Maurice Sendak, creator of Where the Wild Things Are, is dead at 83. He knew that would be the first line of his obituary, he told me once, in a tone that conveyed more resignation than pride. He was an artist, first: That his work spoke to children was important to him, but he disliked being limited to the realm of childhood alone. That’s why, earlier this year, he told Stephen Colbert: “I don’t write for children. … I write, and somebody says ‘That’s for children.’” Sendak’s work speaks to us all, and his work extends beyond children’s picture books. He’s designed sets for opera and dance productions, illustrated Herman Melville’s Pierre, created album covers, posters and dust jackets for adult books. His inspirations span both genres and age categories: Melville, Mozart, Winsor McCay, William Blake, Walt Disney, Maxfield Parrish, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
Yet he’s most recognized for his genius in creating books for the young, winning all the top prizes in the field and beyond it: and rightly so. The illustrator of over 100 books, Maurice Sendak was the greatest artist-for-children of the 20th century — a century that brought us the astonishing, transformative work of Dr. Seuss, Virginia Lee Burton, Beatrix Potter, Chris Van Allsburg and Peter Sís. Sendak was a giant among giants. He still is.
The book that leads all obituary notices — Where the Wild Things Are (1963) — remains a revolutionary work. As protagonist Max moves toward and then more deeply into the land of the wild things, the pictures command more and more space. When the “wild rumpus” begins, Sendak — for the first time in children’s picture books — provides three two-page spreads without words. Max has left the world of language, and can communicate only through his wordless, wild cavorting. Beyond its formal innovations, the book is unusual in its respect for the natural ferocity of children. Max hangs his teddy bear by the neck, terrorizes the dog, and shouts at his mother. Yet, when he returns home from the land of the wild things, he faces no punishment. He finds “his supper waiting for him and it was still hot.”[i]
The power of Sendak’s work develops from the author’s acute feeling for the dynamic emotional landscape of childhood. When he and Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) shared a stage at the San Diego Museum of Art in 1982, moderator (and children’s lit scholar) Glenn Edward Sadler asked them both to “comment on how much your own early childhood has influenced your work.” Geisel said he skipped his childhood, but used his adolescence; Sendak said he skipped his adolescence, but “profited mightily from my early childhood.” Geisel harnesses the skeptical adolescent’s gift for finding and satirizing the adult world’s many hypocrisies, but Sendak draws upon the basic fears and desires of very young children. As he observed in his Caldecott acceptance speech for Where the Wild Things Are, “from their earliest years, children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions … [and] fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives.” Sendak’s books are about facing those fears and anxieties, documenting the sharp, turbulent, powerful feelings of early childhood.[ii]
In the Night Kitchen: Growing Up in Brooklyn
Born in 1928, the third child of Polish immigrants, Sendak grew up in Brooklyn … though he often wondered if he would grow up. Young Sendak was frequently sick, always aware that — in those days before vaccines — his illnesses might be fatal. Adolescence delivered a different, even darker lesson about our fleeting existence. While Sendak celebrated his bar mitzvah, his father was trying to bring his European relatives to America. None made it to the U.S. The Nazis killed them all.[iii]
American popular culture sustained young Sendak. He loved Mickey Mouse, comic books and the movies — Disney features, Busby Berkeley musicals, Laurel and Hardy and King Kong. A homage to the popular culture of his youth, Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen (1970) is one of his most autobiographical works, both personally and aesthetically. Dedicated to his parents, the book places a protagonist named for Mickey Mouse in a bed borrowed from Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, which a teenage Sendak first encountered in histories of comics. Like Nemo, Sendak’s Mickey moves through a child’s dream world. Unlike McCay’s hero, Sendak’s is in charge of his dreaming. When naked Mickey lands in batter, a trio of bakers (each of whom resembles Oliver Hardy) mixes him into the cake, which they then put in the oven. If a boy being placed in an oven evokes the Nazi crematoria that killed his relatives (as one German critic has suggested), Sendak’s bright colors and plucky protagonist diminish any sense of fear.[iv]
That’s because Sendak’s Mickey is part early Mickey Mouse and part Sendak himself. He has often spoken of his identification with the famous animated rodent, noting that they share more than a first initial and a birth year. When Sendak and his siblings were children, Mickey Mouse was “our buddy” because he did not resemble the golden-haired cinema children (such as Shirley Temple), and neither did they. He so loved Mickey that Sendak’s earliest extant color drawing is of Mickey Mouse, done when the artist was 6 years old.[v]
As a high school student, he took art classes, created a comic strip for his school newspaper and (after school) worked at All-American Comics, filling in background details for Mutt and Jeff. He got his first job as a professional illustrator, creating drawings for the physics textbook Atomics for the Millions (1947). Sendak also made many visits to the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He wanted to work as a commercial artist. Now was the time to learn as much about art as he could.[vi]
Upon graduation, Sendak worked as a window-display artist, building models for store windows all over New York City. That led him to a full-time window-display job at F.A.O Schwarz. Though it is now merely a toy store, it then also had an outstanding children’s-book section, run by book-buyer Frances Chrystie. She met Sendak, learned of his interest in illustrating children’s books, and helped him make the acquaintance of three people who would become vital to his future career.[vii]
A Book is to Collaborate: Sendak’s Apprenticeship
In 1950, Chrystie introduced Sendak to Ursula Nordstrom, Director of Harper’s Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973. During her long career, she nurtured and published some of the greatest talents in children’s literature: Margaret Wise Brown, E.B. White, Louise Fitzhugh, Shel Silverstein, Arnold Lobel, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss. As Selma G. Lanes reports, Chrystie arranged for Nordstrom to stop by the store’s studio when Sendak happened to have his work tacked up to the walls. She “looked intently at the work,” but said very little. The next day, she called him and invited him to illustrate Marcel Aymé’s The Wonderful Farm (1951). He was thrilled. The job “made me an official person in children’s books,” Sendak said.[viii]
After he had illustrated a couple of books for her, Nordstrom asked to see his sketchbook. His illustrations of Brooklyn children playing in the street inspired Nordstrom to introduce Sendak to the second of the trio who would shape his career. Ruth Krauss had just turned in a manuscript composed entirely of children’s words, defining the world in their own language and on their own terms. She had visited the local nursery school, collecting definitions from the 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds there: “a face is something on your head,” “a hole is to dig.” Nordstrom loved it, but potential illustrators did not. Nicolas Mordvinoff, who would win the 1952 Caldecott Medal for Finders Keepers, said that no book or illustrations could be made for “so fragmentary and elusive a text.” Sendak’s illustrations would be perfect, Nordstrom thought. When she showed him the manuscript, he was enthusiastic. Krauss took a look at Sendak’s sketchbook, and immediately said, “That’s it.” A partnership was born.[ix]
Working on the book that would be titled A Hole Is to Dig (1952), he began spending his weekends at the Rowayton, Conn. home of Krauss and her husband, Crockett Johnson — third in the trio of important professional influences. Born David Johnson Leisk (and known to his friends as “Dave”), Johnson was then famous for his classic strip Barnaby, though he had also illustrated some children’s books — including Krauss’s popular The Carrot Seed (1945). As Sendak remembered in a 1994 Horn Book essay, Krauss and Johnson “became my weekend parents and took on the job of shaping me into an artist. … Ruth and I would arrange and rearrange and paste and unpaste and Ruth would sing and Ruth would holler and I’d quail and sulk and Dave would referee. His name should be on all our books for the technical savvy and cool consideration he brought to them.”
Johnson not only offered design suggestions, but intellectual companionship. He and Sendak discussed books, and Johnson drew up lists of recommended reading. There was no test: Johnson simply wanted to give Sendak a chance to expand his horizons.[x]
In a very material way, A Hole Is to Dig established Sendak as a children’s illustrator. Ordinarily, an artist would be paid a flat fee, and the author would receive royalties. However, when drawing up the contracts, Krauss insisted that she and Sendak split the royalties 50-50. So, when A Hole Is to Dig became a popular success, Sendak quit his job at F.A.O. Schwarz, becoming a full-time freelance illustrator. During the 1950s, he would illustrate as many as six books a year — and eight by Ruth Krauss. He won his first Caldecott Honor for their next collaboration, A Very Special House (1953).[xi]
In a Nutshell: Sendak’s First Picture Books
After a period of apprenticeship illustrating others’ works, at age 27 Sendak wrote and illustrated his first book, Kenny’s Window (1956). The story reflects his childhood habit of observing the world through the window (a necessity, since he was often sick) and introduces a theme he would explore more memorably in later works like Where the Wild Things Are and Outside Over There — the permeable boundary between real and fantastic.[xii]
During the 1950s and 1960s, whether creating his own work or collaborating with others, Sendak’s books reflect the ease with which he moves between fantasy and reality, but also his ongoing need to experiment. When HarperCollins responded to the Why Johnny Can’t Read crisis with its “I Can Read” series, Sendak illustrated the first, Else Homelund Minarik’s Little Bear (1957). The Sign on Rosie’s Door (1958) drew inspiration from a real Rosie who coerced her friends to play roles in her staged performances. He followed that with the Nutshell Library (1962), four tiny books that celebrate “children being themselves,” as Selma Lanes has observed. The four books — Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and a Prologue, Alligators All Around: An Alphabet, One Was Johnny: A Counting Book, and Chicken Soup with Rice — were Sendak’s first big hit, selling 100,000 copies (of the set) in their first year.[xiii]
Sensing the makings of a popular series, Nordstrom pressed him to do more Nutshell books. The resulting argument would lead to Sendak’s first masterpiece. He resisted her suggestion: he had illustrated over 50 books in the past decade, and wanted to try something new. When she proposed that another author create sequels instead, Sendak was upset; the Nutshell Library was his idea. Nordstrom backed off, and Sendak returned to a book dummy he had made back in 1955, during his apprenticeship with Johnson and Krauss — Where the Wild Horses Are. All through early 1963, he kept revising and rewriting the text, finally retitling the book Where the Wild Things Are.