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Maurice Sendak may be the best-known children’s author / illustrator in the world today. His artwork has become somewhat of an American icon; some even became the basis of an advertising campaign for Bell Atlantic. This extremely gifted genius was actually cultivating within Sendak since his childhood, and many different memories from his youth influenced the masterpieces he has created.
Born in Brooklyn on June 10th (coincidently, my birthday) 1928, Sendak has illustrated over 70 books and written at least 15 himself. He has also derived animated films for many of his stories, as well as stage productions of Where The Wild Things Are and Really Rosie. Currently, he illustrates the animated series Little Bear on Nickelodeon. Sendak grew up a sickly child who was not allowed to go outside often. Therefore, being the youngest child in a family of three, he was left alone with his imagination. He enjoyed drawing and reading from an early age, but was often dissatisfied with the children books that were available to him. He attempted to read what he called “real books” even when he was a young child; he felt it was an embarrassment even to enter the childrens’ section of the library. Sendak writes the type of books he wished he had as a child; entertaining stories which are not limited by any effort to make things so simple for children that they become mundane.
Sendak’s greatest influence as a writer was his father. Phillip Sendak was a wonderfully creative storyteller who amazed Maurice and his brother and sister. “He didn’t edit,” remarks Maurice in an interview with Marion Long. “It’s funny, because that’s what I’m accused of now: being a storyteller who tells children inappropriate things.” Sendak strongly believes that children are curious by nature, and so he must write stories which beckon the child to keep turning the pages. The best stories for children tell children exactly what they want to hear, with all the details. This is Sendak’s goal in his stories.
An absolutely amazing artist without any formal training, Sendak feels that his adoration for Mickey Mouse has influenced many of his illustrations. Sendak was calls Mickey Mouse one of the most dominant figures of his childhood. This “early best friend” influenced characters in his work, and many of the protagonists in the books he has written have first names beginning with the letter “M.” He used Max for Where the Wild Things Are, Martin in Very Far Away, and Mickey’s own name for In the Night Kitchen. However the style of classic Mickey Mouse was also influential in the creating the art of In the Night Kitchen, while his father’s no-holds-barred approach significantly shaped the plot.
Many Mickey Mouse type items appear in the illustrations of In The Night Kitchen. The oven in which the bakers bake is labeled “Mickey Oven” written in the same print type used by Walt Disney. The circular logos used on the first and last pages show Sendak’s character Mickey in the same pose commonly associated with Mickey Mouse. According to Sendak, the names on the food products in the kitchen are names of people associated with the production and animation of the famous mouse. Other American icons Sendak recalls from childhood appear in this book; the bakers, who originally were sketched as animals, all resemble Hardy of the comic team Laurel and Hardy. The writer was inspired to make this change by a rerun of one of their films on television, which he remembered enjoying in his youth. Being a childhood fan of nursery rhymes, Sendak modeled portions of his text from the classic language of Mother Goose: the line “I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me” is evolved from Goose’s rhyme, “I see the moon and the moon sees me.”
The plot of the story also emerged from accumulated childhood memories. Sendak recalls seeing a running advertisement for the Sunshine Bakers as a child. The slogan which appeared said, “We Bake While You Sleep.” Sendak remembers being most irritated by this ad; how dare they bake while he slept?! He wanted to stay up with them; he felt it was absolutely cruel for them to go off to some magical land to bake while he was forced to go to sleep. He designed this book as a sort-of vendetta, “To let them know that I was now old enough to stay up late at night and know what was happening In the Night Kitchen.”
The plot itself is about a boy named Mickey who hears noises in the night . Upon telling them “QUIET DOWN THERE,” he falls through the night, out of his clothes into the night kitchen where he encounters the three bakers. They first mistake Mickey for milk and throw him in their cake batter, but Mickey soon escapes, and in a messy escapade, saves the day by getting real milk in the batter. The story ends with Mickey falling back into bed. Dreams and imaginary worlds also heavily influence Sendak’s writing, and are a recurring theme in many of his other works.
Children exist in two worlds; reality and fantasy, according to Sendak. Reality is the boring, monotonous, day-to-day life. Fantasy is everything else: play, dreams, imagination, drawing, etc. This allows children to be who they want to be. Along with In The Night Kitchen, Sendak’s most famous book Where The Wild Things Are exemplifies a child’s dream world at best. One of Sendak’s earlier stories, The Sign On Rosie’s Door, exemplifies a child guided by her own imagination and features, “Real children, playing only as real children know how”. Only Sendak, who believes strongly that the little boy he once was still exists today could create such an accurate depiction.
The artwork in The Sign On Rosie’s Door is reminiscent of Sendak’s early years in Brooklyn. The stoops and neighborhood kids who play together in the boring summertime were common in almost every residential neighborhood in Brooklyn in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Although the art in this early work of Sendak much less vibrant than in Where The Wild Things Are and In The Night Kitchen, the creativity is all invested in Rosie’s character.
Rosie was, like Sendak himself, an artist. She was the most creative and imaginative child in the neighborhood, and she thrills and delights all the other children with her antics. Rosie decides that she is no longer Rosie, she is now, “Alinda, the lovely lady singer.” She has a certain charisma about her with which she can impose her fantasy on her less-imaginative friends and bring them into them in her world. She is by far the most popular child on the block because she makes the boring summer days more fun with the imaginary scenarios she creates.
This book inspired an animated film called Really Rosie. Rosie has made new friends, or as Sendak puts it “enslaves” the Nutshell Kids, who carry out her fantasies with her. The Nutshell Kids evolved from several books which form a literary collection called The Nutshell Library. These books are all very small in size, each one only about 2 + by 4 inches. This quartet consists of books with different purposes: an alphabet book called Alligators All Around, a counting rhyme book entitled Once Was Johnny, a months and seasons book called Chicken Soup With Rice, and a “cautionary tale” entitled Pierre. Together, these books gave Sendak the nickname of, “The Picasso of children’s books.” However, each one is unique and special in its own way, and serves an essential purpose in educating and entertaining children.
For example, the most widely sold volume Chicken Soup With Rice is designated as “A book of months,” and teaches children the names of the twelve months. However, the manner in which this is done is whimsical and entertaining. Each page is part of a long rhyme tells why a month is good for eating chicken soup with rice. This theme came from Sendak’s Jewish upbringing and the long standing belief that any malady could be cured with this magical potion. This story is dedicated to a neighbor from Brooklyn who was like a second mother to the three Sendak children who held this faith in the curative powers of good home cooking.
The artwork is extremely detailed without being overwhelming. These books won acclaim for their illustrations because they show so much in such a confined space. The pictures show the main character, who is a nameless version of Sendak’s typical Max/Mickey protagonist, always with a big smile over his soup. However the element of childhood creativity and imagination are never abandoned by Sendak, whose rhyme for June is written as follows:
In June I saw a charming group
of roses all begin to droop.
I pepped them up with chicken soup!
The imagery alone from these lines serves to be amusing, yet still conveys information about the month June being one where flowers grow.
My personal favorite book in The Nutshell Library is Pierre. Its mere presence as “a cautionary tale” among the three necessities of learning the alphabet, counting and the months of the year is bizarre, yet when we read Pierre we see its lesson is just as valuable.
Pierre is a young boy whose only line through most of the story is “I don’t care”. This modern fable shows his parents trying to get him to stop acting silly, and perhaps go out with them for the day. He refuses with his recurring line and stays home. A lion shows up at his house to eat him, and of course Pierre states that he does not care. The lion swallows Pierre, and upon his parent’s return Pierre is still saying “I don’t care” from the lion’s belly. They bring the lion to a doctor who is able to free Pierre, unharmed, from the lion. Then the lion offers the family a ride home on his back, if Pierre cared to accept. Finally he answers “Yes, indeed I care”.
Pierre teaches children the valuable lesson of what can happen when one is too indifferent and does not care about anything. For many children this is a common attitude. Apparently, Sendak feels as if this book is closest to himself out of the four in the library, since it is the only one with no dedication. He regards it as the one closest to his heart in the collection.
Throughout the years Maurice Sendak has made countless contributions to the world of children’s literature. His innovative techniques and styles emerge from his personality and his refusal to let the child he once was disappear. There are elements of his personality as well as elements of all children in every character he creates. He writes books about children, for children, as only a man with the child alive inside him could. His view on his writing is best depicted in the following excerpt from Sendak’s Caldecott acceptance speech for Where The Wild Things Are:
“Certainly we want to protect our children from new and painful
experiences that are beyond their emotional comprehension and that intensify
anxiety; and to a point we can prevent premature exposure to such experiences.
That is obvious. But what is just as obvious — and what is often overlooked —
is the fact that from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with
disrupting emotions, that fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday
lives, that they continually cope with frustration as best they can. And it
is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they
have for taming Wild Things.”
Kovacs, Deborah and Preller, James. (1991) Meet The Authors and Illustrators, vol.1. New York: Scholastic, Inc.
Lanes, Selma G. (1980). The Art of Maurice Sendak. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc Long, Marion. Maurice Sendak: A Western Canon, Jr. HomeArts (on-line). Available: http://homearts.com/depts/relat/sendakf1.htm
Marcus, Leonard S. (1988). A Caldecott Celebration: Six Artists and Their Paths to the Caldecott Medal. New York: Walker and Company.
Sendak, Maurice (1960) The Sign On Rosie’s Door. USA: Harper and Row.
Sendak, Maurice (1962). Chicken Soup With Rice: A Book Of Months. USA: Harper Trophy.
Sendak, Maurice (1962) Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and a Prologue. USA: Harper and Row.
Sendak, Maurice (1963) Where The Wild Things Are. USA: Harper Collins Publishers.
Sendak, Maurice (1970). In The Night Kitchen. USA: Harper and Row.
Weston Woods Studios (1996). The Maurice Sendak Library. (video recording).Weston, Connecticut: Weston Woods Studios: Scholastic.
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