Among the Wild Things: Maurice Sendak’s Fantastic Imagination

Caponera and Weinberg described how Sendak labored methodically, industriously, as if his life depended on it — which, in a way, it did. There were periods when Sendak stayed in his room for days at a time — not eating, sometimes physically ill. “You weren’t allowed to speak in the house,” Weinberg said. Read more at: “How Maurice Sendak lived with his own wild things” published recently in the The Seattle Times.

Nat Hentoff’s article on Sendak in The New Yorker -published in Jan. 1966: As a writer, as an illustrator, and as both, Sendak has been associated with a number of successful children’s books of the past decade. In addition to the “Little Bear” series, the “Nutshell Library,” and “Where the Wild Things Are,” there have been “A Hole Is to Dig,” written by Ruth Krauss, “The Bat-Poet” and “The Animal Family,” both written by the late Randall Jarrell, “Lullabies and Night Songs,” with music by Alec Wilder, and “Hector Protector.” More than fifty other children’s books contain illustrations by Sendak, and more than half a dozen have texts by him; many of them sell well enough to keep Sendak surprised by his affluence.

Sendak has trouble believing in his commercial success largely because his creations are so much at variance with the sort of thing that usually sells well in his field. Far too many contemporary picture books for the young are still populated by children who eat everything on their plates, go dutifully to bed at the proper hour, and learn all sorts of useful facts or moral lessons by the time the book comes to an end. The illustrations are usually decorative rather than imaginative, and any fantasy that may be encountered either corresponds to the fulfillment of adult wishes or is carefully curbed lest it frighten the child. Many of these books, homogenized and characterless, look and read as if they had been put together by a computer. Sendak’s work, on the other hand, is unmistakably identifiable as his. He will not illustrate to order, increasingly depending on himself as the writer, and, when he illustrates the texts of others, choosing only those that seem real to him. “Maurice is not an artist who just does an occasional book for children because there’s money in it or because he thinks it will give him an easy change of pace,” Sendak’s editor, Ursula Nordstrom, who is director of the children’s book department of Harper & Row, has said. “Children’s books are all he does and all he wants to do. His books are full of emotion, of vitality. When one of his lines for a drawing is blown up, you find that it’s not a precise straight line. It’s rough with ridges, because so much emotion has gone into it. Too many of us—and I mean editors along with illustrators and writers of children’s books—are afraid of emotion. We keep forgetting that children are new and we are not. But somehow Maurice has retained a direct line to his own childhood.” Sendak, moreover, does not subscribe to the credo that childhood is a time of innocence—a point of view that, as it is usually interpreted, results in tales and pictures soothing to parents but unreal to the children. The young in Sendak’s books—particularly the books he writes himself—are sometimes troubled and lonely, they slip easily into and out of fantasies, and occasionally they are unruly and stubborn. Nor are they the bright, handsome boys and softly pretty little girls who are so numerous in so many picture books for children. The Sendak boys and girls tend to appear truncated, having oversized heads, short arms, and quite short legs.

In the past few years, I have become increasingly interested in Sendak’s work, reading his books for my own pleasure as well as for the amusement of my children. His drawings, I have found, are oddly compelling. Intensely, almost palpably alive, they seem to move on the page and, later, in memory. This quality is pervasive in “Where the Wild Things Are,” the story of a boy named Max who assumes a demonic face and puts on a wolf suit one night and makes mischief. His mother calls him a “WILD THInG!” and Max answers, “I’LL EAT YOU UP!” He is sent to bed without his supper. Standing in his room, Max watches a forest grow until it becomes the world. An ocean tumbles by with a boat in it for Max, and he sails to where the wild things are. The wild things—a colony of monsters—try to frighten Max, but, frowning fiercely, he commands them to be still. Cowed, they make Max King of the Wild Things. Then, at Max’s order, a rumpus begins—six wordless pages of howling, dancing, tree-climbing, and parading by Max and the wild things. Max presently stops the revels, though, and sends the wild things to bed without their supper, and then, feeling lonely, gives up his crown. The wild things so hate to see Max leave that they try to scare him into staying, but he is not intimidated, and he sails back to his room, where he finds his supper waiting for him. More here.

Nat Hentoff, who published more than thirty books, died in 2018. He wrote for The New Yorker from 1959 to 1990.