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date: 22 September 2018

SENDAK, Maurice

The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature

Daniel Hahn

SENDAK, Maurice (Bernard) (1928–2012) Outstanding American illustrator and creator 

of several classic picture books who was born in Brooklyn, New York. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland—the name Sendak means ‘godfather’ or ‘sponsor’ in Hebrew—and he was brought up on tales from the Old Testament and Jewish folklore told to him by his father. He was also enthralled by Mickey Mouse (who was created in the year of his birth), by American comics, and by the bright lights of Manhattan where his father worked as a dressmaker. The family was not well-off; Maurice’s childhood fell during the years of the Depression and the Sendaks moved from house to house in Brooklyn as their resources dictated.

For his first six years Sendak was a sickly child, and spent much of his time in bed. His favourite reading included Pinocchio and Toby Tyler. He attended Lafayette High School, but hated formal education—though his talent for drawing was encouraged there and he drew a comic strip for the school magazine. On leaving school he worked in a number of jobs in New York City, chiefly window-dressing; in the meanwhile he painted and sketched. While working on window-displays at the Fifth Avenue toy store F. A. O. Schwarz, he browsed in their children’s book department and encountered the work of great illustrators. Of these it was Randolph Caldecott whom he most admired, and his own picture books, though they have little in common with Caldecott’s style, emulate Caldecott’s use of just a few words to inspire a wealth of pictorial detail.

The book buyer at Schwarz, noticing Sendak’s interest in illustration, introduced him to the children’s book editor at Harper and Brothers, Ursula Nordstrom. She commissioned him to illustrate The Wonderful Farm (1951) by Marcel Aymé. This was the beginning of a fruitful professional relationship between Nordstrom and Sendak; over the next decade she gave him a steady stream of work, taking care to find texts that especially suited him, and virtually shaping his career.

His first major success was A Hole Is to Dig (1952), a book in which Ruth Krauss collected children’s definitions of words (‘Dogs are to kiss people’, ‘The world is so you have something to stand on’, and so on). For this he produced a series of pictures of small children which were both humorous and unsentimental. Charlotte and the White Horse (1955), again by Krauss, was Sendak’s first book in full colour, and shows something of his fondness for the drawings of Blake. Much of his best work during this early, busy period—he illustrated more than forty books between 1951 and 1962—is to be found in the Little Bear readers by Else Minarik.

In these apprentice years, while American illustrators in general were beginning to favour abstract and other non-realist styles, Sendak’s work became more and more firmly tied to European 18th- and 19th-cent. traditions, with careful line work and cross-hatching (suggesting wood engraving) and restrained wash colours. The results recall, at different times, the work of such diverse artists as Dürer, Bewick, Hogarth, Rowlandson, and Cruikshank.

At the same time he began to develop a special talent as a portrayer of child faces. Early critics of his work sometimes objected that his children looked too European; later observers have remarked that they generally resemble the artist himself. Sendak says of this: ‘Yes, they’re all a kind of caricature of me. They look as if they’ve been hit on the head and hit so hard they weren’t ever going to grow any more.’ He also explains that an obsession with childhood lies at the heart of his work:

You see, I don’t really believe that the kid I was has grown up into me. He still exists somewhere, in the most graphic, plastic, physical way for me. I have a tremendous concern for, and interest in, him. I try to communicate with him all the time. One of my worst fears is losing contact.

The theme of his mature work, the child’s mixture of fear and exhilaration as it explores its own fantasy world and relates it to reality, is clearly stated, but developed in muddled fashion, in the first picture book for which Sendak wrote his own text, Kenny’s Window (1956), the story of a boy trying to achieve a number of impossible tasks he has been set in a dream. In Very Far Away (1957), a boy retreats from his jealousy of a new baby by going to a place ‘very far away’ (in fact just around the block) where he can live a fantasy life before returning home. The Sign on Rosie’s Door (1958) came closer to realizing Sendak’s private vision of the world, in a tale about a Brooklyn girl (whom Sendak had observed from his window) entertaining her friends on a long, dull summer’s day by putting on a show. (Sendak later adapted this for television, as Really Rosie, 1975.) Then in 1962 came The Nutshell Library (four small books for the youngest readers), Alligators All Around (an ABC Book), One Was Johnny (a counting book), Pierre (a cautionary tale), and Chicken Soup with Rice (a story based on the months of the year). These show Sendak at the height of his powers as a comic illustrator.

The next year, 1963, appeared the book that made Sendak’s name internationally, Where The Wild Things Are. It is generally regarded as unequalled in its exploration of a child’s fantasy world and its relation to his real life. The book had huge sales, giving Sendak financial security.

His subsequent work included illustrations to work by Randall Jarrell, George MacDonald, and a selection of tales from Grimm (The Juniper Tree, 1973) for which Sendak travelled through Europe to visit landscapes associated with the stories. Meanwhile he continued to produce his own picture books. Hector Protector and As I Went Over the Water (1965) is a visual interpretation of two nonsensical nursery rhymes—Sendak makes a strikingly comic story out of the first—which was intended as a homage to Caldecott. Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life (1967), suggested by a rhyme by S. G. Goodrich, is the story of a dog named Jennie (in fact Sendak’s own beloved Sealyham terrier) who leaves home in search of excitement and becomes a performer in the World Mother Goose Theatre. Next came In The Night Kitchen (1970), a further exploration of a boy’s fantasy world, this time closely based on Sendak’s childhood memories of New York life. After two slight pieces, Seven Little Monsters (based on drawings done by Sendak for Sesame Street) and Some Swell Pup, both published in 1976, appeared Outside Over There (1981), the third book in what Sendak now regarded as a trilogy on the subject of make-believe. Darker in subject matter than Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen, it was published on both adult and children’s book lists, and showed a marked change in illustrative style, entirely away from the comic-strip manner that was always partly evident in the other two.

Sendak’s life and work are fully recorded in two volumes of The Art of Maurice Sendak, the first (1980) by Selma G. Lanes, the second (2003) with text by Tony Kushner.

Sendak was one of only a handful of writers or illustrators to win both the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (2003) and the Hans Christian Andersen Award (1970). Quite apart from his outstanding draughtsmanship and mastery of styles, Sendak’s exploration of the realms of the unconscious in Where the Wild Things Are and its successors lifts his work beyond the confines of the typical children’s picture book, and places it among major art of the 20th cent.