Maurice Sendak
Mike Appleton/AP

Becoming Maurice Sendak: A Children’s Author Grows Up

March 22, 2012 07:00 AM
by Shannon Firth
Maurice Sendak, author of “Where the Wild Things Are,” is considered a visionary and even an activist for children. He sees himself quite differently, however.

Childhood Shapes the Man and His Work

Illness, a tragic family history, broad-minded parents and a boundless passion for experiencing and exploring the nuances of human emotion make Maurice Sendak one of this generation’s most treasured children’s authors and illustrators.

Sendak grew up in Brooklyn in the 1930s. His parents were Polish-Jewish immigrants. According to PBS’s American Masters, because he was frequently sick, much of his time was spent at home in the company of relatives. Restless in his confinement, he turned to his imagination and to drawing.
In his family, his father and brother Jack were the storytellers. “I was not the writer," he said in an interview at the Rosenbach Museum and Library. "I was the illustrator. I illustrated his [Jack’s] books.” He described Jack’s “masterpiece,” a book called, "They Are Inseparable," which told of a brother and sister that fall in love, plan to marry, then throw themselves out of a window when their parents try to stop them.

Fortunately for Sendak and his brother, their parents encouraged both boys’ creative tendencies. When asked in the museum interview what his parents thought of his brother’s book, Sendak said, “They were so proud... They didn’t say ‘What’s the matter with you? You can’t marry your sister’ ... Because it was a story.”
Sendak’s childhood was polarized by beautiful dreams and darker realities. Storytelling sessions and Disney cartoons were highlights with which he tried to balance long stretches of illness. He contracted serious cases of scarlet fever and pneumonia, and was haunted by the nightmare of having Jewish relatives killed during the Holocaust, the Rosenbach Museum explains. Sendak was also troubled by the news of the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s son in 1932. The psychological impact of these experiences can be seen in his stories.

Writing “Where the Wild Things Are”

After graduating from high school, Sendak worked at a children’s toy store while taking art classes at night. After two of the books he illustrated for other authors sold well, he quit the toy store and became a freelance illustrator. During the 1950s, he illustrated almost 50 children’s books, including the highly regarded "Little Bear."

According to American Masters, instead of “clarifying the images in the text, Sendak believed that an illustration should add to the mystery of the work. His oddly grotesque characters seemed strangely inviting in their imperfections.”

When Sendak was in his early 30s, he finally wrote his own book, “Where the Wild Things Are.” In the story, 9-year old Max is sent to his room without dinner. He is soon thrust into wondrous lands populated by grotesque monsters, called the “wild things.” 

“Initially, its graphic portrayal of the toothy wild things concerned parents, but before long it was a favorite among children,” American Masters reports.

In a 1989 video interview at Northwestern University Library, Sendak explained that he had initially titled the book “Where the Wild Horses Are” because it sounded “poetic.” Then, he explained, “[I]t became very plain that I couldn’t draw horses, nor would I ever be able to draw horses. And a whole book of horses was hopeless.”

In 1964, Sendak won the Caldecott Medal for “Wild Things.” This was followed six years later by the Hans Christian Andersen award for his career work; he is the only American illustrator to win the award. “Wild Things” has been translated into 15 languages and sold more than 2 million copies, according to American Masters.

Sendak’s Enduring Legacy

When writing “Wild Things,” “emancipating children was far from my mind,” Sendak said in a 2009 Los Angeles Times interview. He added, however, that the attention to the book gave him a reputation as “a troublesome person.”

“If I’ve done anything, I’ve had kids express themselves as they are impolitely, [and] lovingly,” he told Bill Moyers in a 2004 interview. He explained that young kids haven’t yet learned “the right way” to communicate their thoughts and emotions, and sometimes “the right way is utterly wrong.”

In the 1970s, Sendak worked as a set designer and producer for operas including Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and Prokofiev’s “Love for Three Oranges.” And in 1979, he adapted “Where the Wild Things Are” into an opera, according to American Masters. He also designed an award-winning performance of the “Nutcracker.” Yet he is still best-known and perhaps best-loved for his illustrations.

The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City explains in a profile of Sendak that the drawings from “Wild Things” best capture his legacy—“the ability to convey the innocence and imagination of a child.”

“Where the Wild Things Are” on Film

Spike Jonze directed the film version of “Where the Wild Things Are” and author David Eggers contributed as screenwriter. “A mixed reaction to the film would mirror the book's initial reception,” Los Angeles Times blogger Scott Timberg wrote.

Reviewing the film, critic Rich Heldenfels of the Akron Beacon Journal wrote, “I can see where children who feel as lonely as Max will come away from this with the realization that the filmmakers, like Sendak, understand their feelings. And that even the big, powerful, seemingly splendid Wild Things understand them, too.”

David Denby, a critic for The New Yorker, argues that the film does not live up to the book’s message. “Kids like danger, followed by a release from danger and a return to safety, yet the only danger posed by these creatures is that they will turn Max into someone as messed-up as they are.” The film version, unlike the book, Denby argues, fails to reassure children and instead has them wondering, “Why are the creatures so unhappy?”

“Tell Them Anything You Want”

In conjunction with the release of the “Wild Things” film, Jonze and Lance Bangs produced an HBO documentary, “Tell Them Anything You Want,” which further examines Sendak’s life story. The movie explores the motivations behind his work, his preoccupation with death, his struggles with his sexuality and his need to be famous.

When Jonze asked Sendak what he would miss if he were never born, Sendak's list included his close friend, Lynn; his brother and sister; his dog Jenny; and his partner, Eugene. And his books. “I did some very good books.”

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