Sendak, Maurice Bernard

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SENDAK, Maurice Bernard

(b. 10 June 1928 in New York City), prolific illustrator and author of children's books who is most noted for Where the Wild Things Are, which first startled the publishing world with its honest portrayal of childhood fears and then transformed children's publishing.

Sendak was the youngest of three children of Philip Sendak, a dressmaker, and Sarah Schindler Sendak, Polish Jews who left their home villages outside Warsaw before World War I and moved to New York City. Throughout his childhood, Sendak was influenced both by the vibrant life of New York City and by his parents' memories of Poland. From his parents, Sendak received a rather pessimistic view of life, which he struggled against, and a sense of his Jewish heritage, which later influenced his work. Sickly and overweight as a child and disrupted by his family's financial troubles and his parents' frequent moves to various locations in New York City, Sendak was lonely and isolated and hated school, but he loved drawing and decided at a young age to become an illustrator.

After graduating from high school in 1946, Sendak moved to Manhattan and found a job in the warehouse of a window display company, where he worked until 1948. In 1948 he was promoted to a different department of the company, where he was deeply unhappy because his coworkers were uncongenial. After quitting the job because of his unhappiness, Sendak moved back to his parents' home and spent his time drawing the children he saw outside the window; these sketches continued to inspire him throughout his later career. In his acceptance speech for the Caldecott Medal, which he won in 1964 for Where the Wild Things Are, he said of the sketchbooks that he kept during this time, "There is not a book I have written or a picture I have drawn that does not, in some way, owe them its existence."

During that same summer, he and his brother Jack built model toys and took them to the toy store F.A.O. Schwarz. The toys were too expensive to mass-produce, but the store's window-display director was impressed with Sendak's sense of design and hired him as an assistant window dresser. While at Schwarz he took night classes in art and met Ursula Nordstrom, who launched his career as an illustrator. Nordstrom was a children's book editor at Harper and Brothers, and she immediately offered him a contract to illustrate Marcel Ayme's The Wonderful Farm (1951). Nordstrom continued to choose works for Sendak to illustrate and carefully nurtured his career as it grew. Between 1951 and 1962 Sendak illustrated dozens of books and wrote seven. Trying different styles and techniques, he experimented and learned. Although he studied the work of many artists, his style, with its intricacy and cross-hatching, was more akin to that of nineteenth-century artists than to artists of the twentieth century; even more important than the nineteenth-century artists was the influence of the Romantic poet and engraver William Blake.

Sendak's long apprenticeship ended with the publication of Where the Wild Things Are (1963). The book stars Max, an unruly boy who is sent to bed without supper by his mother, who calls him a "Wild Thing." Max imagines that he travels to the land of the monstrous Wild Things, where he becomes king. Later, however, he returns from his fantasy to find that his mother has left his warm supper in his bedroom. The book contains numerous pen-and-ink drawings, washed with watercolors; amusingly, Sendak has commented that the frightening Wild Things resemble relatives he disliked as a child.

Where the Wild Things Are aroused a great deal of controversy among parents, teachers, and librarians, who believed that the potentially frightening depiction of the Wild Things was unsuitable for children, who should be protected. In the Journal of Nursery Education, for example, one critic wrote, "We should not like to have it left about where a sensitive child might find it to pore over in the twilight." Another critic, the well-known psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, who had not read the book, nevertheless commented that it would provoke fears of abandonment and anxiety in children when they read about Max's being sent to bed without supper. Because of this critical response, the book was initially unpopular, but soon the pleasure that it gave readers of all ages outweighed the critics' warnings, and in 1964 Sendak was awarded the Caldecott Medal.

In his acceptance speech for the Caldecott Medal, Sendak placed himself squarely against the traditional view of children and their tolerance for anxiety. He noted that "from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions," and through fantasy, "children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things." He also said that the "truth and passion" of his work came directly from his understanding of the "awful vulnerability of children and their struggle to make themselves King of all Wild Things." Despite the initial controversy surrounding it, the book was soon embraced by readers everywhere and has since sold more three million copies in English alone. It has been published in sixteen languages and has had a lasting influence on children's literature through its honest view of children and their emotions.

In 1967 Sendak's mother became ill with cancer, and in the same year Sendak himself had a heart attack while being interviewed on television in England. During his recovery he had a friend send his parents postcards from all over Europe so that they would not know that he was ill. When he returned to the United States, his beloved terrier, Jennie, fell ill and had to be put to sleep. Sendak's mother died in 1968. Before these events, Sendak had felt that he would live long and happily as long as he worked to recall his childhood as honestly as possible, but in the wake of so much illness and loss, he lost that sense of immunity.

In Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or, There Must Be More to Life (1967), Sendak immortalized Jennie, who had been his companion for fourteen years. The book tells the story of a terrier that thinks there must be more to life than having everything she wants. She undergoes various trials to gain experience and finally is chosen as the leading lady of the Mother Goose Theatre's production of the nursery rhyme "Higglety Pigglety Pop!" The book received favorable reviews and was popular with adults as well as children.

Sendak has said that his two other major books, In the Night Kitchen (1970) and Outside over There (1981), form a trilogy with Where the Wild Things Are. Although they do not have any obvious similarities, he claims that all three examine how children deal with frustration, boredom, anger, and other strong feelings. In addition to the Caldecott Medal (1964), Sendak received the Hans Christian Andersen Award (1970), the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal (1983), and the Empire State Award for excellence in literature for young people (1990).

Sendak believes that illustrators should not merely draw what is in the text but should move beyond the text and enlarge the story. His insistence on emotional honesty resulted in a profound change in children's book publishing; after the success of Where the Wild Things Are, critics began citing it as a model to be emulated. Sendak has had a lifelong commitment to helping other artists launch their careers, working with them and teaching at the Parsons School of Design in New York City. He also has worked as artistic director at the Sundance Children's Theater in Utah. According to Amy Sonheim in Maurice Sendak, Sendak said, "My great editor at Harper, Ursula Nordstrom … was able to bring me along gradually. I'd like to do that for others." Sendak resides in New York City; he has never married.

Amy Sonheim, Maurice Sendak (1991), is a detailed biography of the illustrator. A lengthy profile of Sendak appears in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 61: American Writers for Children Since 1960: Poets, Illustrators, and Nonfiction Authors (1987). Sendak's acceptance speech for the Caldecott Medal appears in his Caldecott & Co.: Notes on Books and Pictures (1988).

Kelly Winters

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Sendak, Maurice Bernard

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