Maurice Sendak, the legendary children’s book author and illustrator who perfected the art of describing the anxiety and darkness that often accompany childhood, died Tuesday morning in Danbury, Conn.
Sendak’s publisher says the 83-year-old Ridgefield writer died of complications from a recent stroke.
Since the early 1960s, Sendak classics like “Where the Wild Things Are” have stirred the imaginations of young children, whose eyes go wide as the monsters in that distant place “roar their terrible roars and gnash their terrible teeth.”
Memories like that compelled me to seek out Sendak for one of the first interviews I ever conducted as a journalist.
That was 20 years ago. And at the time, the then 62-year-old author had written and illustrated 20 children’s books of his own and illustrated another 60. He’d also recently been awarded the first Empire State Award for Excellence in Literature for Young People, an award presented by the Youth Services section of the New York Library Association.
“I’ve never claimed to know what children like,” Sendak said as we sat down to talk in his Connecticut home. “I seem to know, but that’s through instinct more than anything else.”
As both our conversation and his books attest, it was an instinct expressed more through art than through prose. “Where The Wild Things Are,” arguably his most famous book, originally published in 1964, consists of only 385 words. The pictures, on the other hand, reveal volumes about the artist’s sensitivity to the idyllic and not-so-idyllic in childhood.
Though Sendak said he preferred illustrating his own words, he explained what brought him to work on other author’s books.
“I’m a slow writer, so at least in the old days, in between my books – waiting for them to cook, if you will, I illustrated other’s books just to keep working,” he said.
“These days,” Sendak continued, “I’m a stage designer, for operas and ballets, so I don’t do it as much. [Now] when one of my books gestates, I’ll just stop whatever else I’m doing and do it.”
Either way, his process is pretty much the same, the illustrator said.
“You listen to what the book is – hopefully you don’t have a style to begin with, because that’s lethal – you respond, as an artist, according to what the book’s needs are,” Sendak explained.
“It really is instinctual,” he said. “I don’t pre-decide anything. It’s a question of tuning in, catching the sounds of the book, so that I’m translating graphically. That’s difficult, but that’s the fun of it.”
What winds up rendered on paper, usually in tempera paint, pencil, black ink or a mixture of all three, can best be described as the extraordinary distilled from the ordinary. In fact many of the imaginative leaps in Sendak’s books stem from his own experiences and thoughts as a child growing up in the Brooklyn, N.Y., of the 1930s and ’40s.
“I wasn’t your normal outdoorsy kid,” Sendak explained. “I spent my time reading, was not very athletic, and my father was very upset. He thought I should be out playing ball with the other kids.”
Instead, Sendak sketched those kids from his bedroom window. Some later found a kind of anonymous immortality as characters in his books. He also found solace in the movies of the day. (Continued…)
“Laurel and Hardy, Mickey Mouse, Busby Berkeley, King Kong, you name it,” he recalled. “Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers…”
And, it turns out, Walt Disney in particular.
“As a little boy growing up I wanted to be an animator before I knew I had any artistic talent,” Sendak said. “[Disney]’s still the best, I think. The liveliness of the graphics of the Mickey Mouse cartoons, they were tremendous. You can imagine, seeing them for the first time, how startling it was.”
And yet, the inspiration for many of his own books was right at hand.
For “Where The Wild Things Are,” Sendak based the personalities of the monsters on relatives who visited his parent’s home every Sunday and seemed perpetually ready to eat his family out of house and home.
That title won the prestigious Caldecott Award, named for a man considered to be the greatest illustrator of Victorian England.
For Rosie, the heroine of “Really Rosie,” Sendak turned to the still-vivid memory of a girl who lived across the alley from his childhood home. Though both books are based on life, Sendak says he doesn’t work autobiographically – at least not purposely so.
“I think if I do it at all, I do it unconsciously,” he said. “Mostly, people are transformed inwardly. In Rosie’s case, I knew I loved her, and she’s the only example of a conscious creation in my work.”
“In The Night Kitchen” is based on an advertisement Sendak remembered from long ago for the Sunshine Bakers. Their motto was “We Bake While You Sleep.” The book’s cityscape backdrop, on closer inspection, turns out to be packages and cartoons for everything from soup to nuts to soda crackers.
“The mundane is what intrigued me as child,” Sendak said. “But as a child I didn’t know it was mundane. So in writing “In The Night Kitchen,” I tried to treat it with the same respect and sense of beauty I felt for it as a child. I didn’t condemn [that packaging] as advertising, because I didn’t know what it was.
“And I think all the things in my books mostly do come from memories of my childhood, where I didn’t judge them. I didn’t know,” he continued. “That’s why, when people talk about how bad television is, or comic books are – yes, probably, maybe – but since they fed me tremendously as an artist, I have trouble condemning them.
“Even crappy forms, because kids don’t know they’re crappy forms,” Sendak said. “There’s something to take from there and store, and I’ve been able to use those things as a resource. So I’m not about to knock it.”
Winsor McKay, the early 20th century American cartoonist whom Sendak names as a great influence, makes an appearance in “In The Night Kitchen.”
“Oh, I was tremendously influenced by him,” Sendak said. “In fact I included his name in that book because I ripped him off – never rip off without giving credit.”
Sendak also shared his insights on the distinction some make between fine art and illustration.
“I remember there was an article about [the painter] Andrew Wyeth and the heading was: ‘Andrew Wyeth: A Painter or a Mere Illustrator?’ That said it all,” Sendak said. “There is that snob distinction, which is terrible because there is no difference between the two except for the variables of the particular talent you are discussing.”
“I think there have been more great illustrators – and I say this cautiously – than there have been fine art painters in America, with somebody like Winslow Homer being one of the rare examples of someone having bridged both. And then there’s someone like Van Gogh, who collected magazine and book illustrations because he adored them and developed motifs from them into paintings.”
“There are commercial illustrators,” Sendak said. “I would say even Norman Rockwell was, but even that is not a negative. He made his living from it and, whether you like him or not, technically he was superb. I’m not that kind of illustrator, but I also make my living from it. And I dare say painters, could they, would like to make their living from it, too.”
“I’m a children’s book illustrator because that’s what publishing houses call me,” he said. “I don’t call myself that. My books have things in them which seem to be inappropriate for adults: talking pigs and little boys bathing in milk bowls naked. So they call that a children’s book. Well, OK, that can call it whatever they want to call it – as long as it gets published.”
Sendak’s disdain for traditional education matched the passion he had for his work.
“I just don’t think certain people should be subjected to the school system,” he said. “It kills them emotionally, artistically – sometimes even physically. Now, I went back on that when I gave a class – actually a workshop – but while it was scholastic, it was divorced from a school curriculum of any kind.”
Like his own creations, Sendak’s publishing success was the stuff of dreams.
“I didn’t think I could [make it], I just hoped I could,” Sendak said. “I had a brother who was artistic, but neither of my parents were. If I hadn’t been successful at this, I suppose I would’ve been a bag man at Grand Central station.”