Maurice Sendak was born June 10, 1928 in Brooklyn, New York. His parents were poor immigrants from Poland who came to America before World War I. Many of his relatives died in the Holocaust, and this was an important influence upon his childhood. His parents were always upset about the relatives they had lost and the cloud of death was always in the air. He even drew the faces of some of his relatives who died in the Holocaust in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Zlateh the Goat.
Sendak is the youngest of three children. He was also a very sickly child, who always caught pneumonia or some sort of illness. He grew up under the constant fear of his own death. His mother was very concerned, and always kept a watchful eye over him. For this reason, many of Sendak’s books have a picture of a moon in the scene. This is representative of his watchful protective mother, peeking over him to make sure he is safe. (Sendak also puts a fish in pictures for his father. “Sendak” not only means “fish”, but also is a remembrance that there is always something fishy in all of his work.)
Sendak grew up in a family of storytellers. His father told (uncensored) stories that were considered “not for children.” They were nightmarishly scary stories of pogroms, death, love affairs, and other Jewish tales. His brother wrote stories, and his sister bound the stories into books that they sold on the sidewalks.Sendak loved hearing his father tell stories, and associates good books with being close and spending time with his father. Everyone in his family also read stories, and growing up, Sendak was jealous of his older siblings who could read words. He would even beg his sister to bring him books from the library (as opposed to children’s books), just so he could smell, touch, and taste them. His sister also gave him his first book, The Prince and the Pauper, by Mark Twain.Although he could not even read it at the time, Sendak slept with the book, and still has it today.
In 1947, at the age of nineteen, Sendak co-authored and published his first book, Atomics for the Millions. He began his illustrating career by drawing comic book pictures. In 1951, Sendak began freelance illustrating and writing.
Sendak published Kenny’s Window in 1956. It is a story about a child who is curious about the world outside of his front door. Very Far Away, Sendak’s second book published in 1957, is a story about a boy, with a new baby sibling, who must learn to cope with his sudden lack of attention.In 1960, he published a story about a girl that he knew while growing up. It was called The Sign on Rosie’s Door.
Sendak published his first collection book, in four volumes, in 1962. This collection, called The Nutshell Library, contained Alligators All Around (alphabet book), Chicken Soup with Rice (rhyming book about months of year), One was Johnny (counting book), and Pierre (tale). It was printed on small books that explained the name “nutshell.” Years later, this series became the focus of a movie, Really Rosie. With songs by Carole King, and illustrations by Maurice Sendak, Really Rosie, was a huge success.
On May 6, of the following year, Sendak published his most famous book, Where the Wild Things Are. It is a story about a boy named Max who gets in trouble and is sent to his room without supper. He then travels to a magical land of wild things (huge scary monsters), who make him their king. Max eventually becomes tired of his new place and sails home, to find his supper waiting for him (and it is still hot).
Sendak based the monsters in Where the Wild Things Are on his Jewish relatives, who would come to their house when he was growing up, with their foul breath and big, yellow teeth. He has also said that the title of the book was supposed to be “Where the Wild Horses are,” but he was not successful at drawing horses, so his editor changed the title to “things,” as that was something that Sendak could definitely draw. This book won the Caldecott Medal the following year.It was also made into an opera, in which Sendak not only wrote the libretto, but also designed the sets and costume. Where the Wild Things are also became part of Bell Atlantic’s highly successful advertising campaign in 1998. This year, the 35th anniversary of the book, also showed a Bell Atlantic sponsored “Wild Things” huge balloon float in the Macys Thanksgiving Day Parade.Where the Wild Things are is one of the ten best selling books of all time.
In 1967, Sendak came out with his next book, Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or, There Must Be More To Life. Sendak wrote this story about his own dog, Jennie, who he found out, had cancer. Jennie had been with Sendak since she was a baby pup, and had been a best friend to him from 1953 until her death in 1967. Jennie is the main character in this book. The black and white illustrations tell the story of a little Scottie dog, which has everything, from a loving master to two bowls of food, but wants to see what else there is to life. She packs her bag, and leaves home, taking a job as a nursemaid to an angry baby. After saving the baby’s life, she is accepted and has proven herself in the world. Now, she feels that she really does have everything.
In 1970, Sendak published In the Night Kitchen, a Caldecott Medal Honor Book. It is a combination of different verses of Mother Goose rhymes. It tells the story of a boy named Mickey who awakes from a dream to find himself falling through and into various kitchen and food items. He falls into batter, floats in an airplane made of dough, and slides down a bottle of milk, only to return peacefully to his own bed. This book uses multiple panels and integrates hand-lettered text in order to help illustrate the dream world. It also had some controversy, as Mickey was naked in some scenes, and many people drew diapers or pants over the young boy to hide his nudity.
The next book that Sendak published was Seven Little Monsters, published in 1977. It is a story of seven little monsters that make trouble for the people of a village.
In 1981, Sendak published his second Caldecott Medal Honor Book, Outside Over There. It is the story of a girl named Ida who goes in search of her baby brother because he was stolen by goblins. The basis of Outside Over There is from Sendak’s own childhood fears of the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby. He constantly believed that the kidnappers were going to kidnap him.
Outside Over There, combined with Where The Wild Things Are, and In The Night Kitchen are known as Sendak’s trilogy. These three books explore children’s very primal fears. Also, they are all stories of the three main characters, Max, Mickey, and Ida, maturing as a result of their trip to the “fantasy” world.
Dear Mili, came out in 1988 and was a republishing of a long lost Grimm’s Brother fairy tale. It was a story that Sendak felt related to the Holocaust and all the tragedy that occurred from it.
His most recent book, We Are All In The Dumps With Jack And Guy, published in 1993, has caused much controversy. It is two nursery rhymes, which tell the story of a good willed moon that helps Jack and Guy leave the dumps and help a little boy get home again. Sendak calls this book “an-in-your-face-book about homelessness” and it is just that. It touches on such issues of AIDS, starvation, and life on the street. He bases this book on the children who live on the streets of Rio De Janeiro.
Sendak also spent time pursuing activities aside from publishing his own books. He designed sets and costumes for numerous operas, such as Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker or Mozart’s Magic Flute. He has also illustrated dozens of other books, including Else Minarik’s Little Bear series.
Sendak won many awards over the span of his career. He is the first American to receive the Hans Christian Andersen International Medal (for body of work). He has also won the National Medal of Arts, Caldecott Award, American Library Association’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, and the Jewish Cultural Achievement Award in Visual Arts.
Sendak is also a strong speaker on children’s personal rights. He is a tireless advocate and has become increasingly more interested in producing quality film and theater for children. He has even started his own children’s theater company, “The Night Kitchen,” in order to produce quality programs. Sendak has said that the emphasis of his books is to teach children how to cope with difficult problems that they must deal with and how to be heroic in an adult world.
Sendak’s special interest is to get kids and parents to read together. This, he believes, is the best way for kids to learn to love reading, and more importantly, share magical times with their parents.
“Perhaps no one has done as much to show the power of the written word on children, not to mention on their parents, as Maurice Sendak.”
-President Clinton, January 9,1997.