fischer, Felix Hoffmann, and Alois Carigiet).
Illustrated First Book
While at Schwartz, Sendak met Ursula Nordstrom, the distinguished children's book editor at Harper and Brothers. She liked his work and offered him the chance to illustrate his first book, Marcel Ayme's The Wonderful Farm. They formed a close relationship, which would last for many years. According to Sendak in The Art of Maurice Sendak, "My happiest memories, in fact, are of my earliest career, when Ursula was my confidante and best friend. She really became my home and the person I trusted most." Sendak's first great success as the illustrator for Ruth Krauss's award winning A Hole Is to Dig was arranged by Nordstrom. Sendak was able to give up his full time job at Schwartz, move into an apartment in Greenwich Village, and become a free-lance illustrator.
The years between 1951 and 1962 are considered by Sendak to be his apprenticeship. He illustrated as many books as he could and learned to be flexible and adapt his drawings to the style of the text. According to Sendak, "I was going to learn how to draw in a variety of styles. I think my books are identifiable, but they all look different because illustrators are secondary to the text. If you insist on being primary to the text, then you're are bad illustrator." His own books during this period were not outstanding, with the exception of The Sign on Rosie's Door written in 1960. He based Rosie on a real girl he knew from his old neighborhood, and created a model for the typical Sendak character: strong-willed, honest, and imaginative.
Where the Wild Things Are
With the publication of Where the Wild Things Are in 1963, Sendak felt that he had ended his apprenticeship. His childhood experiences, years of illustrations for other authors' books, and psychoanalysis came together in the fantasies of Max, the boy in the story who is sent to bed without his supper, and the monsters he encounters in the world of the wild things. The story is rooted in the very real fears that children have of being left alone or not cared for by their parents. Many critics and child psychologists, such as Bruno Bettelheim, felt that the book was too scary for sensitive children. Sendak was vindicated when the book won the Caldecott Medal in 1964. In his acceptance speech, he said, "… from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things."
Just as Sendak's life appeared to finally be on track, disaster struck. In 1967, he learned that his mother had developed cancer, he suffered a major coronary attack, and his beloved dog Jenny died. In spite of his troubles, he completed In the Night Kitchen in 1972. This book generated more controversy because he showed a boy in full frontal nudity. Librarians drew diapers over the child. "It's as if my book contains secret information that kids would be better off not knowing. This whole idea, of course, is ridiculous." Sendak moved to Ridgefields, Connecticut, in 1972. There he worked ten-hour days on other authors' books as well as his own. Outside Over There, which he considers one of his more significant books, was written during this period.
By 1980, Sendak felt that he had done all that he could in children's literature and was ready to try something new. He was invited to design the sets and costumes for the Houston Grand Opera's production of Mozart's The Magic Flute. This was a wonderful opportunity, since Mozart was Sendak's favorite composer. He designed sets that he called "subterranean and bedeviled." This began a long collaboration which included fourteen works, the latest being Hansel and Gretel in 1998. Children, lost and alone, who are ultimately rescued and returned to their parents was a perfect Sendak theme. In TCI Sendak explains, "My main purpose in doing this opera, and doing it now, at this age , is that I'm overwhelmed by the abuse of children. Hansel and Gretel is a powerful analogy to modern day child abandonment and cruelty, an opera about pertinent forms of neglect. To mount it in a cutesy German forest is to limit it. Why is the fairy tale so famous? Because it's terrifying."
Sendak also designed sets for ballets, most notably The Nutcracker, which he rewrote to suit his own vision of the story, and his own Where the Wild Things Are. A shy man who dislikes crowds, Sendak rarely attends the opera or ballet himself.
Sendak sanctioned the first museum exhibit of his art at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia in 1995. Oversize characters from four of his most popular books, including Where the Wild Things Are are included in the permanent exhibit. He has also collaborated on films and television projects involving his work. Sendak will never be mistaken for Walt Disney. Through the years he has remained true to his vision of life as seen through the eyes of a child.
Further Reading on Maurice Sendak
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, 1987.
Amusement Business, Nov. 18, 1996, p34.
Dance Magazine February, 1997, p. 124.
Detroit News, January 10, 1997, p. A5; October 20, 1997, p. B5.
TCI, April, 1998, p. 24.
Contemporary Authors. Gale, http://www.galenet.com (February 15, 1999).