Today one of the world’s greatest children’s authors, Maurice Sendak, died aged 83. Sendak wrote and illustrated such influential works as ‘In The Night Kitchen’, ‘Higglety Pigglety Pop!’ and most notably ‘Where The Wild Things Are’, which had sold over 19 million copies between 1963 and 2010. His works have been adapted into cartoons, films and even operas. His style and voice was so unique, daring to capture a darker and more fraught side of childhood that most children’s picture books shy away from.
Born into a working class Polish Jewish family in Brooklyn on 10 June 1928, he was exposed to mortality and tragedy early on in his life, living through the Depression and the deaths of many of his relatives in the Holocaust. A sickly child, Maurice would spend hours lying in bed as his large extended family bustled around him. Their characteurs would become in inspiration for his Wild Things. He sold his first drawing in 1947 for a science textbook called Atomics for the Millions. During the 50’s his continued illustrating others children books before writing his own, a decision for which we are all the richer.
A melancholic man, his troubled perspective is evident in his work. His efforts to push the picture book into something deep saw him often facing controversy. His 1970 book ‘In the Night Kitchen’, depicts a young boy prancing naked through the story, making the work regularly appears on the American Library Association‘s list of “frequently challenged and banned books.” He dealt with subject matter that was never seen before in the genre. ‘In the Night Kitchen’ is a tribute to the nightlife of 1930’s New York. The kidnap of the Lindbergh baby is referenced in “Outside Over There,” in which a baby is carried off by goblins.
For many of us, picking up our first Sendak book is an experience you are not quick to forget. The ‘other worldliness’ of his illustrations and original stories make them a milestone of childhood. For me personally, I remember it being an introduction to a more subtle and sophisticated standard of storytelling. Maurice Sendak raised the bar and did not let it drop. He never patronised his reader telling us to behave and be nice. Instead he told us to be human. He told us to be wild.
A posthumous picture book, entitled, “My Brother’s Book”, is due for publication next February.