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The Artistry and Influence of Maurice Sendak

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cover art of children's picture book Where the Wild Things Are
HarperCollins

Maurice Sendak: Who Knew?

Maurice Sendak was born on June 10, 1928, in Brooklyn, New York and died on May 8, 2012. He was the youngest of three children, each born five years apart. His Jewish family had immigrated to the United States from Poland before World War I and were to lose many of their relatives to the Holocaust during World War II.

His father was a wonderful storyteller, and Maurice grew up enjoying his father's imaginative tales and gaining a lifelong appreciation for books. Sendak's early years were influenced by his sickliness, his hatred of school, and the war. However, from an early age, he knew he wanted to be an illustrator.

While still attending high school, he became an illustrator for All-American Comics. Sendak subsequently worked as a window dresser for F.A.O. Schwartz, a well-known toy store in New York City. Who would have thought then that Maurice Sendak would go on to become one of the most influential, and controversial, creators of children's books in the twentieth century?

Maurice Sendak, Author and Illustrator of Children's Books

Happily for us, Sendak began to illustrate children's books after meeting Ursula Nordstrom, a children's book editor at Harper and Brothers. The first was The Wonderful Farm by Marcel Ayme, which was published in 1951 when Sendak was 23 years old. By the time he was 34, Sendak had written and illustrated seven books and illustrated 43 others.

A Caldecott Medal and Controversy

With the publication of Where the Wild Things Are in 1963 for which Sendak won the 1964 Caldecott Medal, Maurice Sendak's work earned both acclaim and controversy. Sendak addressed some of the complaints about the scary aspects of his book in his Caldecott Medal acceptance speech, saying,
    “Certainly, we want to protect our children from new and painful experiences that are beyond their emotional comprehension and that intensify anxiety; and to a point we can prevent premature exposure to such experiences. That is obvious. But what is just as obvious-and what is too often overlooked-is the fact that from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, that fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, that they continually cope with frustration as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things." (Source: Caldecott & Co.)
As he went on to create other popular books and characters, there seemed to be two schools of thought. Some people felt that his stories were too dark and disturbing for children. The majority view was that Sendak, through his work, had pioneered a completely new way of writing and illustrating for, and about, children.

Both Sendak's stories and some of his illustrations were subject to controversy. For example, the nude little boy in Sendak's picture book In the Night Kitchen was one of the reasons the book was 21st among the 100 most frequently challenged books of the decade 1990-1999 and 24th among the 100 most frequently challenged books of the decade 2000-2009.

Maurice Sendak’s Impact

In his book, Angels and Wild Things: The Archetypal Poetics of Maurice Sendak, John Cech, Professor of English at the University of Florida and a past president of the Children's Literature Association, wrote,
    "Indeed, without Sendak, an enormous void would exist in contemporary American (and, for that matter, international) children's books. One can only try to imagine what the landscape of children's literature would be like without Sendak's fantasies and the characters and places visited in them. These fantasies essentially broke through the relatively unperturbed surfaces of postwar American children's literature, sending his children - Rosie, Max, Mickey, Jennie, Ida - on journeys into regions of the psyche that children's books had not dared visit before."
That these journeys have been embraced by countless other children's authors and their audiences since Sendak's seminal works is apparent when you look at the children's books presently being published.

Maurice Sendak Honored

Starting with the first book he illustrated (The Wonderful Farm by Marcel Ayme) in 1951, Maurice Sendak illustrated or wrote and illustrated more than 90 books. The list of awards presented to him is too long to include in full. Sendak received the 1964 Caldecott Medal for Where the Wild Things Are and the Hans Christian Andersen International Medal in 1970 for his body of children's books. He was the recipient of the American Book Award in 1982 for Outside Over There.

In 1983, Maurice Sendak received the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for his contributions to children's literature. In 1996, Sendak was honored by the President of the United States with the National Medal of Arts. In 2003, Maurice Sendak and Austrian author Christine Noestlinger shared the first Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for Literature.

(Sources: Cech, John. Angels and Wild Things: The Archetypal Poetics of Maurice Sendak. Pennsylvania State Univ Press, 1996; Lanes, Selma G. The Art of Maurice Sendak. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1980; Sendak, Maurice. Caldecott & Co.: Notes on Books & Pictures. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988. PBS American Masters: Maurice Sendak; Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000-2009, ALA; 100 most frequently challenged books: 1990–1999, ALA; The Rosenbach Museum and Library)

More About Maurice Sendak and His Books

Margalit Fox's obituary for Maurice Sendak in The New York Times celebrates the impact of Maurice Sendak's work on the field of children's literature. Watch a video profile of Maurice Sendak. Learn about Mommy?, the delightful pop-up book that Sendak illustrated. Read brief overviews of some of Maurice Sendak's classic books. For an example of how Maurice Sendak influenced one award-winning author and illustrator of children's books, read my review of Brian Selnick's Wonderstruck.

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