The Artistry and Influence of Maurice Sendak

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Children’s Books expert Elizabeth Kennedy has written an interesting article about the Artistry and Influence of author and illustrator Maurice Sendak. Who would have thought, she writes, that Maurice Sendak would become one of the most influential, and controversial, creators of children’s books in the twentieth century?

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.

Sendak changed, unlike any other contemporary picture-book artist, the entire landscape of the modern picture book – thematically, aesthetically and psychologically. Primarily it is in the dozen or so books that Sendak both wrote and illustrated, where he penetrated the most secret recesses of childhood. He compared childhood to “a range of humiliation” which he happened to remember better than most other people do.
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His major breakthrough was Where the Wild Things Are, 1963, where he all at once revolutionised the entire picture book narrative. Referred to as the picture book of picture books, no study of modern children’s literature has been able to ignore it. Having been translated into a great number of languages, many generations of children throughout the entire world have read the book. No picture book creator today can entirely escape Sendak’s influence.

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.

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. Kennedy quotes Sendak at the his Caldecott Medal acceptance speech;

“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.)

Sendak received a spate of awards, including two Caldecott Medals (1964 and 1974) and the Hans Christian Andersen Medal from IBBY (1970), and in 2003, he and Austrian author Christine Noestlinger shared the first Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.

Maurice Sendak is the modern picture-book’s portal figure. He is unparalleled in developing the picture-book’s unique possibilities of narrating – to the joy of constant new picture-book illustrators. Furthermore, he is one of the most courageous researchers of the most secret recesses of childhood – to the delight of constant new readers.
Citation by the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award jury, 2003

More to read:

Reading guide for Where the wild things are

More about Maurice Sendak

 

One Response to “The Artistry and Influence of Maurice Sendak”

  1. Carol H. Sibley Says:

    Just a correction: Sendak did not win the 1974 Caldecott Medal, but he did have a number of Caldecott Honors.

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