June 10, 1928– Maurice Bernard Sendak
”There must be more to life than having everything.”
I am not certain how the tradition started, but sometime in my late teens I would give my mother a gift of a classic children’s book on her birthday. The very first one I presented her with was Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are. She had given me a copy for Christmas 1963. I traveled with my copy to Boston, LA, and NYC. I am not sure at what point it became lost, but I hope some child, or child at heart, loved having my copy.
Sendak has inspired the imagination of readers young and old for as long as I have been in my present incarnation. Prolific, he published over 100 works of fiction. Sendak received numerous awards, including the prestigious Caldecott Medal, National Book Award, the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award and, in 1996, the National Medal Of Arts.
Born in Brooklyn, to poor Jewish immigrants, Sendak’s early childhood was plagued with illness. He spent most of his time indoors where he satisfied his imagination with books. He found his perfect expression in drawing and illustration while still a kid. At 12-years-old, after seeing Walt Disney‘s Fantasia (1940), little Sendak was awestruck and he decided to become an illustrator. Sendak and Mickey Mouse were born in the same year and Sendak described Mouse as a source of joy and pleasure while growing up.
When the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped in 1932, it sent young Sendek into a personal torment: if that fair-haired, blue-eyed baby, born to wealth, could not be kept safe, what peril lay ahead for him in his little apartment in Bensonhurst? An image from the Lindbergh crime scene, a ladder leaning against the side of a house, inspired his story Outside Over There (1981) where a baby gets carried off by goblins.
“As a youngster, my gods are Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I believe in them with all my heart.”
He explained that reading Dickinson’s works helped him to remain calm in an otherwise hectic world:
”I had a little tiny Emily Dickinson volume that I carried in my pocket everywhere. I would just read three little poems. She is so brave. She is so strong. She is such a passionate little woman. She made me feel better.”
“When Mozart was playing in my room, I was in conjunction with something I can’t explain. I don’t need to. I know that if there’s a purpose for life, it was for me to hear Mozart.”
Self-taught, Sendak’s first job was creating window displays for the now shuttered F.A.O. Schwarz when he was 20-years-old. His first illustrations were for a 1947 textbook titled Atomics For Millions by Dr. Maxwell Leigh Eidinoff.
Through the F.A.O. Schwarz children’s book buyer, he was introduced to the editor of children’s books at Harper & Row Publishers, which led to Sendak’s first children’s book commission, illustrating The Wonderful Farm (1951) by Marcel Aymé.
He spent much of the 1950s working as an artist for other author’s books, before beginning to write his own stories. His first book on his won was Kenny’s Window (1956), a dark, dreamlike story about a lonely boy’s inner life.
His illustrations portray a world, both lovely and dreadful, suspended between wakefulness and dreaming. Sendak showed both the propulsive abandon and pervasive melancholy of young people’s interior lives.
His best-known book, Where The Wild Things Are, has sold over 55 million copies worldwide. In 2009, it was adapted into a critically acclaimed film directed by the delightfully creative Spike Jonze. Sendak said in an interview that parents could ”go to hell” if they felt the film version of Where The Wild Things Are was too scary for the kiddies. Jonze also directed the HBO documentary Tell Them Anything You Want,(2009) about Sendak.
Sendak’s work has always generated controversy. In The Night Kitchen (1970) features a young boy prancing around naked around his house. It has been censored in many states. It remains on the American Library Association‘s list of frequently challenged books. It was listed Number Ten on their 100 Most Banned Books of 2017. If I was a kid, this information would drive me to be reading that book for sure.
Where The Wild Things Are has been condemned by those crazy Christian Conservatives who claim the book is about witchcraft and supernatural elements. Sendak:
“I thought my career was over, but the kids saved me. They loved the books because they are not afraid of life.”
In addition to writing and illustrating, Sendak created award-winning set designs for dance, opera and theater, including his beloved Mozart’s The Magic Flute (not to be confused with Magic Mike 2), Sergei Prokofiev‘s The Love For Three Oranges. Leos Janacek‘s Cunning Little Vixen (not feckless) for NYC Opera.
He designed Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky‘s The Nutcracker for Pacific Northwest Ballet and its film version in 1986. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the sets for that Christmas favorite were stored just three blocks from my cottage in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle. I would see stacks of huge toy soldiers and rats leaning against an outdoor wall of an industrial building on my dog walks.
Before his passing in Spring 2012, Sendak donated nearly 10,000 works of art, photographs, manuscripts and books to the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia. They now live at the Maurice Sendak Foundation, a new museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut.
Sendak had not published a new book in 30 years, but in 2011, his Bumblee-Ardy, the story of a pig party was published, again based on an incident in my real life.
Sendak was an atheist and in 2011 he told a reporter at NPR:
“Religion and belief in God may have made life much easier for some religious people, but harder for us non-believers.”
His lifelong melancholia always showed in his work. We Are All In The Dumps With Jack And Guy (1993) is a parable about homeless children in the age of HIV/AIDS.
My own favorite is Higglety-Pigglety Pop! (1967), a tribute to his dearly departed Sealyham terrier, Jennie, an odd little tale about a canine who is not content with having everything but must go out in the world to find something she doesn’t have. It is dreamy, dark story, illustrated in Sendak’s special pen-and-ink style, that tells of a gluttonous dog’s transformation from someone who cares only about her next sandwich to one who would risk her life for a weaker being… while still wondering where that next sandwich is coming from.
The most remarkable part of his story is that Sendak came out of the closet at 80-years-old. He hid his gayness from the public fearing it would ruin his career. Sendak:
”All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew.”
In a terrific 2008 interview with the failing NY Times, Sendak opened up about his private life, revealing his 50+ year romance with psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn, who passed away in 2007. They lived separately, with Glynn in the city and Sendak in his 19th century white clapboard home in the Connecticut countryside with Mozart, Melville, Mickey Mouse, and his much-loved dogs and an assistant as his companions.
Sendak celebrates his 90th birthday today. He now lives where the wild things are:
”I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more.”