I don’t know what children are like,” says Maurice Sendak, internationally acclaimed illustrator and/or author of no less than 76 books for children. “In all truth, I find many of them as boring as their parents. I never started out to write for children. I happen to write books that are more appropriate for them, at least on the surface.”
Such modest disclaimers aside, Sendak, 47, has been feeding the imagination of the young for over two decades with such classics as Nutshell Library, Higglety Pigglety Pop!, The Sign on Rosie’s Door, Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen. Wild Things won the Caldecott Medal in 1964. In 1970 Sendak became the first and only American illustrator to win the coveted Hans Christian Andersen Award.
He receives fan mail just like a television star, but instead of asking for his picture or autograph, his young readers have more serious requests. “Where do the wild things live?” they want to know. “Can I go there? Where is the Night Kitchen? Can I live there?”
The exotic Sendak landscapes pour from a fertile imagination; the characters in his books seem to have come from the mirror.
“One of the greatest tragedies of my life,” says Sendak with a grin, “is that wherever I go someone always says, ‘Oh, you look just like Mickey, Max and Pierre.’ So I know what I look like. I don’t try to draw myself, but apparently the cliché is true—all artists do.”
Mickey, Max, Pierre and the other willful little boys created by Sendak have been described by some adult critics as obnoxious or faintly repulsive—un-American types. Sendak has never pretended that the eccentric youngsters in his stories are models of behavior. Many of his tales deal with eating—children gorging themselves or being devoured by monsters. “This, of course, is me,” says Sendak, who was a chubby youngster. “Obviously there is something wrong with me. But we all have this animalistic quality. The fun of the drawings is to express that in some allegorical way.”
The artist-writer’s work is original in form as well as content. Why not make tiny books for tiny people? he asked himself. And so in 1962 Sendak created Pierre (Pierre’s reaction to everything: “I don’t care.”) and three other stories for the four-volume Nutshell Library in a 2½-by-4-inch box. Where the Wild Things Are is about a boy named Max and his nightmare about adventures in a menacing forest. When it was published in 1963, critics thought it might frighten children. Not so, says Dr. Jack Feder, a clinical psychologist in New York City who is himself a great admirer of Sendak’s books. “When Max tames the wild things, he is also taming his own aggressive feelings. The story gives a child license to act out these feelings in fantasy.” Then came the brouhaha over Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen because Mickey loses his pajamas as he falls into a huge kitchen in his dream. Sendak’s explanation is simple. Mickey “is having a primitive and extraordinarily personal experience. Anything between him and that experience would be an intrusion. You expose yourself to experience. To use it in the most vulgar sense, an exposure means taking your clothes off. I didn’t do it to shock librarians or to get people all upset. How could a little boy’s genitals get people upset? It’s mind-boggling.”
Sendak, a bachelor, has firm ideas about children’s feelings. “They think about sex. They think about eating. They think about going to the bathroom. They think about dying. In a word, they think about everything we think about—but maybe more obsessively because they don’t know the answers to anything.” Ursula Nordstrom, who is his editor at Harper & Row, believes Sendak is so successful because “Maurice has retained a direct line to his own childhood.”
The youngest of three children, Sendak grew up in Brooklyn. Both his parents had migrated to the U.S. from Poland before World War I. His father, a garment worker, was also a master storyteller. Nightly the children—Natalie, Jack and Maurice—would gather to hear their father’s elaborate tales of small-town life in Poland.
His mother introduced Maurice to the movies, and the two of them would go every Friday to collect the plates given away to ticket holders. But it was his sister who took him to see his first Walt Disney feature—Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at Radio City Music Hall. Maurice hoped someday to work for the famous animator but never did.
“I grew up with a great sense of impermanence. We moved very frequently,” says Sendak of his early years in New York. “Whenever I began to make friends, I’d change schools.” What remained constant was his closeness to his brother, Jack, who is five years older. An electronics engineer by profession, Jack has written two children’s books that Sendak illustrated.
By the time he had reached his teens, Maurice was a loner who spent hours at his window sketching. “I remember one particular block. There was nobody to know. The only thing that made it bearable was Rosie and my transference to her life.” He watched Rosie, a 9-year-old neighbor at play, drew her and literally copied dialogue as Rosie played with her friends. The drawings he did as a 16-year-old later produced Sendak’s one major heroine—the highly imaginative Rosie in The Sign on Rosie’s Door. Sendak again went back to his sketchbooks of Rosie for his 1975 television special, Really Rosie: Starring the Nutshell Kids. The show, with music by Carole King, will be rebroadcast this season, and a Harper & Row book version of the TV special has just been published. Sendak hopes that the original Rosie, who now must be 40, will recognize herself and get in touch with him.
While he studied art at Lafayette High School, Maurice was more interested in his after-school and weekend job at All American Comics. There he turned Mutt and Jeff newspaper strips into comic books. After graduation in 1946, Sendak worked at a window-display company constructing pâpier-maché models of such fairy-tale characters as Snow White and the dwarfs. Two years later, Sendak quit and set up a workshop with his brother to build animated wooden toys. When he took them to F.A.O. Schwarz, the toy store, he was hired for its display department. At night he studied at the Art Students League with artist John Groth. But Sendak’s major artistic influences are the English and German illustrators of the 18th and 19th centuries—particularly poet-artist William Blake. “I couldn’t even tell you why, except for his attitude towards his own childhood and children and the role children played in his imagery,” says Sendak.
A visit to Maurice Sendak’s home in Ridgefield, Conn, would be a special treat for any child. (He also keeps an apartment in Manhattan.) The rambling house is filled with antique toys, Walt Disney memorabilia and a variety of Sendak characters. Mickey of the Night Kitchen rests on the face of a needlepoint pillow; the fat baker hangs jauntily from a mobile; a “wild thing” guards the living room fireplace. His childhood admiration of Disney is evident; Mickey Mouse is everywhere, even on the kitchen night-light.
Sendak shares this kiddie wonderland with three huge dogs—lo, a golden retriever, and Erda and her son, Aggie, German shepherds. “You are my children,” he tells them as they rough-house on the living room rug.
Despite the whimsy, Sendak’s house is a serious place for creativity. All work and no play makes Sendak a very happy man. “I am a work machine,” he says. “When I’m working I’m socializing. I’m living. I’m breathing. I’m content. I’m on top of the world.”
His day begins at 9, and he’s at the drawing table by 10. The music of Mahler or Mozart fills his studio. He walks his dogs a mile at 11 and again at 3. At 12 o’clock he has lunch, during which he watches his favorite TV soap operas: The Young and the Restless and Search for Tomorrow. He naps from 5 to 6 because of a heart attack he suffered in 1967. Then it’s work, work into the night. By 11 p.m. he’s finally ready to relax, which means reading or watching old movies or his new favorite, Mary Hartman! Mary Hartman! on TV.
Almost as much as working, Sendak enjoys talking about it. Since he rarely sees other illustrators, he teaches at Parsons School of Design in New York City to keep in touch. “It’s a way of talking shop, and you have a captive audience. There’s also the vanity pleasure of giving young people the wisdom of your years.”
These days Sendak is juggling four projects. The drawings for Some Swell Pup, to be published in April by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (which brings out only the work he collaborates on), are in first proof, awaiting color corrections. The story is about two maniacal children who get a puppy and nearly kill it before a guru shows them the tragedy of their ways. The book, written in collaboration with dog trainer Matthew Margolis, grew out of Sendak’s efforts to train his own pets. “I hope it will save a lot of puppies’ lives,” says Sendak.
He is about to start sketching for Fly by Night, a Randall Jarrell story being published posthumously. He is illustrating a record jacket for Mahler’s Third Symphony. “One of the first jobs I ever did was a record jacket. Happily, I’m getting another chance.” And then there’s his Mozart project—in the germinating stage. Having read extensively about the composer, Sendak listens to the music and makes sketches of his fantasies. “Right now it’s just drawings. Whether it will be anything other than that, I don’t know,” says Sendak. Except for projects already underway, Sendak insists his collaborating days are over. “I want to make sure I get everything out of my head before I kick the bucket.”
Sendak has always refused to sell his original drawings. Instead, in 1968 he donated all his work to the Rosenbach Foundation Museum in Philadelphia. It in turn has arranged one-man shows of his drawings around this country and in Europe. In Oxford last December, where his exhibit was on view at the Ashmolean Museum, Sendak discovered to his delight that in Europe at least he is considered a serious artist. “I’m not just Maurice Sendak, kiddie book artist,” he says.
Michael de Capua, Sendak’s editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, says, “Looking over Sendak’s shoulder, watching a book of his develop, is the next best thing to being a great artist yourself. By ‘great’ I mean someone whose work will be admired just as much in a hundred years as it is now.” Sendak has an utterly original view of the world and of himself. His success with children—and as an artist—stems from that. “To be a baby is to be all,” says Sendak. “The world belongs to babies. They don’t know anyone else is in it. It’s them and someone who comes to feed them. It’s probably the best time of our lives until we realize we have to share it with a daddy, a brother and a sister and a cat and a dog and a house and a street and a world and America and England. And it keeps stretching out and out and out. That’s what growing up is all about. A compromise all the way.”