Many years ago at the American Booksellers Meetings in Los Angeles, one of the speakers was bestselling children’s author, Maurice Sendak. This author of the bestseller Where the Wild Things Are was very entertaining at this breakfast and colorful. It’s the only time I’ve heard Sendak speak.
I’ve always been fascinated reading about the background of authors. The April 17th issue of The New Yorker contains a detailed seven page profile of Sendak called “Not Nice, Maurice Sendak and the perils of childhood” by Cynthia Zarin. Unfortunately the magazine didn’t put the entire piece online—so go to your news stand or some other way to see the entire piece. I want to highlight a couple of paragraphs that caught my attention about this talented author.
Zarin writes about the themes that Sendak has selected for his writing saying, “Like every Sendak story, “Where the Wild Things Are” explores his preoccupations, chief among which are the vicissitudes of his own childhood, and the temerity and fragility of children in general. His narrative is almost always about a child in danger whose best defense is imagination. The book editor Michael di Capua, who has worked with Sendak for more than forty years, calls this “the story.” In September, Scholastic will publish Sendak’s first pop-up book, “Mommy?,” about a baby who finds himself in the wrong house, and defeats one monster after another. “ ‘Mommy?’ is the story again!” di Capua says. The cartoonist Art Spiegelman told me, “Maurice reinvented what a children’s book is: it’s a book.”
HarperCollins, Sendak’s longtime publisher, estimates that there are about seventeen million copies of “Where the Wild Things Are” in circulation. Its success has allowed Sendak to pick and choose his projects: “Max is a useful child. What other four- or five-year-old allows his father to stay home and sulk?”
In light of the long-term sales of Where the Wild Things Are, look at the reaction to this book when it was first published: “The year after the “Nutshell Library” appeared, Sendak published “Where the Wild Things Are.” Publishers Weekly, while praising the “frightening” illustrations, noted that they accompanied “a pointless and confusing story”; a librarian reviewer wrote, “It is not a book to be left where a sensitive child may come upon it at twilight.” The book won the Caldecott Medal for the best picture book of 1963, but Sendak encountered the same mixture of condemnation and approbation with the publication, in 1970, of “In the Night Kitchen,” in which a naked, gleeful little boy called Mickey narrowly avoids being made into a cake. Even into the nineteen-nineties, because of Mickey’s nakedness, it was routinely banned from school libraries, but it now sells almost as many copies per year as “Where the Wild Things Are.”
Finally look at what I learned about how this writer/ artist practices his craft. Journalist Cynthia Zarin keenly makes this observation during a lunch in New York City, “We were eating an apple crisp, and Sendak suddenly moved his fork from his right hand to his left hand. “This is delicious,” he said. “See, look, if I like something I switch to my left hand.” As a child, he was hit with a ruler for using his left hand; he draws with his right.” Sendak is now 78 years old and the detail was a reminder to me at how the education world has changed since Sendak was in grade school.