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During his distinguished career in children’s books, Maurice Bernard Sendak has provided richly varied pictures for more than eighty works. Of this number, nineteen have been stories that the artist himself has written. As might be expected, these works provide telling insights into those qualities of mind and heart that have helped to make Sendak an international figure, possibly the preeminent children’s picture-book author/illustrator of our time. Sendak is often credited with being the first author-artist to deal openly with the feelings of young children. Each of Sendak’s own stories is characterized by a loving observation of, and familiarity with, the ways of real children. He has also said, ”To me, illustrating means having a passionate affair with the words,” and this intensity of approach goes far toward explaining his uncanny ability to make palpable the emotional reality in which his tales take place.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Sendak’s Early Life
Sendak’s childhood is especially important to an understanding of his art. He was born on June 10,1928, in Brooklyn, New York. His parents, Philip and Sarah Schindler Sendak, were both Polish immigrants who had come to New York from small Jewish villages outside Warsaw before World War I. His sister Natalie was nine and his brother Jack was five when he was born.
Undoubtedly one of the major influences that shaped his childhood was the experience of being a first-generation American. The artist has described his childhood as including elements from both the Old and New Worlds. On the one hand, he was exposed to the most intoxicating and bustling of modern American cities. Juxtaposed to this experience of modern American culture were his parents’ memories of life in the Old Country. Sendak has said that as a child he felt himself to be a part of both his parents’ past and modern American life. Both of his parents seemed to have communicated to their children a rather dark, pessimistic view of life, which Sendak appears to have spent much of his adult life trying to overcome.
Although Sendak’s family was not particularly religious and usually went to synagogue only on High Holy Days, the artist’s Jewish heritage has had a perceptible impact on his work. Some early reviewers of his illustrations felt that the children portrayed looked too European. Sendak affirmed that he had indeed drawn the greenhorn immigrant children he had known in Brooklyn in his youth.
Sendak was a sick child; he had a dangerous case of measles followed by double pneumonia at age two and a half and scarlet fever at age four. Frail and sickly, he remembers being terrified of death as a child. His parents were extremely anxious about his health, and Sendak was an overprotected child. Sendak’s childhood was further complicated by his family’s frequent moves and by his hatred of school. Perhaps because of his early illnesses and confinements in bed, Sendak developed a talent as a child for observing life. He seems to have known that he was already collecting the raw material he would use for his work.
Sendak’s high school years during the 1940s were very anxious ones for the family. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Adolf Hitler resolved to exterminate all of the Polish Jews in death camps. By 1941 Jewish newspapers in the United States were publishing reports of Hitler’s plan to kill all the Jews of Europe. Sendak’s paternal grandfather died in Poland, the news arriving the day of his bar mitzvah. Philip Sendak was unsuccessful in helping any of his brothers and sisters to escape from Poland, and they all perished in the Holocaust. Other tragedies also hit the family; Natalie’s fiance, a soldier, was killed during World War II, and Jack was stationed in the Pacific. During this time, Sendak excelled in art but continued to be uninterested in other classes. He worked on the school yearbook, literary magazine, and newspaper. He also had a job with All-American Comics after school, working on background details for the ”Mutt and Jeff” comic strip. During his vacations from high school, Sendak began to teach himself about illustration, and he created original drawings for a number of works including ”Peter and the Wolf,” ”The Happy Prince,” and ”The Luck of Roaring Camp.”
After graduating from high school in 1946, Sendak sought work as an illustrator but finally landed a full-time job in the warehouse of a Manhattan window-display company—a period he remembers as one of the happiest times in his life. Two years later he was promoted to a different department and, unhappy in this new environment, he left in the summer of 1948.
During this period of unemployment, Sendak lived at home with his parents and began seriously to sketch the street life of children he observed out of his window. He also, with his brother and sister, created models for six wooden mechanical toys. The brothers took the prototypes to the toy store F.A.O. Schwarz, where the models were admired; however, the brothers were told that the toys would be too expensive to mass produce. However, Sendak so impressed managers with his artistry that he was offered a job as an assistant in the preparation of the store’s window displays. For the next three years Sendak worked at Schwarz during the day and took evening classes at the Art Student’s League in oil painting, life drawing, and composition.
Early Work as an Illustrator
After studying his work at F.A.O. Schwarz, the distinguished children’s book editor, Ursula Nordstrom, offered Sendak the chance to illustrate Marcel Ayme’s The Wonderful Earm (1951). This proved to be the beginning of an important personal and professional relationship for both parties. Sendak’s first big success came with his illustrations for Ruth Krauss’s A Hole Is to Dig (1952). This ”concept book” has no plot; it consists of a group of children’s definitions of words, collected by the author. For this book, Sendak used a small format, sepia-tinted paper, and cross-hatched pen-and-ink drawings to create a mid-nineteenth-century look. The work received excellent reviews. Encouraged by the book’s success, Sendak gave up his full-time job at F.A.O. Schwarz, moved into an apartment in Greenwich Village, and became a freelance illustrator. Between 1951 and 1982 Sendak illustrated dozens of books and wrote seven of his own.
Begins to Write
Kenny’s Window (1956), the first book that Sendak wrote as well as illustrated, was published when the artist was twenty-seven years old and already an established illustrator. An overly long and diffuse tale about an imaginative child eager to discover more about the world beyond his front door, Kenny’s Window is a treasure trove of the themes, characters, and psychological excursions that would become the core of Sendak’s mature work. Undergoing psychoanalysis at the time, Sendak had become increasingly aware of the wellsprings in childhood of people’s deepest fears and desires. To these influences he attributes the discovery of his prototypical child hero—and the subject that has engaged his talent and sensibility from that moment on: children who, in his own words, ”are held back by life and, one way or other, manage miraculously to find release from their troubles.” More introspective than any of his future heroes, Kenny escapes into dreams and fantasy to discover significant—occasionally even painful—truths about his own life.
In his next book, Very Ear Away (1957), Sendak tells a modest, affecting story about small Martin, who must come to terms with an unexpectedly painful home truth:
his mother is so busy caring for a new baby that she has no time for him when he most craves her attention. Martin opts to run off ”very far away,” which, in Sendakian terms, is ”many times around the block and two cellar windows from the corner.” There, Martin and three new friends—a bird, a horse, and a cat—live together very happily ”for an hour and a half.” (Clearly the author knows how children reckon endless stretches of time and distance.) At story’s end, a less sulky Martin returns home in the hope that his mother may now be free to answer at least a few of his questions.
In The Sign on Rosie’s Door (1960), Sendak re-created the Brooklyn of his own 1930s childhood. His irrepressible Rosie, based on a real-life child Sendak once spent months observing from his Brooklyn apartment window, is a heroine capable of carrying her less imaginative cronies aloft on flights of therapeutic fancy. In this way they can happily pass summer days otherwise filled with ”nothing to do.”
Sendak’s next work was his still popular The Nutshell Library (1962), a medley of four miniature volumes: a reptilian alphabet, Alligators All Around; a rhymed romp through the months of the year, Chicken Soup with Rice; a forward-backward counting book, One Was Johnny; and a contemporary cautionary tale, Pierre (”The moral of Pierre is: CARE!”). Revealing the author at his most fanciful, this quartet has been referred to by one critic as a young listener’s ”Complete Companion into literacy” and shows just how much a gifted writer could expand upon conventional nursery themes
Where the Wild Things Are (1963), which showed a child mastering ”the uncontrollable and frightening aspects of his life” through the help of fantasy, won Sendak the Caldecott Medal. The story represented the culmination of his attempts to portray a child mastering frightening things through the help of fantasy. Unlike Sendak’s earlier protagonists, who tended to use fantasy and daydreams as escapes from real-world emotional confrontations, the intrepid Max has a temper tantrum when his mother calls him ”Wild Thing!” He then sails off to tame Wild Things of his own imagining. When he returns, the supper he didn’t expect to get is waiting for him at his bedside. Though countless librarians and educators worried about the book’s frightening aspects for young children—raw rage and monstrous fantasy figures— the work was an immediate success. Children seemed to find comfort in a hero who could be angry with his mother and triumph over his own rage. Sendak wrote two more books in what he considered a trilogy of children’s mastery of various strong feelings: In the Night Kitchen (1970), whose protagonist is an angry boy who is frightened in the night, and Outside Over There (1985), a story of jealousy and sibling rivalry.
The intriguing and decidedly American fairytale Higglety Pigglety Pop! or, There Must Be More to Life (1967) begins where traditional fairy tales leave off, at ”And they lived happily ever after.” Jennie, the story’s dog heroine, has everything—a loving master, two windows from which to enjoy the view, two pillows (one for upstairs, one for down), and two eating bowls. Yet, she announces at the story’s start: ”I am discontented. There must be more to life than having everything.” Jennie was modeled after the author’s beloved pet Sealyham. When he was working on the book, Jennie’s health was failing and his own mother was dying; Sendak felt disquieting intimations of mortality, and he wanted to immortalize Jennie, perhaps himself as well. Many of Sendak’s admirers feel that this is his most ambitious and poetic work. Certainly, it is the one tale in which the words have as much resonance and power as the pictures.
The artist’s picture book We Are All in the Dumps with Jack & Guy (1983) is an apocalyptic improvisation on two little-known English nursery rhymes. With the help of an interracial cast of parentless children who live in a haunting city slum, Sendak examines poverty, violence, AIDS, and human indifference. When the book’s two heroes, Jack and Guy, manage to rescue a ”poor little kid” and a sackful of kittens from the clutches of two unregeneratively evil rats, they affirm their creator’s lifelong view that children, with their unblinkingly honest acceptance of harsh realities and their miraculous resilience, still offer humanity’s best (and possibly only) hope for redemption.
Sendak continued to publish during the 1990s and into the twenty-first century. He produced his first popup book, Mommy?, in 2006. He also illustrated The Happy Rain (2004), written by Jack Sendak, and Bears!, by Ruth Krauss (2005).
Works in Literary Context
Drawing on the great tradition of nineteenth-century book illustration, Sendak has forged a unique visual vocabulary and artistic style, at once rooted in the past yet contemporary in spirit and approach. His early work was unusual for the period in that it was more nineteenth-century in spirit than modernist or abstract.
Fantasy creates an alternative world for its readers. Many of Sendak’s books create such a world, including the fantasy place where Max finds the Wild Things in Where the Wild Things Are. In this sense, Sendak can be understood as a successor to children’s fantasy writers such as J. R. R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings [1954-1955]) and C. S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia [1950-1956]). His books Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, and Outside Over There all involve the main characters’ travels to another world.
Works in Critical Context
Beginning with the appearance in 1963 of Sendak’s most famous and popular work, Where the Wild Things Are, both critical acclaim and controversy have heralded the publication of almost each new book. Credited by many critics and scholars as being the first artist to deal openly with the emotions of children, ”Sendak has forthrightly confronted such sensitive subject matters as childhood anger, sexuality, or the occasionally murderous impulses of raw sibling rivalry,” wrote one reviewer of his work. Sendak’s honesty has troubled or frightened many who would wish to sentimentalize childhood—to shelter children from their own psychological complexity or to deny that this complexity exists.
Where the Wild Things Are
Many critics hailed Sendak’s Caldecott-winning book Where the Wild Things Are as a new type of children’s literature that was not afraid to deal with the strong emotions of childhood. Mary Lystad wrote, ” Where the Wild Things Are is a warm and witty fantasy. … It marks a critical point in American literature for children because it dares to present openly anger, conflict, and rage, and because it resolves these issues satisfactorily for the child.” John Cech agreed, writing that the book was ”electrifying, controversial, precedent setting” and that it represented ”a point of departure from which there could really be no easy return to the same old forms and subjects.”
However, praise for the book was not unanimous. Most criticism leveled at Where the Wild Things Are revolved around the frightening aspects of the book. Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, in Ladies’ Home Journal, wrote that Sendak ”failed to understand . . . the incredible fear it evokes in the child to be sent to bed without supper.” Other critics argued that the book was “silly.” J. H. Dohm wrote, ”Unfortunately, some of us find his Medal winning book the most disappointing and irritating of all—obviously he was due to receive the medal before long . . . but it seemed a pity it should go first to a book of such surpassing silliness.”
- Cech, John. ”Max, Wild Things, and the Shadows of Childhood.” In Angels and Wild Things: The Archetypal Poetics of Maurice Sendak. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.
- Lanes, Selma G. The Art of Maurice Sendak. New York: Abrams, 1980.
- Bettelheim, Bruno. Review of Where the Wild Things Are. Ladies Home Journal, March 1969.
- Dohm, J. H. ”20th Century Illustrators: Maurice Sendak.” The Junior Bookshelf 30 (April 1966).
- Lystad, Mary. ”Taming the Wild Things.” Children Today 18 (March-April 1989).
- ”The Fantasy World of Maurice Sendak.” Indianapolis Museum of Art. Retrieved December 5, 2008, from http://www.absolutearts.com/artsnews/1999/ 10/31/26082.html.
- ”Wild Things: The Art of Maurice Sendak.” Jewish Museum. Retrieved December 5, 2008, from http://www.tfaoi.org/aa/5aa/5aa307.htm.
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