Sendak, Maurice (b. 1928)

Maurice Sendak, one of the greatest twentieth-century writers and illustrators of children's books, as well as a gifted opera and ballet set and costume designer, was born in "a land called Brooklyn," on June 10, 1928, the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants. After a mediocre high school career and some part-time art training, he took a job in 1948 as a window dresser at the F.A.O. Schwartz toy store. The book buyer there introduced him in 1950 to the children's book editor at Harper and Brothers, a meeting that resulted in eighty books in more than a dozen languages selling more than seven million copies.

Sendak illustrated some fifty books by other authors during the 1950s and early 1960s while also doing storyboards for advertising firms and covers for adult fiction. Where the Wild Things Are (1963), the first book he both wrote and illustrated, established his reputation as an artist and writer of extraordinary psychological power. In the story Max's mother exiles him to his bedroom without supper for chasing the family dog. (Dogs are a recurring creature in Sendak's works.) "I'll eat you up," Max responds before encountering and taming the fantasy monsters of his rage–his old country Jewish relatives Sendak once remarked–and coming to peace with himself. The book stirred enormous controversy because its illustrations were said to be too frightening and its hero's anger too explicit. "It is my involvement with this inescapable fact of childhood–the awful vulnerability of children and their struggle to make themselves King of all Wild Things–that gives my work whatever power and passion it may have" Sendak said in accepting the Caldecott Medal in 1964.

In the Night Kitchen (1970), offensive to some because of the full frontal nudity of its protagonist Mickey, and the last of what might be seen as a trilogy, Outside Over There (1981), in which a young girl saves her baby sister from goblins who have stolen her from a peaceful landscape dominated by the figure of Mozart, engage the same "inescapable facts." Sendak's first book after more than ten years, We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy: Two Nursery Rhymes with Pictures (1993), is about a band of homeless children. Living in boxes under a bridge in a nightmare city, wrapped in New York Times real estate pages, and surrounded by emblems of AIDS, they save a baby from rats. The infant sleeps in Jack's arms. It is the Where the Wild Things Are of a rawer age.

Sendak is a passionate music lover–especially of Mozart–who began working in the theater in 1979. His opera projects, most explicitly Hansel and Gretel but also The Magic Flute and Idomeneo, engage in the same themes as his books: children triumphing over danger, fear and love of parents, and food and eating. He also has illustrated adult literature, most notably a 1995 edition of Herman Melville's Pierre. Sendak received the National Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1996.

See also: Children's Literature.


Lanes, Selma G., and Robert Morton. 1993. The Art of Maurice Sendak. New York: Abradale Press/Henry Adams.


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