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Maurice Sendak | Biography

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Sendak's Childhood

Maurice Sendak was born in Brooklyn, New York, on June 10, 1928. He had one brother and one sister. His parents were Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants from Poland who came to the United States before World War I (1914–18). His father lost several members of his family to the World War II Holocaust (1939–45)—the German Nazi genocide of the Jews. Sendak said his family's home was in a "constant state of mourning" and his mother by nature was continually sad and distant. When Sendak was quite young he learned about the kidnapping of American pilot Charles Lindberg's baby, a high-profile crime from 1932. Sendak was haunted by the baby's death, believing if this happened even to rich people, nothing could keep him safe.

Sendak was often ill as a youngster and had to make do with a bedroom window view of the world. Sendak's imagination became his means of escape. In a 1986 interview Sendak recalled "being indoors and watching—the window became my movie camera, my television set." Young Sendak found enjoyment in books and drawing. Because his family was poor, Sendak read mainly comic books and inexpensive paperbacks. However, his sister, Natalie, gave him an illustrated edition of Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper (1881). This sparked Sendak's desire to create beautiful books. Together with his older brother, Jack, Sendak wrote stories, illustrated them, and bound them into books. At 12 he saw the animated Disney classic Fantasia (1940), and the freedom and magic of that movie influenced his decision to become an artist. Sendak majored in art during high school but disliked the atmosphere of any formal schooling, which he felt discouraged his creativity and fantasy. For 100 dollars and one percent of the book's total sales, he illustrated Atomics for the Millions (1947), a science textbook written by his physics teacher, Hyman Ruchlis.

Beginning of a Career

After high school Sendak attended art school briefly but mostly expanded his drawing skills on his own. His first artistic job was drawing backgrounds for the newspaper comic strip Mutt and Jeff (1907–83). From 1946–48 Sendak created window displays for a company called Timely Service, producing pieces such as papier-mâché models of Snow White. After working for this company for several years, he and his brother built wooden toys and tried to sell them to New York's famous Fifth Avenue toy store FAO Schwarz. The company liked the toys but didn't buy them because they would be too expensive to mass produce. They did like Sendak's artistic style though and hired him to work on window displays.

This position benefited Sendak immensely. FAO Schwarz had an extensive children's book section, and this exposed Sendak to classic picture books by artists like 19th-century British illustrators George Cruikshank and Randolph Caldecott. While working there Sendak met Ursula Nordstrom, a leading children's book editor for publisher Harper & Brothers (now HarperCollins). She hired Sendak to illustrate children's books, starting with French author Marcel Aymé's The Wonderful Farm (1951). She also connected Sendak with American children's book author Ruth Krauss. The two collaborated on her 1952 book A Hole is to Dig and other works. In 1953 Sendak earned his first Caldecott Medal for illustrating Krauss's A Very Special House.

While continuing to illustrate books for other writers, Sendak also took a significant step in his career: he began writing and illustrating his own works. He published Kenny's Window in 1956, and Very Far Away came out the following year. Both titles reflect Sendak's interest in childhood fantasy. For his 1960 book The Sign on Rosie's Door Sendak modeled the lead character on a girl from his childhood neighborhood. She was bold, had a strong imagination, and enlisted others in her fantasies. Rosie inspired other Sendak characters, including Max in Where the Wild Things Are.

Genesis of the Wild Things and Publication

In 1955 Sendak began planning a picture book using the elaborate illustration style of Randolph Caldecott. He tentatively titled the narrative Where the Wild Horses Are and, after some preliminary work, put it away while he worked on other projects. In early 1963 he finally began his project in earnest, revising the story several times. His editor, Ursula Nordstrom, eagerly gave Sendak a contract for Where the Wild Horses Are, which she thought would be a "poetic and evocative" children's book. Unfortunately Sendak soon realized he could not really draw horses. When Nordstrom asked him what he could draw in their place, Sendak replied, "Things."

Sendak mused over the events and language for the story, trying to find just the right term for the eruption of chaos in the land of the imaginary wild things. He eventually took the term "rumpus" as a suggestion from Crockett Johnson, the author and illustrator of Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955) and husband of Sendak's early collaborator, Ruth Krauss.

The publisher was concerned about the emotional intensity of Sendak's story, and changes in the Where the Wild Things Are text continued up to its publication in the autumn of 1963. However, Sendak was determined that the story not change too much from his original manuscript, saying, "I wanted the wild things to be frightening." Regarding the book's publication, he said "there was no question ... Wild Things was a book that was going to bump into trouble."

Where the Wild Things Are immediately generated controversy among critics, some of whom had not even seen the book, who worried it might upset young children. Despite the fuss, readers soon took to Max and his wild adventure—proving perhaps Sendak's belief that children are "unprepared for most things, and what they most yearn for is a bit of truth." Where the Wild Things Are has long been a best seller and has been reprinted and widely translated around the world, having a great influence on countless other authors. In 2012 Library Journal asked its readers to name their favorite picture books; the book voted number one: Where the Wild Things Are.

Although Sendak preferred his books In the Night Kitchen (1970) and Higglety Piggelty Pop! (1967), Where the Wild Things Are established him as a master of the children's picture book and as an icon for young readers.

Sendak's Career after the Wild Things

Following Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak wrote and illustrated many more of his own works. He saw three of his books, Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, and Outside Over There (1981), as a trilogy about childhood survival and development. He summed them up, saying they each deal with "how children master various feelings ... come to grips with the realities of their lives." The three titles have completely different characters and settings, but follow a pattern of wildly imaginative plots featuring both outright and subtle resistance to parents and authority figures. All three books were banned or censored at various points.

Sendak cared about such negative responses to his work, sometimes complaining about them for years after the initial uproar had died down. Ultimately rejecting such negativity, perhaps being inspired by it, he continued to create his own books and illustrate the work of other writers and composers.

Sendak collected award after award for his work, including the Hans Christian Andersen Award, often referred to as the Nobel Prize for children's literature, which he won in 1970.

In addition to publishing, Sendak designed sets for operas and the Pacific Northwest Ballet's annual production of The Nutcracker, where a wild thing makes a brief honorary appearance. In 1990 he cofounded a nonprofit theatrical group, Night Kitchen, based at the State University of New York (SUNY).

Sendak mentored many young children's book writers and illustrators and also taught a course in picture books at Yale in 1971 and a book illustration class at New York's Parsons School of Design in 1973.

During his career Sendak wrote 17 children's books and illustrated more than 70 books by other authors. Maurice Sendak died on May 8, 2012, in Danbury, Connecticut. He once said of his books, "I [try to] draw the way children feel—or ... the way I imagine they feel." Sendak achieved that goal, as Max and his wild things still connect powerfully with children and adults around the world.

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