Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
Article abstract: Sendak was one of the twentieth century’s best-known illustrators of children’s books. He received the international Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1970 in recognition of his major contribution to children’s literature.
Maurice Bernard Sendak was the youngest of three children born to Polish-Jewish immigrants. Childhood influences included his parents’ old-world traditions of Jewish village life and the urban society of the United States in the 1930’s—two very different, and often conflicting, cultures. His father was an especially gifted storyteller who related many tales of life in Poland. Sendak has identified these stories as important early sources for the development of his own work. Another important influence was the family’s weekly visit to the local cinema, where young Maurice saw musicals, monsters, comedies, and Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940), which he later described as the most aesthetic experience of his childhood. Mickey Mouse became one of the dominant figures of Sendak’s youth, “an early best friend” as he later recalled, as well as the subject of his earliest extant color drawing, done in 1934 at age six.
Sendak, a frail child plagued with various, often severe, illnesses, has stated that as a result of his delicate health, he was terrified of death because he heard talk of it all around him. Unable to take part in many strenuous outdoor activities, he stayed indoors drawing pictures and developing a talent for the acute observation of people and events. Although the adult Sendak overcame the illnesses of his childhood, these early experiences undoubtedly shaped his life attitudes in significant ways, as indicated by the personalities of some of his characters, who tend to be passive, introverted, or lonely. Additionally, Sendak frequently refers to the boredom and loneliness of children, especially during the endless days of city summers. He has, however, described his own childhood as an essentially happy time with his parents and siblings. He disliked some of his other relatives, however, and on their Sunday visits to the Sendak household, Maurice observed them closely, noting every unflattering detail. These observations were used later in the creation of the “wild things.”
Sendak disliked school, believing that the regimen of public education stifled creativity. In high school, however, he contributed drawings for the school newspaper, yearbook, and literary magazine. After graduation in 1946, he worked for a window-display company, and in 1947, his first published illustrations appeared in the textbook Atomics for the Millions.
From 1948 to 1952, Sendak worked at F.A.O. Schwarz as an assistant window-display designer. He had access to the extensive children’s book department and was exposed to the works of many different illustrators. The nineteenth century artists George Cruikshank, Walter Crane, and Randolph Caldecott became most important to him. While working days at F.A.O. Schwarz, Sendak began his only formal art training by attending night classes at the Art Students League. His favorite instructor, John Groth, taught him to achieve motion and liveliness in drawing, an approach seen in his illustrations for Ruth Sawyer’s Maggie Rose: Her Birthday Christmas (1952) and Meindert DeJong’s Shadrach (1953) and Hurry Home, Candy (1953). After two years, Sendak left the Art Students League, a decision he regretted later, feeling that his work matured slowly because of his lack of formal training.
In 1950, Sendak met Ursula Nordstrom, the children’s-book editor at Harper and Brothers publishing company, who commissioned him to illustrate Marcel Ayme’s The Wonderful Farm (1951). Sendak has said that this work made him an official presence in the children’s book market and also marked the beginning of a professional relationship that influenced his entire career as an illustrator.
In 1952, Nordstrom gave Sendak the opportunity to illustrate Ruth Krauss’s A Hole Is to Dig, an innovative approach to children’s literature in which plot was replaced by concept—the concept in this case being a series of definitions that children might make, such as “hands are to hold” or “dogs are to kiss people.” The book’s success and the critics’ enthusiastic acclaim for Sendak’s work placed him among the major illustrators of children’s books. He left F.A.O. Schwarz and became a freelance illustrator.
Although Sendak’s work in the next several years lacked the visual sophistication and polish that marked his mature style, he evidenced an unusual ability to depict characters of all ages with equal sympathy and without any taint of mawkish sentimentality. The talent for observation that he had developed in his childhood was put to good use. As his work progressed, he began to establish the precepts that would guide him throughout his career. For example, Sendak...
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Pointing out that fear and anxiety are “intrinsic” to children’s daily lives, Sendak defended his widely debated—and wildly popular—picture book Where the Wild Things Are (1963) with the claim, “It is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis.” Suggesting that children have aggressive impulses toward adults, this award-winning book was considered by one librarian as too disturbing “to be left where a sensitive child may come upon it at twilight.”
While the psychoanalytic undercurrents of Where the Wild Things Are caused alarm, the nudity of In the Night Kitchen (1970) provoked open calls for censorship. Parents in Morrisonville, New York; Jacksonville, Florida; and Cornish, Maine, for example, demanded it be removed from school libraries, protesting that the nakedness of the book’s young protagonist would promote child molestation. In the Night Kitchen was reinstated in each case; however, the book did end up being placed on a closed shelf in Indiana and removed from a library in Washington. Sendak responded that his pictures “aren’t any more graphic” than “paintings of the Christ child.”
Nudity—this time of goblins—caused Outside over There (1981) to be pulled from the shelves by a South Dakota school librarian. Noted Sendak, “The people who are frightened by my images and stories are adults, not children.”
Bibliography (Censorship (Ready Reference series))
Bader, Barbara. “Maurice Sendak.” In American Picture Books from Noah’s Ark to the Beast Within. New York: Macmillan, 1976. This essay contains an in-depth discussion of the eclecticism of Sendak’s style that documents the evolution of his art.
DeLuca, Geraldine. “Progression through Contraries: The Triumph of the Spirit in the Work of Maurice Sendak.” In Triumphs of the Spirit in Children’s Literature, edited by Francelia Butler and Richard Rotert. Hamden, Conn.: Library Professional Publications, 1986. DeLuca traces and discusses Sendak’s ambivalent vision of childhood throughout his works.
Hentoff, Nat. “Among the Wild Things.” The New Yorker (January 22, 1966): 39-73. Hentoff discusses the critical and public response to Sendak’s work and traces the influences on his art from his early beginnings through his mature style.
Kloss, Robert. “Fantasy and Fear in the Work of Maurice Sendak.” Psychoanalytic Review 76 (Winter, 1989): 567-579. In this essay, Kloss examines Sendak’s transformation of the psychoanalytic vision of experience into fiction and art.
Lanes, Selma. The Art of Maurice Sendak. New York: Abrams, 1980. This extensive, well-illustrated biography examining Sendak’s life and work contains many direct quotes taken from interviews with Sendak, discussions of his major works, and a chronology.
Sonheim, Amy. Maurice Sendak. New York: Twayne, 1991. Sonheim analyzes Sendak’s work from several eclectic approaches: biographical, linguistic, art historical, and generic. The author attempts to discover the intricacies of Sendak’s verbal and visual styles, but the book contains no reproductions of his visual works. It does, however, contain a lengthy bibliography of both primary and secondary sources.