Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2061
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 always insisted upon interpretive illustrations that expanded and enriched the meaning of a text rather than narrative pictures that merely reflected the words of the text or pictures that provided simple graphic decoration. He felt strongly that the illustrator’s contribution to a book was as important as the author’s. He declared that to be an illustrator was to be a participant.
Sendak never followed the mainstream style of American children’s book illustration. In the 1950’s, when most illustrators were creating dazzling technical displays of abstract designs in bold color and large formats influenced by contemporary advertising, Sendak’s work was reminiscent of nineteenth century wood engravings, an effect achieved by the consistent use of crosshatching—examples include E. H. Minarik’s “little bear” series (1957-1968), Jack Sendak’s Circus Girl (1957), his own Kenny’s Window (1956) and Where the Wild Things Are (1963), and The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm (1973). Sendak created his own personal language by borrowing styles and techniques from those artists he most admired, including William Blake, Thomas Rowlandson, George Cruikshank, Randolph Caldecott, Walter Crane, Arthur Hughes, Samuel Palmer, and Winsor McCay.
As Sendak’s graphic work became more assured and polished from the mid-1950’s through the early 1960’s, he began to write as well as illustrate. His first book, Kenny’s Window, introduced a theme that reappeared often in his work, which he defined as “children who are held back by life, but, one way or another, manage miraculously to find release from their troubles.” There are many aspects of Sendak’s own childhood in Kenny’s Window, as the young hero tries to reconcile his fantasies with his real life. Autobiographical content is also found in Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or, There Must Be More to Life, which he wrote and illustrated in 1967 as a tribute to his beloved pet and “best friend,” a Sealyham terrier named Jennie.
By 1962, at age thirty-four, Sendak had illustrated fifty books, seven of which he had also written. He next published four miniature volumes—Alligators All Around, Chicken Soup with Rice, One Was Johnny, and Pierre—entitled The Nutshell Library (1962). Response was very positive, with one critic proclaiming him “the Picasso of children’s books.” He also received the American Library Association Notable Book Award and, in 1975, produced an animated film featuring the Nutshell Kids that was broadcast on television.
In 1963, Sendak created his most successful, and most controversial, work—Where the Wild Things Are. Initial critical appraisal was favorable, with the book being labeled “refreshingly imaginative,” although some parents and educators expressed concern that the fearsome wild things, with sharp teeth and claws, might scare children. The most outrageous criticism came, however, from a child psychologist named Bruno Bettelheim, who had not even read the book before pronouncing it a document of parental desertion that would produce anxiety in a child (the young hero Max is sent to bed without his supper). Thus the book was not initially popular with the general public, although librarians supported it. This first resistance was overcome when, in 1964, Sendak received the Caldecott Medal for the best picture book; from that time, Where the Wild Things Are began to be considered a classic; by its twenty-fifth anniversary, it had sold two million English copies, it had been translated into sixteen languages, and it had been adapted into an opera.
In the Night Kitchen (1970) was another controversial work, with objections centering primarily on what American educators labeled the book’s blatant sensuousness and suggestive sensuality stemming from the frontal nudity of the young hero, Mickey. International response was favorable, however, and Sendak became the first American illustrator to be given the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award.
With his position as one of the foremost writers and illustrators of children’s literature now secure, Sendak worked harder than ever. He illustrated several volumes of Brothers Grimm stories (The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm; King Grisly-Beard, 1973), worked with contemporary authors Randall Jarrell’s Fly by Night, 1976), and continued to illustrate his own stories (Some Swell Pup: Or Are you Sure You Want a Dog?, 1976; Seven Little Monsters, 1977; and Outside Over There, 1981). In 1970, he stated that he was now looking for a form of expression beyond simple illustration or even writing. He began to think of combining music and words to produce a more exciting method of creativity; in the late 1970’s, he collaborated with Frank Corsaro on the production and staging of six operas, including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute for the Houston Grand Opera and Sergei Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges, performed in England and New York City. In 1979, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) commissioned an opera of Where the Wild Things Are for the International Year of the Child and, in 1985, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) commissioned an opera of Higglety Pigglety Pop!
The philosophy underlying Maurice Sendak’s work was greatly influenced by his own childhood spent between two conflicting cultures. In both his illustrations and his stories, he combines seemingly incongruous traditions and fuses images of death and mortality with those that celebrate life. The whole truth must be revealed, however and wherever it is to be found. In order to accomplish this, he has made use of diverse styles and techniques, from Disney to William Blake to Randolph Caldecott. Sendak stated that Caldecott’s greatness lay in the wholeness of his personal vision of life, in his refusal to dilute the truth. Much the same could be said of Sendak’s work, for he has declared that even though his stories are essentially dream or fantasy, all successful fantasy must be rooted in living fact. He has explained that when he tries to draw the way children feel, or the way he imagines they feel, it is the way he knows he felt as a child. He has said many times that he has an endless fascination and absorption with childhood and an obsession with his own childhood. As one writer has observed, Sendak’s fascination and absorption has put thousands of adults in closer touch with their own childhoods and has enriched the fantasy lives of children everywhere.
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.