Maurice Bernard Sendak, an award winning writer and illustrator was born on June 10, 1928 in Brooklyn, New York to Philip Sendak and Sadie Schindler, Polish immigrants from small Jewish villages outside Warsaw who came to the United States before World War I. Sendak, the youngest child, along with his sister Natalie, and brother Jack grew up in a poor section of Brooklyn.
Sendak was sickly in his early years. He suffered from measles, double pneumonia, and scarlet fever between the ages of two and four and was barely allowed outside to play. He spent a great deal of his childhood at home. To pass the time, he drew pictures and read comic books. His father was a wonderful storyteller, and Maurice grew up enjoying his father’s imaginative tales and gaining a lifelong appreciation for books.
His sister gave him his first book, Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. As a young adult, he liked great adventure stories such as Typee and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Other favorites were Bret Harte’s short story, The Luck of Roaring Camp and Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses.
Young Sendak didn’t like school much. He was obese, sometimes stammered and wasn’t good at sports but excelled in his art classes. At home, he and his brother Jack made up their own storybooks by combining newspaper photographs or comic strip segments with drawings they made of family members. Maurice and his brother both inherited their father’s storytelling gift.
At age twelve, Sendak with his family saw Walt Disney’s Fantasia, which had influenced him to become a cartoonist. They also went to the local movie houses and occasionally his older sister would take him to Manhattan to see movies at the Roxy or Radio City Music Hall. The 1930s films, including Busby Berkeley musicals and Laurel and Hardy comedies, had a profound influence on some of his illustrations.
The World War II influenced Sendak’s view of the world as a dark and frightening place. His relatives died in the Holocaust; Natalie’s fiancé was killed and Jack was stationed in the Pacific. Sendak spent the war years in high school, working on the school yearbook, literary magazine, and newspaper. While still in high school, he began his work as illustrator for All-American Comics, drawing background details for the Mutt and Jeff comic strip. At nineteen, he illustrated for his high school biology teacher’s book, Atomics for the Millions published in 1947.
In 1948, Sendak and his brother Jack, created models for six wooden mechanical toys in the style of German eighteenth-century lever-operated toys. He did the painting and carving, Jack engineered the toys, and Natalie sewed the costumes. The boys took the models to the F.A.O. Schwartz, a famous toy store in New York, where the prototypes were admired. They got turned down because the toys were considered too expensive to produce but the window-display director was impressed with Sendak’s talent and hired him as a window dresser.
He continued working there for four years while taking night classes at the New York Art Student’s League. He took classes in oil painting, life drawing, and composition. He also spent time in the children’s book department studying the great nineteenth-century illustrators such as George Cruikshank, Walter Crane, and Randolph Caldecott as well as the new postwar European illustrators, Hans Fischer, Felix Hoffmann, and Alois Carigiet.
While at Schwartz, Sendak met Ursula Nordstrom, the children’s book editor at Harper and Brothers. He was offered to illustrate his first book, Marcel Ayme’s The Wonderful Farm (1951) that he did when he was twenty-three. Nordstrom arranged Sendak’s first great success as the illustrator for. Ruth Krauss’s award winning A Hole Is to Dig (1952). Sendak quit his full time job at Schwartz,
move into an apartment in Greenwich Village, and become a freelance illustrator.
By the early 1960s, Sendak had become one of the most expressive and interesting illustrators in
the business. The publication of his book, Where the Wild Things are in 1963 brought him international
acclaim and a place among the world’s great illustrators, though the book’s portrayals of fanged monsters
concerned critics saying that the book was too scary for sensitive children.
Just as Sendak was gaining success, tragedy struck. In 1967, he learned that his mother had developed cancer, he suffered a major coronary attack, and his beloved dog Jenny died. In spite of his troubles, he completed In the Night Kitchen in 1970, which generated more controversy for presenting pictures of a young boy innocently prancing naked through the story. This book regularly appears on the American Library Association’s list of frequently challenged and banned books.
Twenty years later, with We’re all in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993), Sendak delivered another jolt. This time the troubling storyline revolved around a kidnapped black baby and two white homeless men. Some critics argued that the illustrations were nightmarish and too strong. Some people felt that his stories were too dark and disturbing for children. But the majority view was that Sendak, through his work, had pioneered a completely new way of writing and illustrating for, and about, children.
Over the years he has produced a number of beloved classics, both as a writer and as an illustrator. His works also cover a broad range, not only in subject matter, but also in style and tone, from nursery rhyme stories, like Hector The Protector and As I Went Over The Water, to concept books, like Alligators All Around Us and the marvelous Chicken Soup With Rice. As an illustrator, his projects have included Else Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear, the Newbery winners Wheel on the School and The House of Sixty Fathers with Meindert DeJong, and illustrations of works by Herman Melville (Pierre) and George MacDonald (Light Princess and Golden Key).
In 1980, Sendak began to develop productions of opera and ballet for stage and television. He produced an animated TV production based on his work entitled Really Rosie, featuring Carole King, which was broadcast in 1975. He also designs sets and costumes, and even writes librettos. He was invited to design the sets and costumes for the Houston Grand Opera’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. This began a long collaboration, which included several works such as Sergei Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges and Leos Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen, Los Angeles County Music Center’s 1990 production of Mozart’s Idomeneo, the award-winning Pacific Northwest Ballet production of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and Humperdinck’s Hansel And Gretel.
In the 1990’s, Sendak approached playwright Tony Kushner to write a new English version of the Czech composer Hans Krása’s children’s opera “Brundibar”. Kushner wrote the text for Sendak’s illustrated book of the same name, published in 2003. The book was named one of the New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Illustrated Books of that year. In 2003, Chicago Opera Theatre produced Sendak and Kushner’s adaptation of Brundibar. In 2005 Berkeley Reparatory Theatre, in collaboration with Yale Reparatory Theater and Broadway’s New Victory Theater, produced a substantially reworked version of the Sendak-Kushner adaptation.
Sendak, who’s been called “the Picasso of children’s books”, has illustrated or written and illustrated over 90 books since 1951 and have garnered so many awards. He 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 book illustration. He was the recipient of the American Book Award in 1982 for Outside Over There. He also received in 1983 the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for his contributions to children’s literature. In 1996, President Bill Clinton honored Sendak with the National Medal of Arts. In 2003, Maurice Sendak and Austrian author Christine Noestlinger shared the first Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for Literature given by the Swedish government.
Sendak, now seventy-eight, has been a major force in the evolution of children’s literature. He is considered by many critics and scholars to be the first artist to deal openly with the emotions of children in his drawings both in books and on the stage, in his opera and ballet sets and costumes. This ability
to accurately depict raw emotion is what makes him so appealing to children.
Kennedy, E. The Artistry and Influence of Maurice Sendak. Your Guide to Children’s Books. Retrieved
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Maurice Sendak. Encyclopedia Britannica (2006). Retrieved September 29, 2006, from Britannica Concise
Maurice Sendak. Encyclopedia of World Biography (2005). Retrieved September 25, 2006, from
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