Maurice Sendak, widely considered one of the most important children’s book illustrators of the 20th century, passed away this week. I’d like to take this opportunity to look back at some of his work and highlight the creativity and imagination he brought to children’s literature.
Born in Brooklyn in 1928, Sendak decided to become a cartoonist after seeing Disney’s Fantasia at the age of twelve. He illustrated his high school biology teacher’s book, Atomics for the Millions, in 1947 and also did backgrounds for a book version of the popular comic strip Mutt and Jeff.
Throughout his career Sendak collaborated on many projects. Before writing his own stories, Sendak got his start illustrating children’s books written by other authors, such as Else Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear books, the first of which was published in 1957. Sendak also worked with other notable authors such as Ruth Kraus (author of Harold and the Purple Crayon) and Isaac Bashevis Singer – their collaboration on Zlateh the Goat, published in 1966, received a Newbery Award. Toward the end of his life, Sendak used his creativity and vast imagination to write and design for opera and ballet productions, including stage and costume designs for The Love for Three Oranges and a version of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker for the Pacific Northwest Ballet.
Having illustrated over 60 books, Sendak is of course best known for Where the Wild Things Are, first published in 1963. The initial reactions to the book were overwhelmingly negative, but eventually the adult critics of the book soon realized that children were
enamored of the story and illustrations, reading the book over and over again, and eventually the negativity died down. Where the Wild Things Are ultimately went on to win the Caldecott Medal in 1964. The popularity of the book is undeniable; the book has sold over 19 million copies and has been adapted to other media several times, including animated shorts (1973 and 1988), an opera (1980), and a live action film (2009).
Another of Sendak’s classic books, In the Night Kitchen, also caused a bit of controversy when first published in 1970 and continues to do so today. Many take issue with the fact that the main character, a little boy named Mickey, loses his clothing by page three and ends up exploring the city naked. Even though it is now considered a classic, In the Knight Kitchen still routinely appears on the American Library Association’s listings of frequently challenged and banned books, making the top ten as recently as 2004.
Throughout his long and prolific career, Sendak was honored with several awards, including the Caldecott Medal for Where the Wild Things Are in 1964, the Hans Christian Andersen Award for children’s book illustration in 1970, the National Book Award in category Picture Books for Outside Over There in 1982, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal in 1983, the National Medal of Arts in 1996, and the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, in 2003 (shared with Christine Nöstlinger).
In honor of Maurice Sendak’s life and work, there will be a small display of his books outside the doors to the Walter Havighurst Special Collections. The display will be up through the month of June.