Fare Thee Well, Maurice Sendak

I’m just old enough that my introduction to Sendak came through the illustrations in Else Holmelund Minarik’s LITTLE BEAR books — including the story where Little Bear puts on his new space helmet and informs his mother that he’s going to the moon. (She tells him to be back in time for lunch, and of course he is.) It wasn’t until I was reading aloud to my youngest siblings that I discovered an intrepid explorer bound for even more distant adventures.

Margalit Fox at the NYTimes has a wonderful eulogy:

Maurice Sendak, widely considered the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century, who wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery and plunged it into the dark, terrifying and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche, died on Tuesday in Danbury, Conn. He was 83.

The cause was complications of a recent stroke, said Michael di Capua, his longtime editor. Mr. Sendak, who died at Danbury Hospital, lived nearby in Ridgefield, Conn.

Roundly praised, intermittently censored and occasionally eaten, Mr. Sendak’s books were essential ingredients of childhood for the generation born after 1960 or thereabouts, and in turn for their children. He was known in particular for more than a dozen picture books he wrote and illustrated himself, most famously “Where the Wild Things Are,” which was simultaneously genre-breaking and career-making when it was published by Harper & Row in 1963…

Maurice Bernard Sendak was born in Brooklyn on June 10, 1928; his father, Philip, worked in the garment district of Manhattan. Family photographs show the infant Maurice, or Murray as he was then known, as a plump, round-faced, slanting-eyed, droopy-lidded, arching-browed creature — looking, in other words, exactly like a baby in a Maurice Sendak illustration. Mr. Sendak adored drawing babies, in all their fleshy petulance.

A frail child beset by a seemingly endless parade of illnesses, Mr. Sendak was reared, he said afterward, in a world of looming terrors: the Depression; World War II; the Holocaust, in which many of his European relatives perished; the seemingly infinite vulnerability of children to danger. He experienced the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby in 1932 as a personal torment: if that fair-haired, blue-eyed princeling could not be kept safe, what certain peril lay in store for him, little Murray Sendak, in his humble apartment in Bensonhurst?…

As Mr. Sendak grew up — lower class, Jewish, gay — he felt permanently shunted to the margins of things. “All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy,” he told The New York Times in a 2008 interview. “They never, never, never knew.” …

Many more wonderful stories at the link. Read it, and savor Sendak’s genius with another fan:

43 replies
  1. 1
    jon says:

    Love that man. His way of looking at the world was always wistful. His world wasn’t.

  2. 2
    Joey Maloney says:

    That is indeed a lovely obit.

    One of the first “real” (i.e., not for chewing on) books I ever owned was a hardcover copy of WTWTA. I was probably three or four, and I remember the embossed gold Caldecott emblem on the book’s jacket was a source of endless fascination.

  3. 3
    isildur says:

    Where the Wild Things Are is pretty much my four year old’s favorite ‘story’ book. He’s autistic and prefers non-fiction about the solar system, but is always down for the adventures of Max.

    I’ve had to read a lot of kid’s books aloud over the past four years, and you never really appreciate well-written children’s prose until you read it out loud night after night after night.

    Sendak’s writing is some of the most eloquent and well-constructed there is. Reading it (or Goodnight Moon) is like driving a luxury car, compared to some of the more recent stuff in our collection.

  4. 4
    joel hanes says:

    Early work I loved:

    Now What Do You Say, Dear?

    A Hole Is To Dig

    and the original illustrations for the Newbery-winning
    The Wheel On The School by Meindert DeJong

  5. 5
    joel hanes says:

    that said, this:

    who wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery

    can only have been written by someone deprived of an early-life encounter with Arthur Rackham.

  6. 6
    R-Jud says:

    Our kid loves “Outside Over There”. I adore the illustrations, including the crazy outsized feet. Sendak always said he never did get the hang of drawing feet.

  7. 7
    brantl says:

    Nice to see a book being read to children by a president who can, you know, actually read.

  8. 8
    Nicole says:

    My roommate post-college was an aspiring costume designer. She constructed the costumes for a play Sendak wrote- I say “constructed” because he of course had very specific drawings for her of what he wanted the characters to look like. It was a hilariously funny play, the costumes looked great, and, when she applied to grad school, he wrote her a letter of recommendation. A very kind thing to do for a young designer.

  9. 9
    Ben Cisco says:

    I remember the books from my childhood. Little Bear was made into a series for Noggin/Nick Jr., and I will admit to watching even when my grandnephew wasn’t around.

  10. 10
    Kobekid says:

    Sendak was on Colbert earlier this year

    http://www.colbertnation.com/t.....pt–1

    http://www.colbertnation.com/t.....pt–2

    and on today’s show Colbert paid tribute to Sendak by showing some of their conversation that didn’t make it into the clips above

    http://www.colbertnation.com/t.....ak-tribute

  11. 11
    beltane says:

    @isildur: I have five kids and the only two children’s books which have managed not to grate on my nerves after repeated readings (and I mean every night for a period of several months) are Where The Wild Things Are and Mother Goose. I even used to punctuate my WTWTA reading with time for the children to have a wild rumpus of their own.

  12. 12
    RP says:

    I love Sendak, but the claim that he’s “widely considered the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century” seems a little off. It’s not clear that he’s more or even as important as Dr. Suess.

  13. 13
    cathyx says:

    I read his books to my daughter over and over and over and over again while she was growing up. His books were always the ones my daughter picked every night for bedtime. Especially the Little Bear series. They were so cute that I never got tired of reading them to her either.

  14. 14
    satby says:

    My sons are adults with children of their own, and I still have their Maurice Sendak books from when they were little, now to read to the grandchildren. RIP Maurice, at least you lived long enough to see gays become(mostly)accepted in society so that your entire life didn’t need to be spent in the closet.

  15. 15
    Nicole says:

    @RP: I think they mean “Besides Dr Seuss.” You know, like, “Besides Mozart.”

  16. 16
    cathyx says:

    That part of the book that is in the picture above is one of my favorites. On the next page, Mama takes off all of his clothes so that he then has a fur coat on, and he goes out happily to play, nice and warm.

  17. 17
    dedc79 says:

    Feel fortunate to have grown up in a world where his books were a part of childhood

  18. 18
    Michael Finn says:

    Wait…

    His books were eaten?

  19. 19
    gogol's wife says:

    @joel hanes:

    Thanks for reminding me of The Wheel on the School.

  20. 20
    handsmile says:

    Happy to see this “front-page” tribute to the visionary Maurice Sendak, particularly after the number of comments expressing sadness at his passing that appeared on several threads yesterday; thanks, Anne Laurie.

    Posted this yesterday, but it’s worth a repeat: a wonderful interview with Sendak published in the Guardian in October 2011: http://www.guardian.co.uk/book.....intcmp=239

    Now a question. mrs. handsmile and I have no children nor do we now have any young (<10) nieces or nephews. For those who do or are better acquainted with contemporary childrens' literature, who are/are there authors who have compiled/are compiling a body of work that can stand comparison with Seuss, Russell Hoban, Sendak?

  21. 21
    Bobby Thomson says:

    @Michael Finn:

    Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”

    He was a mensch.

  22. 22
    Bruce S says:

    @Kobekid:

    That Colbert interview is the indispensable remembrance of Sendak.

  23. 23
    donnah says:

    My oldest son was in the hospital with leukemia when he was three. Our favorite books were Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, Goodnight Moon, and Where the Wild Things Are. During those trying times with a sick little boy, we found great comfort in repeating those stories over and over.

    The days we could elicit a growl from the patient were good days. So thanks, Maurice, for your amazing talent. My son is now 25 and is fine. :-)

  24. 24
    Mnemosyne says:

    @RP:

    It’s a tricky comparison, because Seuss really transformed children’s books, but he wasn’t much of an illustrator. (A brilliant caricaturist, but not really an illustrator.) In some ways, Sendak was a throwback to the intricate work of brilliant illustrators of the early 20th century like Anne Anderson or Kay Nielsen.

    Seuss transformed children’s books as literature, but Sendak transformed them as art. Does that make more sense?

    ETA: The other difference between Sendak and earlier illustrators is that he used those same skills to illustrate modern stories (some of which he wrote himself), not classic fairy tales.

  25. 25

    “You can’t have that wish, Little Bear.” has stayed on as a recurring punchline and/or observation in our household, long after we bequeathed the books to a preschool library…

  26. 26
  27. 27
    Brachiator says:

    Yesterday, Gawker had a great link to various items about Sendak (Wild Things: Drawings, Quotes and Memories from Maurice Sendak).One tidbit:

    Sendak on Death: “I have nothing now but praise for my life. I’m not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more. … What I dread is the isolation. … There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.”.

    Wild Thang, you make my heart sang.

  28. 28

    @Bobby Thomson: He was a mensch.

    While his Jewish identity isn’t prominent or even present in most of his works, he knew how to walk and talk the culture. Listen to his klezmer adaptation of Peter and the Wolf, Pincus and the Pig. [warning: audio auto-play at that link]

  29. 29
    Yutsano says:

    Everyone has the strong memory of “Where The Wild Things Are”. But this is my strongest Sendak memory.

  30. 30
    Death Panel Truck says:

    @RP: I always prefered Dr. Seuss. I still have my childhood copies of Yertle the Turtle, The King’s Stilts and Scrambled Eggs Super. Some of the rhymes in Scrambled Eggs Super read like Mobius strips.

  31. 31

    @Yutsano: Awesome. How about this one?

    Bumble Ardy had a party when he was nine.
    Which isn’t bad. In fact it’s fine…
    …except, he asked nine groovy swine
    to come for birthday cake and wine
    at ten-past-nine.
    Which isn’t bad. In fact it’s fine…
    …except, his mom, sweet Adeline,
    who left the house at one past nine
    to go to work at Smith & Klein
    just hated swine to drink her wine!
    Even on a day so fine
    as Bumble’s birthday number nine.
    So,
    he simply didn’t tell her.

  32. 32

    @Mnemosyne: In some ways, Sendak was a throwback to the intricate work of brilliant illustrators of the early 20th century like Anne Anderson or Kay Nielsen.

    I’ve always seen a bit of Windsor McCay in Sendak’s work — not only stylistically, but also with his affinity for dream landscapes.

  33. 33
    canuckistani says:

    I don’t know how many times my daughter and I read WTWTA. Those monsters seem to be just scary enough to exert a thrilling fascination on small minds. We always read it at bedtime, so having a wild rumpus was never in the order of operations. Ah well, there will be grandchildren soon enough, and getting them quietly to sleep won’t be my responsibility.

  34. 34
    rikyrah says:

    Where the Wild Things Are is one my favorites.

    RIP, Mr. Sendak

  35. 35
    rea says:

    I still eat chicken soup with rice regularly, as a result of reading Sendak as a small child.

  36. 36
    KRK says:

    As a kid I thought WTWTA was fine enough, but I loved In the Night Kitchen. And seeing Sendak’s take on The Nutcracker ballet was a thrill.

  37. 37
    gnomedad says:

    “Do you see that? He’s coming at the dog with a folk! Like he was gonna eat it!”

    The Prez wins the internetz.

  38. 38
    cckids says:

    @isildur:

    you never really appreciate well-written children’s prose until you read it out loud night after night after night.

    You’re so right. I read Where the Wild Things Are so many times to my then 3-yr-old son that I had it completely memorized, which came in handy during traffic jams.

    “On the night when Max wore his wolf suit & made mischief of one kind and another . . . ” Pure magic.

  39. 39

    Stare into Congress’ eyes without blinking, Mister President.

  40. 40
    wobbly says:

    Never liked his work, nor did my sons. Overdrawn and garish,
    and the childhood is a nightmare stuff is as old and older than the Brothers Grimm.

    They liked WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS, by Shel Silverstein, and THE GIVING TREE, by the same man who died years ago, without much ado.

    And a gem called SWIMMY, by Leo Leonni. Its final image was actually turned into a kid sized tee-shirt by Northern Sun years back with the slogan ORGANIZE! written large beneath it.

    My first son wore it proudly when I bought it for him, but the second wasn’t that happy when I put it on him, thanks to its “hand me down” provenance. But he did agree with the lesson imprinted.

    Check out SWIMMY, and give Leonni his due.

  41. 41
    Lyrebird says:

    @joel hanes: This this this THIS!

    Halfway through grad school I bought a new copy of A Hole Is To Dig bc my childhood one is off in the ether…

    So sad to hear the news, so glad he shared his art with the world… and the only reason I checked de Jong’s (wonderful) book out of the school library in the first place was because it had Sendak illustrations in it — figured it had to be good!

    I had most of the Nutshell Library memorized even before our school did “Really Rosie”.

    Your memory, MS, is a blessing…

  42. 42
    Lyrebird says:

    @wobbly: Interesting, maybe we can use kids books as a new personality test! I love WTWTA, abhor Swimmy, and even as I child I was stunned by the boy’s selfishness in The Giving Tree. Takes all kinds, right?

  43. 43
    Herbal Infusion Bagger says:

    “Maurice Sendak, widely considered the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century, who wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery and plunged it into the dark, terrifying and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche,”

    Like others have said, it’s hard to see Sendak ranked over Seuss. It’s hard to see Sendak getting published without Seuss blazing the trail for surrealist children’s literature.

    Having said that, I can’t read my kid “Brundibar” without ending up in tears by the end.

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