Daily Features

Beyond the Wild Things

Casting a spotlight on the unseen Sendak

By Chappell Ellison, Superscript August 2, 2013

Contrary to its standing today, when Where the Wild Things Are was published in 1963, it was not widely regarded as an instant classic. Librarians issued warnings about the children’s book written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. “This is not a book you leave in the presence of sensitive children to find in the twilight,” one librarian said. Since its release, it has repeatedly been banned, criticized, and shunned for its depiction of a wild boy who defies authority and goes unpunished.

Maurice Sendak reads Where the Wild Things Are to a child at the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia. Photo: Frank Armstrong for the Rosenbach Musem & Library

“I think it was the first American children’s book … where the child actually daunts his mother and threatens her,” Sendak said in an interview with Bill Moyers in 2004. The seminal book established Sendak as the dark horse of the children’s literary world, setting the pace for a multifaceted career of an outspoken man who was determined to expose the hidden joys as well as the harsh realities of childhood, inspired by his own personal story.

Sendak’s career extends far beyond Where the Wild Things Are to include over 80 illustrated books, numerous posters, performances, and projects. “Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work,” an exhibition on display through August 17 at the Society of Illustrators in New York City, is a testament to his diversified portfolio; one highlight, for example, is his sketches and props for a production of The Nutcracker by the Pacific Northwest Ballet in 1983. Sketches show costumes and sets that embody Sendak’s darker, more macabre vision of The Nutcracker, a ballet that is traditionally “smoothed out” and “bland,” as Sendak once told NPR.

The Chinese Tiger dance in the Pacific Northwest Ballet production of The Nutcracker, with scenic and costume design by Maurice Sendak. Photo: Angela Sterling

Marking the 50th anniversary of Wild Things but spanning nearly 65 years of Sendak’s career, the exhibition features more than 200 previously unpublished works, including sketches, ephemera, and photographs. The accompanying catalogue from Abrams includes essays from scholars Marcus Iona Opie, Paul O. Zelinsky, and design authority Steven Heller. “[Sendak] opened a rich vein of possibilities for other artists whom he inspired,” writes Heller, “and who created their own symbolic visual languages, with which they could tell two or more stories at once—one for the public, the other for the self.”

Catalogue produced in conjunction with the exhibition “Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work.” Features essays by scholars Marcus Iona Opie, Paul O. Zelinsky, and design authority Steven Heller and edited by children's book historian Leonard S. Marcus (Abrams, 2013)

The wide range of Sendak’s work on display shows his evolving eye. Sendak took inspiration from the philosophies of poet and artist William Blake, the Romantic painter Philipp Otto Runge, and Pre-Raphaelite painter Arthur Hughes. An even closer examination of his work reveals traces of influences from the artists and thinkers he respected. His delicate sensitivity to color is reminiscent of celebrated children’s illustrator and author Beatrix Potter's animal studies. The design and layout of In the Night Kitchen (1970) clearly shows Sendak's admiration for illustrator and animator Winsor McCay's long-running early 20th-century Little Nemo series. Even though these influences peek out in many of his sketches, Sendak had his own individual style: mischievous, with delicate line work and imaginative, enduring characters.

Top: Final drawing for In the Night Kitchen. Pen and ink, watercolor. Maurice Sendak, 1970. Bottom: Panel from Little Nemo in Slumberland. Winsor McCay, 1905

But the somber undertone of Sendak’s work is ever present, as seen in the characters in Where the Wild Things Are, which were inspired from figures in his own life. “I didn’t want them to be traditional monsters, like griffins and gorillas and such like,” he told NPR’s Fresh Air in a 1986 interview. “I remember it took a very long time until that gestation occurred and when they began to appear on drawing paper …And it was only when I had them all that I realized they were all my Jewish relatives.” Much of Sendak’s family was killed during the Holocaust in Europe, a tragedy that stayed with him. Yet even after such a personal realization, Sendak happily lent his characters to worthy causes, designing posters for charities and literary events, including the International Year of the Child, New York Public Library’s Festival of Books, and Jewish Book Month.

Sendak, who passed away in May of 2012, did not live to see the exhibition come to fruition. Despite the decades of criticism he endured for exploring dark themes and tones in children’s literature, Sendak knew that his life’s work was to do what others would not: peek into a child’s mind and reveal its psychological nuances and even its darkness. As he told historian Leonard S. Marcus in a 2002 interview: “The question I am obsessed with is: how do children survive?”

Cow sculpture by Maurice Sendak, from the exhibition “Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work” at the Museum of American Illustration at the Society of Illustrators, New York. Photo: courtesy of curators Justin G. Schiller and Dennis M. V. David.

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