Sometimes dark, sometimes gleefully silly, but always inventive, intelligent, and colorful, Maurice Sendak’s imaginatively illustrated children’s books never forget their audience. Although his classic Where the Wild Things Are was criticized upon its initial publication for being too frightening, children responded with enthusiasm to both its wonderfully zany artwork as well as to its honesty. Forty years later, they still do.
"I never wrote a book where I taught a lesson," Maurice Sendak once bragged in an interview. Fans of his lyrical, lushly illustrated picture books know Sendak has a far more important mission. Rather than instructing his young readers in proper manners, the man who's been called "the Picasso of children's books" has been a vital, expressive voice for children's feelings.
Sendak first honed his art as an illustrator for writers like Ruth Krauss and Else Holmelund Minarek. He explored different styles of drawing and painting, influenced by sources as diverse as William Blake, Randolph Caldecott and Walt Disney.
In the '50s and early '60s, Sendak began to write his own books, and to forge his own distinctive visual style. The most popular of the works produced in what he later called his "apprenticeship period" was The Nutshell Library, a collection of four tiny books (2 1/2 by 4 inches wide) that was instantly and enduringly popular.
His first mature work, Where the Wild Things Are (1963), was a watershed both in Sendak's career and the history of children's literature. It tells the story of a boy named Max, whose mother sends him to his room without supper, calling him a "wild thing." Max makes an imaginary journey to a land of monsters, where he's crowned King of All Wild Things. But his longing for comfort and security return him at last to his room, where he finds his supper waiting for him. Some adults were dismayed by the book's ferocious-looking monsters and its belligerent young hero. "It is not a book to be left where a sensitive child may come upon it at twilight," one librarian cautioned.
Despite the warnings, Where the Wild Things Are was a huge commercial success, and was awarded the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 1964. In his acceptance speech, Sendak seemed to address his critics when he said that despite adults' desires to protect children from "painful experiences," the fact is "that from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, that fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, that they continually cope with frustration as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things."
In the following years, Sendak illustrated dozens of books, and wrote and illustrated several more of his own, including In the Night Kitchen (1970) and Outside Over There (1981), which he considered to be the second and third parts of a trilogy that began with Where the Wild Things Are. A lover of theatre, he has also designed and produced numerous operas, plays and ballets.
Though his work has sometimes been controversial, Sendak is now renowned for his ability to recall, depict and transform the painful realities of childhood into what John Gardner, reviewing one of Sendak's books, called "not an ordinary children's book done extraordinarily well, but something different in kind from an ordinary children's book: a profound work of art for children."
Good To Know
In 1948, Maurice Sendak and his brother Jack took six model toys to the toy store F.A.O. Schwarz, which they hoped would commission a set. The store turned down the toys, but offered Maurice a job as a window display designer, which he took.
Sendak wroteHigglety Pigglety Pop! Or, There Must Be More to Life, in tribute to his beloved dog. The book's protagonist, like Sendak's pet, is a Sealyham terrier named Jennie. Years later, Sendak got a German shepherd, who already had a name when he adopted it. The dog was named Max, just like Sendak's most famous character.