Maurice Sendak began sketching scenes of children in his different Brooklyn neighborhoods at age six. In high school, he received a commission to illustrate a physics textbook and worked part-time creating background illustrations for the Mutt & Jeff comic strip. During his lifetime, he made toys, directed and produced an animated TV special, designed sets and costumes for ballet and opera companies, taught children’s literature at Yale, mentored young illustrators, and loved his canine companions.
He is the only American to win the Hans Christian Andersen Illustrator Award (the Pulitzer Prize equivalent for children’s literature).
He is, however, primarily remembered for the 80 books he illustrated in collaboration with other authors, and for the 23 books he both wrote and illustrated for children–most notably his Caldecott Medal winning story about “his truest and dearest creation,” (Max)—in Where the Wild Things Are (1963) (WTWTA).
The fantasy and themes in Sendak’s books can be traced to his Depression-era childhood as a child of Jewish-Polish immigrants. Already viewed by his parents as an extra mouth to feed he suffered from life-threatening illnesses that his parents thought he would not survive. Sendak spent much of his enforced solitude in the kitchen, either with his clinically depressed and resentful mother, or alone convalescing in his bedroom observing the world outside his window. “I was miserable as a kid. I could not make friends, I could not play stoopball terrific, I could not skate great. I stayed at home and drew pictures.” He threw his emotional survival to his imagination and sketched what he saw: children playing, fighting, laughing, shouting, pretending, competing, fantasizing, and negotiating the vagaries of childhood. “It is always amazing to me that children survive childhood, that they go on to have professional careers and run countries,” Sendak said. “I think it’s due to their tremendous courage. They have to be very brave. And that loyalty and courage and bravery is the subtext of everything I have ever written.”
Sendak’s influences came from both the Old World and the New. He heard frightening Jewish myths about dybbuks possessing him (from his mother) but he loved Mickey Mouse books, cartoons, and movies. He was dressed from head to toe in white (by his grandmother) to keep him safe so the Angel of Death would pass over him, but he internalized every detail about the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby (contributing to his lifelong obsession with death). He was told to be grateful to be alive because he had cousins who died in an Auschwitz oven, and felt certain his mother did not like him (“She should never had had children,” said Sendak) yet the Dionne quintuplets were whisked away from loving parents to be raised like princesses. His Old World family would never have accepted his being gay (he was ashamed of it, certain it would destroy his career if the public found out a gay man was writing children’s books) but in his 80th year he admitted it publicly.
His most famous book Where the Wild Things Are was originally titled Where the Wild Horses Are. However, Sendak couldn’t draw horses. The Wild Things he finally drew were based on his Jewish relatives from Europe: they didn’t speak English, couldn’t make small talk with children, they pinched his cheeks, had yellow teeth, ate up all the food, and claimed they would “gobble him up.” The book was criticized and censored as a radical departure in content from mainstream children’s books that showed idealized loving mothers and fathers. WTWTA showed Sendak’s reality: how children cope with frustration, anger, and uncontrollable circumstances. Moms do send kids to their rooms without dinner, kids do get angry and threaten their parents, children live in fantasy and reality and move back and forth between the two, and moms do forgive. “Through fantasy, Max discharges his anger against his mother and returns to the real world sleepy, hungry, and at peace with himself.” “I was not Max,” he tells Bill Moyers in an interview. “I didn’t have the courage that Max had, I didn’t have a mother who would love you like Max had.”
Death, and the prospect of it, would continue to haunt him. The same year he suffered a misdiagnosed heart attack at age 39, his beloved Sealyham Terrier Jennie had to be put down, and his mother was dying of cancer. Darkness and depression engulfed him; he was uneasy being alone and he described Death as if “it is a friend who is waiting” for him.
Sendak’s admits that his “only true happiness is when I am working. It’s sublime…where all of your weaknesses of character, and all the blemishes of personality, and whatever else torments you fades away.” “In the way a dream comes to us at night, feelings come to me, and then I must rush to put them down. But these fantasies have to be given physical form, so you build a house around them, and the house is what you call a story, and the painting of the house is the bookmaking. But essentially it’s a dream, or it’s a fantasy.”
Sendak crafted a persona for himself as brilliant, dark, and shocking; to provoke intrigue, provoke admiration, deep love, and loyalty. “The picture book is where I put down those fantasies that have been with me all my life, and where I give them a form that means something. I live inside the picture book; it’s where I fight all my battles, and where, hopefully, I win my wars.”
Adult Services Librarian
Columbus Public Library