My son Nicholas, three and a half, was jumping up and down on his bed.
“I want to wash your hands,” my wife said.
“I don’t care,” Nicholas replied.
“Lunch is ready.”
“I don’t care.”
“It will get cold.”
“I don’t care.”
The leaping continued. Then my wife asked, “Who are you?”
“Pierre!” Nicholas announced. The next jump was the most ambitious yet, and Nicholas fell off the bed. As he rubbed his knee, my wife asked, “Are you hurt?” In a much softer voice, he replied, “Yes, Mother Bear.” Mother Bear is a large, comfortable source of reassurance in “Little Bear,” a series of four books written by Else Holmelund Minarik and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. The Pierre whom Nicholas had been emulating is the hero of a book called “Pierre,” which is part of the four-volume “Nutshell Library,” written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak; Pierre, even after he is swallowed by a famished lion, will say only “I don’t care.” On top of a chest of drawers next to Nicholas’s bed is a large picture of a dancing creature with horns, sharp teeth, yellow eyes, and a scaly body. He is a wild thing—an inhabitant of “Where the Wild Things Are,” a book written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Some reviewers of children’s books have asserted that the wild things are frightening, but Nicholas finds them quite funny.
My son’s familiarity with Maurice Sendak’s creations is shared by a sizable and constantly growing number of American children under eight. As a writer, as an illustrator, and as both, Sendak has been associated with a number of successful children’s books of the past decade. In addition to the “Little Bear” series, the “Nutshell Library,” and “Where the Wild Things Are,” there have been “A Hole Is to Dig,” written by Ruth Krauss, “The BatPoet” and “The Animal Family,” both written by the late Randall Jarrell, “Lullabies and Night Songs,” with music by Alec Wilder, and “Hector Protector.” More than fifty other children’s books contain illustrations by Sendak, and more than half a dozen have texts by him; many of them sell well enough to keep Sendak surprised by his affluence.
Sendak has trouble believing in his commercial success largely because his creations are so much at variance with the sort of thing that usually sells well in his field. Far too many contemporary picture books for the young are still populated by children who eat everything on their plates, go dutifully to bed at the proper hour, and learn all sorts of useful facts or moral lessons by the time the book comes to an end. The illustrations are usually decorative rather than imaginative, and any fantasy that may be encountered either corresponds to the fulfillment of adult wishes or is carefully curbed lest it frighten the child. Many of these books, homogenized and characterless, look and read as if they had been put together by a computer. Sendak’s work, on the other hand, is unmistakably identifiable as his. He will not illustrate to order, increasingly depending on himself as the writer, and, when he illustrates the texts of others, choosing only those that seem real to him. “Maurice is not an artist who just does an occasional book for children because there’s money in it or because he thinks it will give him an easy change of pace,” Sendak’s editor, Ursula Nordstrom, who is director of the children’s book department of Harper & Row, has said. “Children’s books are all he does and all he wants to do. His books are full of emotion, of vitality. When one of his lines for a drawing is blown up, you find that it’s not a precise straight line. It’s rough with ridges, because so much emotion has gone into it. Too many of us—and I mean editors along with illustrators and writers of children’s books—are afraid of emotion. We keep forgetting that children are new and we are not. But somehow Maurice has retained a direct line to his own childhood.” Sendak, moreover, does not subscribe to the credo that childhood is a time of innocence—a point of view that, as it is usually interpreted, results in tales and pictures soothing to parents but unreal to the children. The young in Sendak’s books—particularly the books he writes himself—are sometimes troubled and lonely, they slip easily into and out of fantasies, and occasionally they are unruly and stubborn. Nor are they the bright, handsome boys and softly pretty little girls who are so numerous in so many picture books for children. The Sendak boys and girls tend to appear truncated, having oversized heads, short arms, and quite short legs.
In the past few years, I have become increasingly interested in Sendak’s work, reading his books for my own pleasure as well as for the amusement of my children. His drawings, I have found, are oddly compelling. Intensely, almost palpably alive, they seem to move on the page and, later, in memory. This quality is pervasive in “Where the Wild Things Are,” the story of a boy named Max who assumes a demonic face and puts on a wolf suit one night and makes mischief. His mother calls him a “wild thing!” and Max answers, “i’ll eat you up!” He is sent to bed without his supper. Standing in his room, Max watches a forest grow until it becomes the world. An ocean tumbles by with a boat in it for Max, and he sails to where the wild things are. The wild things—a colony of monsters—try to frighten Max, but, frowning fiercely, he commands them to be still. Cowed, they make Max King of the Wild Things. Then, at Max’s order, a rumpus begins—six wordless pages of howling, dancing, tree-climbing, and parading by Max and the wild things. Max presently stops the revels, though, and sends the wild things to bed without their supper, and then, feeling lonely, gives up his crown. The wild things so hate to see Max leave that they try to scare him into staying, but he is not intimidated, and he sails back to his room, where he finds his supper waiting for him.
As I studied the pictures of Max and his companions, it seemed to me that I had never seen fantasy depicted in American children’s books in illustrations that were so powerfully in motion. Brian O’Doherty, the former art critic of the Times, has written that Sendak is “a fantasist in the great tradition of Sir John Tenniel and Edward Lear,” and I agree. O’Doherty has also described Sendak as “one of the most powerful men in the United States,” in that he “has given shape to the fantasies of millions of children—an awful responsibility.” I had known a few men who possessed power, but never this kind of power, so I made arrangements to meet the creator of the wild things.
Sendak, a bachelor, lives in a duplex on Ninth Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. On the street level he has a bedroom and a large living room with a piano and a profusion of bookcases, one of them reserved for first editions (he has close to two hundred) of works by Henry James. On the floor below are a spacious kitchen, a dining room with a brick fireplace, and a small studio, lit only by the lamp over Sendak’s drawing board, which is to the left of the room’s entrance. On the walls of the studio are paintings, photographs, and posters advertising art exhibits. A bookcase near the studio door contains an extensive collection of children’s books, formed largely around Sendak’s favorite illustrators: Randolph Caldecott and George Cruikshank, of nineteenth-century England; Ludwig Richter and Wilhelm Busch, of the same period in Germany; A. B. Frost and Edward Windsor Kemble, Americans who between them spanned the last half of the nineteenth century and the first three decades of this one; Ernst Kreidolf, a Swiss artist of those years; and, among contemporaries, the late Hans Fischer of Switzerland and André François of France. To the right of Sendak’s drawing board is a worktable, and above this is a pegboard supporting a swarm of objects. Among them are talismans—a brontosaurus constructed for him by a nephew, for instance—and postcard reproductions of paintings by Watteau, Goya, William Blake, and Winslow Homer; there are also a number of toys that Sendak has brought back from Europe, where he goes about every other year. Across the room from the worktable, an imposing high-fidelity unit stands on top of another bookcase, this one containing a large record collection, in which works by Mahler, Mozart, Beethoven, Wolf, Wagner, and Verdi are heavily represented. What dominates the room, however, is a huge photograph. Taken at an orphanage in Sicily, it shows a ten-year-old girl standing sidewise in front of a whitewashed wall. She is wearing a ragged white dress, a fly has alighted on her back, and she looks out into the room with enormous black eyes. Her hand is on her hip—a pose that is frequently assumed by the children in Sendak’s books.
The first day I visited his studio, Sendak, a short, shy man with dark-brown hair and green eyes, smiled after he saw me staring intently at the picture. “It’s hard to get away from her, isn’t it?” he said. “If you stay here long enough, you’ll find that her eyes follow you around the room.” He moved in front of the photograph. “Her face is unfinished—a round, beautiful child’s face—but her eyes tell you she could be forty-five years old. Such knowledge and pain are already there. I couldn’t do without her.”
A Sealyham terrier came in. This, I was told, was Jennie, who was twelve years old and had a tendency to brood. Jennie has appeared in most of Sendak’s books, often looking more cheerful than she does in real life. Having sniffed at me briefly, Jennie left. Sendak lit a cigarette. As I looked at him, I found that he reminded me of the children in his books, and I told him so. “Yes, they’re all a kind of caricature of me,” he said. “They look as if they’d been hit on the head, and hit so hard they weren’t going to grow anymore. When I first started showing my work to children’s-book editors, about seventeen years ago, they didn’t encourage me, and a major reason was the kind of children I drew. One editor, I remember, told me they were too European. What she meant was that they seemed ugly to her. And even now I’ll get a letter at least twice a year from a librarian who wants to know why my children are so drab. Well, they’re not drab, but they’re not innocent of experience, either. Too many parents and too many writers of children’s books don’t respect the fact that kids know a great deal and suffer a great deal. My children also show a great deal of pleasure, but often they look defenseless, too. Being defenseless is a primary element of childhood. It’s not that I don’t see the naturalistic beauty of a child. I’m very aware of that beauty, and I could draw it. I know the proportions of a child’s body. But I am trying to draw the way children feel—or, rather, the way I imagine they feel. It’s the way I know I felt as a child.” Sendak leaned forward, and continued, “It may be that in projecting how I felt as a child onto the children I draw I’m being terribly biassed and inaccurate. But all I have to go on is what I know—not only about my childhood then but about the child I was as he exists now.”
I looked puzzled, and Sendak smiled. “You see, I don’t believe, in a way, that the kid I was grew up into me,” he said. “He still exists somewhere, in the most graphic, plastic, physical way. It’s as if he had moved somewhere. I have a tremendous concern for him and interest in him. I communicate with him—or try to—all the time. One of my worst fears is losing contact with him.” Sendak frowned. “I don’t want this to sound coy or schizophrenic, but at least once a day I feel I have to make contact,” he went on. “The pleasures I get as an adult are heightened by the fact that I experience them as a child at the same time. Like, when autumn comes, as an adult I welcome the departure of the heat, and simultaneously, as a child would, I start anticipating the snow and the first day it will be possible to use a sled. This dual apperception does break down occasionally. That usually happens when my work is going badly. I get a sour feeling about books in general and my own in particular. The next stage is annoyance at my dependence on this dual apperception, and I reject it. Then I become depressed. When excitement about what I’m working on returns, so does the child. We’re on happy terms again. Being in that kind of contact with my childhood is vital to me, but it doesn’t make me perfectly certain I know what I’m doing in my work. Especially in books for children under six. I don’t think anyone really knows what kids that young like and what they don’t like. They’re formless, fluid creatures—like moving water. You can’t stop one of them at any one point and know exactly what’s going on. A child may react strongly to a book because it reaches him emotionally in some way the author intended. Then, again, it may be that he once saw a duck from a train window and never saw one again until he looked at the book, and though the book is rotten, he loves it because there’s a duck in it. Once in a while I encounter reactions to one of my books that make me think I may be getting some idea of what happened. From letters and from talking to parents and librarians, I’ve found out that, of the four books in the Nutshell Library, ‘Pierre’ is invariably the favorite with children. But here, too, I don’t know what level the child is reacting on. On one level, ‘Pierre’ is slapstick. Then, the text has a rhythmic quality—the repetition that kids like—and some children may be drawn mainly by that. On another level, Pierre is defiant—irrationally so, when it comes to the lion that finally eats him—and the child may enjoy a surface identification with the fun of rebellion. And, on a deeper level, Pierre is saying, ‘I’m me. I’ll be what I am and I’ll do what I want to do.’ The book that children have reacted to most strongly, though, is ‘Where the Wild Things Are.’ They wear out copies at libraries and keep rereading it at home. Some have sent me drawings of their own wild things, and they make mine look like cuddly fuzzballs. My wild things have big teeth. Some of theirwild things not only have big teeth but are chewing on children. I have yet to hear of a child who was frightened by the book. Adults who are troubled by it forget that Max is having a fine time. He’s in control. And by getting his anger at his mother discharged against the wild things he’s able to come back to the real world at peace with himself. I think Max is my truest creation. Like all kids, he believes in a world where a child can skip from fantasy to reality in the conviction that both exist. One seven-year-old boy wrote me a letter.” Sendak rose, rummaged through a file folder in the bookcase, found the letter, and handed it to me. The boy had written, “How much does it cost to get to where the wild things are? If it is not too expensive my sister and I want to spend the summer there. Please answer soon.”
Fantasy, I learned in subsequent visits to the studio, has been familiar terrain to Sendak from his earliest years. He was born in Brooklyn on June 10, 1928, the youngest of three children of Philip and Sarah Sendak. (His sister, Natalie, was eight when he was born, and his brother, Jack, was five.) Both parents had come to America before the First World War from Jewish shtetls, or small towns, outside Warsaw. The father, who worked in the garment district, told his children long stories based on tales he remembered from his childhood and alive with myth and fantasy. “He was a marvellous improviser, and he’d often extend a story for many nights,” Sendak recalls. “One short one I’ve always wanted to make into a book was about a child taking a walk with his father and mother. He becomes separated from them. Snow begins to fall, and the child shivers in the cold. He huddles under a tree, sobbing in terror. An enormous figure hovers over him and says, as he draws the boy up, ‘I’m Abraham, your father.’ His fear gone, the child looks up and also sees Sarah. He is no longer lost. When his parents find him, the child is dead. Those stories had something of the character of William Blake’s poems. The myths in them didn’t seem at all factitious. And they fused Jewish lore with my father’s particular way of shaping memory and desire. That one, for instance, was based on the power of Abraham in Jewish tradition as the father who was always there—a reassuring father even when he was Death. But the story was also about how tremendously my father missed his parents. Not all his tales were sombre, though. My father could be very witty, even if the humor was always on the darker side of irony.”
In addition to the tales his father told, and occasional stories told by his mother, books, to which Sendak early formed a passionate attachment, also stimulated his imagination. His sister gave him his first books—“The Prince and the Pauper” and “The Three Musketeers.” Besides being fascinated by the contents of the books, he was drawn to them as physical entities. “I can still remember the smell and feel of the bindings of those first two books,” he says. “I didn’t read them for a long time. It felt so good just having them. They seemed alive to me, and so did many other inanimate objects I was fond of. All children have these intense feelings about certain dolls or other toys. In my case, this kind of relationship, if you can call it that, was heightened because up to the age of six I spent a lot of time in bed with a series of illnesses. Being alone much of the time, I developed friendships with objects. To this day, in my parents’ home there are certain toys that I played with as a child, and when I visit my parents, I’m also visiting those toys.”
In “Kenny’s Window,” which was published in 1956, and was the first book that Sendak wrote as well as illustrated, he distilled much of his own childhood—the attachment to particular objects, the fantasy, the loneliness. Kenny wakes from a dream and remembers meeting in a garden a rooster, who gave him seven questions to answer. In the course of searching for the answers, he has serious conversations with several of his toys. Kenny is angered by a favorite Teddy bear, who reproaches him for having been left under the bed all night, but soon Kenny writes the bear a poem assuring him of his love, and that conflict is resolved. In fantasy, Kenny journeys to Switzerland and talks with a goat in order to find the answer to one of the rooster’s questions: “What is an only goat?” An only goat, Kenny finally learns, is a lonely goat who is not allowed by an overprotective master to do what he most enjoys doing. There is also a meeting, on the roof of Kenny’s house, with a talking, flying horse. Kenny resolves not to tell his parents about the horse and its ability to talk and to fly. (“They’d say it was a dream. They don’t know how to listen in the night.”) Another crisis occurs when one of Kenny’s two favorite lead soldiers reminds the other of a promise Kenny has broken—to take care of them always. The first soldier is chipped in four different places. He complains to Kenny. Enraged at being made to feel guilty, Kenny exiles the chipped soldier to the outside ledge of his window in the cold, but then he brings the soldier in again and tells him he has not broken his promise. When the rooster later asks Kenny one of the seven questions again—“Can you fix a broken promise?”—Kenny answers, “Yes, if it only looks broken, but really isn’t.”
In his adult life, Sendak’s rapport with particular inanimate objects has not been limited to the toys in Brooklyn. One afternoon, in his studio, he pointed out to me several pens on his drawing board, and said, “Some of these pens are with me, and some are against me. In a store, some look as if they want to be sold to me. Others will fight me to the end. I may antagonize some and not be able to win back their friendship, but others are less stubborn.” He picked up a small, smooth rock. “This is a friend,” he said. “I found him on a beach in Italy in 1953. He goes with me on all my trips.” Sendak looked at me somewhat warily, and added, “I suppose that sounds strange.” Since I have similar feelings about an old lighter and three pipes, I was able to tell him it didn’t.
Sendak did have other friends besides objects as he grew up. He had a close relationship with his brother Jack. Both boys enjoyed drawing, and one of their amusements was making books. These combined cut-out newspaper photographs and comic strips with sketches of the Sendak family. The books were bound with tape, had elaborately illustrated covers, and contained a good deal of painstaking hand lettering.
“I was always conscious of usable material for books,” Sendak recalls. “I remember examining my grandmother all the time and placing her in various fantasies. And I was so conscious of the streets on which I lived that I can remember them now in complete detail—how many houses there were, who lived in which house, what the people looked like. During my early teens, I spent a lot of time at the window, sketching the kids at play, and those sketchbooks are, in a sense, the foundation of much of my later work. Maybe that’s another reason the children in my books are called European-looking. Many of them resemble the kids I knew growing up in Brooklyn. They were Jewish kids, and they may well look like little greenhorns just off the boat. They had—some of them, anyway—a kind of bowed look, as if the burdens of the world were on their shoulders.”
“The Sign on Rosie’s Door,” a Sendak book published in 1960, begins with the dedication:
Remembering Pearl Karchawer
all the Rosies
Rosie is a girl with an unusually lively imagination, and she gets her friends—who do indeed look like Jewish children on the streets of Brooklyn—to take part in her fantasies. At one point, Rosie, sitting on a cellar door and covered from head to foot in a red blanket, identifies herself as “Alinda the lost girl.” “Who lost you?” asks a neighborhood literalist. “I lost myself,” Rosie answers. Like the fantasies in “Kenny’s Window” and a number of Sendak’s other stories, Rosie’s often involve highly active play. She announces that her “Magic Man” is coming, and all the children close their eyes, because he will not appear otherwise. They hear her speak to him, and when they are allowed to open their eyes again, Rosie tells them that the Magic Man has informed her that they can all be firecrackers. Rosie and her friends proceed to leap and dance through several pages.
When the teen-age Sendak wasn’t making books, he was reading other people’s. Though some were stories for children, his reading was indiscriminate. His sister subscribed to the Book-of-the-Month Club, and he read many of the volumes she received. “Now I can’t remember any children’s books or artists that profoundly influenced me in those years except Walt Disney,” he says. “I now say it to my shame, yet he did something tremendous for me. His pictures did move, and they often embodied lots of fantasy. With whatever money I had, I’d buy his coloring and cutout books, and I made animated sequences of my own based on his characters. And when I saw Disney’s ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ at the Radio City Music Hall, I had an inkling of what it was I especially wanted to do. It was only later that I could see how Disney had despoiled beautiful stories and had abused the idea of animation. Kids don’t always know about the vulgar and tasteless, and to me Disney was a god. I remember a Mickey Mouse mask that came on a big box of cornflakes. What a fantastic mask! Such a big, bright, vivid, gorgeous hunk of face! My ambition was to work for Disney.”
Sendak graduated from Lafayette High School, in Brooklyn, in 1946. “I was an art major in high school, but we had no real instruction—I just sat and did what I wanted to,” he says. After school and weekends, he had worked for All American Comics, his job being to adapt “Mutt and Jeff” strips for comic books, fitting them into the page, filling in backgrounds, and extending the story line when necessary. He enjoyed this work, but school, by contrast, was a place of acute discomfort. “Nearly every morning, in order to get there, I had to talk myself out of a state of panic, he says. “I couldn’t stand being cloistered with other children, and I was usually so embarrassed that I stammered.”
After graduation, he went to work full time at Timely Service, a window-display house in lower Manhattan, beginning in a warehouse, where he helped construct store-window models of such figures as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs out of chicken wire, papier-mâché, spun glass, plaster, and paint. “It was one of the best times of my life,” Sendak says. “I was in Manhattan, and, for the first time, I knew people who were artists, who considered their work for Timely Service just a job to enable them to do real painting at night in their cold-water flats. There were all kinds of people I’d never met in Brooklyn.” When he had been at Timely Service for nearly two years, he was promoted to the department that conceived the window-display designs to be built in the warehouse. There he was unhappy. “The department consisted of another kind of artist—people in their fifties who had never got anywhere,” he recalls. Sendak left the display house in the summer of 1948, and during the next two months, at home in Brooklyn, he and his brother constructed six intricate animated wooden toys, performing scenes from “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Little Miss Muffet,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Aladdin’s Lamp,” “Old Mother Hubbard,” and “Pinocchio.” The pieces, five of which Sendak now has in his studio, are in the tradition of eighteenth-century German lever-operated toys. When a lever on Little Red Riding Hood’s basket is pulled, for instance, a ferocious wolf leaps out of bed and Little Red Riding Hood collapses. The Sendak brothers took their toys to F. A. O. Schwarz. Their work was received with respect, but an official at the store pointed out that it would be too costly to reproduce the toys in large quantities. “Nor were we ready to compromise, if a compromise had been suggested,” Sendak says. “We wanted a workshop of little old men creating the little wooden parts, and we would not have permitted any kind of plastic substitute.” Ultimately, though, Richard Nell, Schwarz’s window-display director, was sufficiently impressed by the way in which Maurice Sendak had painted the toys to hire him as an assistant in the construction of window displays. (His brother, meanwhile, although he went on to work in the electronics field, has also written several children’s books, two of which Maurice has illustrated.)
Sendak worked at the toy store for three years, and attended evening classes at the Art Students League during most of that time. “It was the only kind of school I could endure, because it was freewheeling,” he says. “What you learned depended on what you wanted to learn.” Sendak took classes in life drawing, oil painting, and composition, and feels that he benefited particularly from the instruction in composition he was given by the illustrator John Groth. “He was important for me because he gave me a sense of the enormous potential for motion, for aliveness, in illustrations,” Sendak recalls. “And he himself was so deeply committed to the field that he showed how much fun creating in it could be.”
At F. A. O. Schwarz, Frances Chrystie, the store’s book buyer, who was a friend of Sendak’s, knew that he was eager to try illustrating children’s books, but when she suggested introducing him to Miss Nordstrom—partly because Harper’s was the publisher whose children’s books he most admired—he demurred, out of shyness. Miss Chrystie thereupon arranged for Miss Nordstrom to “happen by” one day, in the spring of 1950, when Sendak had tacked up a broad variety of his pictures on the walls of the store’s studio. The next day, Miss Nordstrom called Sendak and offered him the opportunity to illustrate Marcel Aymé’s “The Wonderful Farm.” He accepted, and the book was published in 1951. This was not the first time Sendak’s work had been published; in 1947 he had done diagrams and spot drawings for “Atomics for the Millions,” written by Hyman Ruchlis, one of his high-school teachers, and three years later he had illustrated a book about the Sabbath, “Good Shabos, Everybody,” for the United Synagogue Commission on Jewish Education, but “The Wonderful Farm” was the first real children’s book he had worked on. “It made me an official person,” Sendak now says.
In 1952, Sendak became widely known in the children’s-book field as the illustrator of Ruth Krauss’s “A Hole Is to Dig.” The book was quite unconventional for its time. It had no story. Instead, Miss Krauss, by talking with and listening to children, had assembled a series of children’s definitions, among them “A face is so you can make faces,” “Buttons are to keep people warm,” “A whistle is to make people jump,” and—a particular favorite with the book’s readers—“A tablespoon is to eat a table with.” The general idea of “A Hole Is to Dig” has since been repeated many times, often coyly. But Sendak’s small people, seen at play among themselves, sticking out their tongues, closing their eyes in anticipation of being kissed by their dogs’ tongues, wiggling their toes, and sliding delightedly in the mud, never seem saccharine.
An established illustrator had originally been considered for the assignment, but when he was shown simply a collection of definitions, he felt that there was no book in them at all. From the start, however, Sendak was enthusiastic about the book’s possibilities. “It was like being part of a revolution,” he says. “This was the first time in modern children’s-book history that a book had come directly from kids. The notion was so startling to some academics, in fact, that the book was included in a course at Columbia on the uses of language. And, you know, some of those definitions have become part of the language. Working on that book, I learned something else, too. When it seemed to me to be all done, Ruth Krauss pointed out that I was giving the kids who would read the book middle-class attitudes toward their roles. I had the boys doing what boys were expected to do and girls doing what they were expected to do. God forbid a boy should be jumping rope! Of course, that isn’t the way it is, and at the last minute I made some quick changes.”
“A Hole Is to Dig” prepared the way for such later works by others as “A Friend Is Someone Who Likes You,” “Love Is a Special Way of Feeling,” and “Happiness Is a Warm Puppy,” and it was influential in other ways, too. Its format was small, and its success brought back what Sendak identifies as “the little book,” adding, “And, God help us, it hasn’t stopped.” The book was printed on brown-tinted paper, and for the illustrations Sendak had deliberately used his most “old-fashioned” style, his pen-and-ink drawings including a considerable amount of crosshatching, in the tradition of nineteenth-century German and British illustrators.
The success of “A Hole Is to Dig” was such that Sendak was able to leave F. A. O. Schwarz, move to Manhattan, and become a freelance illustrator. Assignments poured in, from Miss Nordstrom and from editors at other publishing houses, and in the years that followed Sendak illustrated the work of various writers. There have been seven more books by Ruth Krauss, and seven books for older children by the Dutch-born writer Meindert Dejong, and Sendak has also had the privilege of collaborating posthumously with Tolstoy (“Nikolenka’s Childhood”), the German Clemens Brentano (“The Tale of Gockel, Hinkel & Gackeliah” and “Schoolmaster Whackwell’s Wonderful Sons”), the German Wilhelm Hauff (“Dwarf Long-Nose”), and the American Frank Stockton (“The Bee-Man of Orn” and “The Griffin and the Minor Canon”). In a preface to “The Griffin and the Minor Canon,” Sendak describes his basic aim as an illustrator: “I wanted at all costs to avoid the serious pitfall of illustrating with pictures what the author had already . . . illustrated with words. I hoped, rather, to let the story speak for itself, with my pictures as a kind of background music—music in the right style and always in tune with the words.”
Sendak elaborated on the degree to which he conceives his work musically in an article called “The Shape of Music,” which appeared in the Sunday Herald Tribune late in 1964. “The spontaneous breaking into song and dance seems so natural and instinctive a part of childhood,” he wrote. “It is perhaps the medium through which children best express the inexpressible; fantasy and feeling lie deeper than words—beyond the words yet available to a child—and both demand a more profound, more biological expression, the primitive expression of music.” Sendak is convinced that children will respond most spontaneously to illustrations that, in his words, “have a sense of music and dance and are not something just glued onto the page.”
In the work of the illustrators that Sendak most admires, he invariably finds a musical quality that he terms “authentic liveliness.” He points to the linear arabesques in the lamb’s dance of death in Boutet de Monvel’s drawings for La Fontaine’s “Fables Choisies pour les Enfants,” and to the same artist’s “harmonic inventions” achieved by the subtle use of color and line. In the work of Randolph Caldecott, Sendak is fascinated not only by the abundance of actual dancing, singing, and playing of instruments but also by the many ways in which Caldecott used the theme-and-variations technique, combining simple themes into what Sendak describes as “a fantastically various interplay of images.”
When Sendak is at work, he not only thinks in musical terms but often has music playing. He begins by trying to find the composer and the piece of music that fit the mood and tone of the story on his drawing board, and he may listen to many recordings before he hits on the right musical colors. “Books, too, can be evocative for me when I’m working on a series of illustrations,” he says. “I often turn to James, Stendhal, D. H. Lawrence, and Melville—especially James, with his acute sensitivity to what happens inside someone growing. But it is music that does most to open me up. That’s why I have all these records—and I go to quite a lot of concerts, too. The other night, for example, I was sitting here listening to ‘Die Meistersinger,’ which I know by heart, and got excited about it all over again. What struck me this time was that Wagner, in some mysterious way, had made the atmosphere—the very night air—of Nuremberg into music. I could see the city and smell it. And that’s the kind of thing I want to convey in my illustrations. The pictures should he so organically akin to the text, so reflective of its atmosphere, that they look as if they could have been done in no other way. They should help create the special world of the story. When this kind of drawing works, I feel like a magician, because I’m creating the air for a writer.”
In illustrating stories of his own, Sendak sometimes encounters an odd difficulty in performing this magic. “I find myself writing things that I don’t like to draw, as if I were two separate people,” he explains. “As a writer, I may, for instance, ask the illustrator part of me to draw too many specific details of a room or of clothes. As an illustrator, I most enjoy interpreting emotions. In ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ those two selves fused, in that the illustrations were a complete imaginative backdrop to the feelings experienced in the course of fantasy. Being dreamlike and fluid, the scenes aren’t hung up with the kind of particulars that are involved in aiming at literal verisimilitude.”
“Where the Wild Things Are,” which was published in 1963, marked a key stage in Sendak’s development. In 1964, the book received the Caldecott Medal, awarded annually by the American Library Association for the most distinguished American picture book for children. Sendak went to St. Louis for the presentation, and in his acceptance speech he said, “With ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ I feel I am at the end of a long apprenticeship. By that I mean all my previous work now seems to have been an elaborate preparation for it.” Miss Nordstrom says that “Where the Wild Things Are” is of singular historical importance because “it is the first American picture book for children to recognize that children have powerful emotions—anger and fear as well as the need Max had, after his anger was spent, to be ‘where someone loved him best of all.’ ” She adds, “A lot of good picture books have had fine stories and lovely pictures, and some have touched beautifully on basic elements in a child’s life—physical growth, coming to terms with a new sister or brother, and the like. But it seems to me that ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ goes deeper than previous picture books have gone.”
Miss Nordstrom was not surprised that the book met with some hostile reactions from critics and librarians. “The furor reminded me of the New York Public Library’s refusal to give shelf room to E. B. White’s ‘Stuart Little’ for some months back in 1945, when it came out,” she says. “The statement that Mrs. Little’s second son was born looking very much like a mouse made one librarian there unable to sleep for three nights. Or so she told me. But the children who read and loved that book weren’t thinking of any actual process of giving birth to a mouse—they thought it was nice to have a mouse in the family. There were even some negative reactions to ‘A Hole Is to Dig.’ One librarian was appalled at the definition ‘A face is to make faces with.’ She said she didn’t want her children making faces and when ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ came out, another librarian told me the book would frighten little children to death. ‘But Max conquers those monsters,’ I said. ‘He becomes king of the wild things.’ But she was obviously horrified, perhaps too horrified to imagine that children might react with pleasure to the book.” A reviewer for the Journal of Nursery Educationmused, “We should not like to have it left about where a sensitive child might find it to pore over in the twilight.” Publishers’ Weekly, after saying that “the plan and technique of the illustrations are superb,” cautioned, “But they may well prove frightening, accompanied as they are by a pointless and confusing story.” Among the adults who were not traumatized by Max’s journey was a critic for the Library Journal, who wrote, “Each word has been carefully chosen to express Max’s mood precisely,” and “The wild things who acclaim him their king are at once both ugly and humorous.” The critic did, however, feel compelled to add, “This is the kind of story that many adults will question and for many reasons, but the child will accept it wisely and without inhibition, as he knows it is written for him.” A reviewer for the Cleveland Press was also both appreciative of the book and apprehensive about possible adult storms, noting, “Boys and girls may have to shield their parents from this book. Parents are very easily scared.”
Sendak had expected a certain amount of angry reaction to “Where the Wild Things Are.” In his speech accepting the Caldecott Medal, he referred with some acerbity to those noncontroversial children’s books that offer “a gilded world unshadowed by the least suggestion of conflict or pain, a world manufactured by those who cannot—or don’t care to—remember the truth of their own childhood.” Of these he said, “Their expurgated vision has no relation to the way real children live. I suppose these books have some purpose—they don’t frighten adults. . . . The popularity of such books is proof of endless pussyfooting about the grim aspects of child life, pussyfooting that attempts to justify itself by reminding us that we must not frighten our children. Of course, we must avoid frightening children, if by that we mean protecting them from experiences beyond their emotional capabilities; but I doubt that this is what most people mean when they say, ‘We must not frighten our children.’ The need for half-truth books is the most obvious indication of the common wish to protect children from their everyday fears and anxieties, a hopeless wish that denies the child’s endless battle with disturbing emotions.”
One afternoon, in his studio, Sendak told me more about his ideas on the proper use of fantasy in children’s books. The light over his drawing board was out, and we sat in near darkness. Characteristically, Sendak spoke softly and rapidly. Occasionally, as he grew more intense, his words bumped against each other in a slight stammer. “There have to be elements of anxiety and mystery in truthful children’s books, or, at least, there have to be in mine,” he said. “What I don’t like are formless, floating fantasies. Fantasy makes sense only if it’s rooted ten feet deep in reality. In ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ the reality is Max’s misbehavior, his punishment, and his anger at that punishment. That was why he didn’t just have a cute little dream. He was trying to deal with imperative, basic emotions.”
Sendak leaned forward. “Then, the fantasy has to be resolved,” he said. “If Max had stayed on the island with the wild things, a child reading the book might well have been frightened. Max, however, comes home. Mind you, he doesn’t say, ‘I’ll never go there again.’ He will fantasize again, but the hope is that, like other children, he’ll keep coming back to his mother. So the book doesn’t say that life is constant anxiety. It simply says that life has anxiety in it. Here, let me show you one of the ways Caldecott conveyed this.”
From a bookshelf Sendak gently retrieved a first edition of “A Frog He Would A-Wooing Go” in the nineteenth-century British series Randolph Caldecott’s Picture Books (which are, incidentally, still in print). He turned to a page showing the exterior of Mousey’s Hall. Frog, accompanied by Mr. Rat, is paying court to Miss Mouse. Two small girls and their parents are watching a cat and her kittens approach the house. “Up to that point, Caldecott followed the usual plot,” Sendak said. “He added this family to serve as an implied commentary on the action. The reader sees—but the family doesn’t—the cat and her offspring devouring Miss Mouse and Mr. Rat. Nor does the family see Frog, while escaping, being gobbled up by a duck as he crosses the pond. But here—in the last picture of the book—the girls and the parents are looking at Frog’s hat, lying on a stone in the pond. The children are holding tightly on to their parents. The look on their faces is as if they are saying, ‘What a frightful thing must have happened! But we still have our parents to protect us.’ Caldecott went one step beyond the nursery rhyme by relating it to life. Except for Caldecott, illustrators of this story have generally pictured it as a rollicking farce—‘Everybody gets eaten up. Ho-ho-ho!’ But Caldecott, by bringing in that family, added an intimation of how grim reality can be. Even if the children didn’t get the point explicitly from the drawings, the feeling was there. Caldecott did this sort of thing much better than I can. I don’t have any evidence that he ever talked about what he was doing, but he often worked in this way. I grant that he himself may not have been all that conscious of expressing a touch of dread. Nor am I when I’m working.”
Sendak lit a cigarette. “Recently, I gave a lecture at Pratt Institute, and a student asked me if I ever sit down with the intention of doing a children’s book dealing with anxiety,” he said. “Of course I don’t, I told him. If I did, I’d hardly be any kind of creative artist. When I write and draw, I’m experiencing what the child in the book is going through. I was as relieved to get back from Max’s journey as he was. Or, rather, I like to think I got back. It’s only after the act of writing the book that, as an adult, I can see what has happened, and talk about fantasy as catharsis, about Max acting out his anger as he fights to grow.”
The room was now quite dark, and Sendak put on the light. “For me, that book was a personal exorcism,” he went on. “It went deeper into my own childhood than anything I’ve done before, and I must go even deeper in the ones to come.”
I asked him if he would continue to concentrate on books for younger children.
“Yes,” Sendak replied. “There’ll be exceptions, I suppose, but for the most part I like to work for children no older than seven or eight. With them, you can be freer in the use of fantasy, and in various kinds of experimentation, because the picture itself still means a tremendous amount to them. There’s no wall between them and the picture.”
A few weeks after this particular talk, I moved my family to Fire Island for the summer. Sendak had taken a house there, too, and we often met on the beach, where he sat for hours, sketching. He and my son Nicholas came to know each other, but only slightly. Sendak does not extend himself to beguile children, but he is ready for conversation if they are. One afternoon, Nicholas made a futile attempt to play with a group of older children, who could run much faster than he could, and then trudged over to where Sendak and I were sitting. Seeing Nicholas sad, Sendak suggested that they dig a hole. When they had dug one, Nicholas jumped in and had himself covered with sand up to his shoulders. Then, observing that Sendak had been sketching, Nicholas asked, “Can you make me a ferryboat?” Sendak did, and then drew other pictures at Nicholas’s direction, including some of seagulls—creatures that my son is very fond of. The next day, Sendak dropped in at our house with a watercolor scene that contained all the boats, birds, and fishes Nicholas had asked for the previous afternoon.
A few weeks later, the three of us were on the beach again. In the interval, Nicholas had largely ignored Sendak and had not referred at all to the watercolor, which his mother had hung above his bed. I walked down the beach for a few minutes to talk to a friend, and when I returned, Nicholas was chasing a sandpiper, and Sendak was looking pleased.
“We’ve been in contact again,” Sendak said. “These last few weeks, I’ve been aware that he was conscious of me but also that he had no desire to continue what we had going that day. Maybe I projected it, but I seemed to get the message: ‘Don’t push it. Don’t try to do it again just yet.’ But right after you left, he pointed to himself, pointed to the sky, and said, ‘Remember the seagull? Thank you for the picture.’ There was a huge smile on his face for maybe half a second, and then he ran after the sandpiper. I was very much moved, very grateful that he did remember—and that he told me so in that way. It was as if he were saying, ‘Don’t be upset. I didn’t forget. I still have the picture you brought me.’ ” Sendak laughed. “I did feel we had reached each other again.”
On the way back from the beach, with Nicholas running down the road ahead of us, Sendak said, “I get a kick whenever I see a child react to something I’ve drawn or written. I like getting the letters children write me, and I like having a chance to meet one who has enjoyed a book of mine. Not that I write basically for children. I really do these books for myself. It’s something I have to do, find it’s the only thing I want to do. Reaching the kids is important, but secondary. First, always, I have to reach and keep hold of the child in me.”
Nicholas and I stopped at our gate, and Sendak walked on down the road alone. At the crossing, he turned around and waved. The wild thing trying to wrench the gate off its hinges paused to wave back. ♦