On This Day

Hard Concepts, Passionate Things: The Sublime Art of Maurice Sendak

On June 10th, 1928, Maurice Sendak was born in Brooklyn, New York, and the world of children’s literature gained one of its greatest artists (although it would take a few more years before that fact became apparent…). At the age of twelve, Sendak walked into a movie theater to see Walt Disney’s Fantasia and walked out hell-bent on becoming an illustrator, and so he did—starting out by providing the art for a science textbook, Atomics for the Millions, and quickly becoming a sought-after illustrator of children’s books throughout the 1950s.

The best, as they say, was yet to come.

In 1956, Kenny’s Window—the first book both written and illustrated by Sendak—was published by Harper, and it was truly lovely. It was quickly followed by a string of delightful works: Very Far Away, The Sign On Rosie’s Door, and The Nutshell Library. In 1963, Sendak produced an instant classic, Where The Wild Things Are, which received international acclaim and remains, arguably, his best-known and most popular book.

Following the success of Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak became known for testing the limits of conventional children’s lit, both in terms of his art and his subject matter, which was often characterized as being darker and more subversive than most contemporary picture books. 1970’s In The Night Kitchen, a joyfully surreal romp through a toddler’s dreamscape, famously caused controversy with its depiction of its naked protagonist, Mickey, and continues to pop up on annual lists of most frequently banned and challenged books.

Outside Over There (1981) relates the story of Ida, a young girl who must rescue her baby sister from a horde of goblins—Sendak based the story on his own childhood memories of his older sister, Natalie, as well as his anxiety over the sensational Lindbergh kidnapping in 1932. As a small boy, his awareness of the case and its tragic outcome deeply affected him, and helped contribute to the themes of mortality and danger which inform so much of his later work.

On a similar note, 1993’s We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy features a community of homeless children, another stolen baby, poverty, illness, abandonment…when asked if children would have an adverse reaction to such troubling themes, Sendak insisted that only adults tend to recoil from such harsh realities:

Grown-ups desperately need to feel safe, and then they project onto the kids […] But what none of us seem to realize is how smart kids are. They don’t like what we write for them, what we dish up for them, because it’s vapid, so they’ll go for the hard words, they’ll go for the hard concepts, they’ll go for the stuff where they can learn something, not didactic things, but passionate things.

In spite of the occasional bleakness and sense of danger at the edges of Sendak’s work, however, an all-pervading sense of hopefulness lies at the heart of each of his books—an awareness of potential threats and darker emotions does not necessarily translate into pessimism. I find it helpful to think of Sendak’s approach to childhood in terms of the sublime—throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, various thinkers and poets explored the concept of the sublime as a way of describing a state of emotion or an idea too vast or complex for human consciousness to fully grasp and understand. At the risk of oversimplifying a rather complex idea, the experience of the sublime is often characterized as a mixture of terror, even pain, and ecstatic pleasure at encountering the unknown and awe-inspiring…and in some ways, isn’t childhood one long, epic encounter with the unknown?

Sendak had a way of making the ordinary trappings of childhood (tantrums, sibling rivalry, birthday parties, annoying encounters with overbearing relatives) seem fantastical and bizarre, and by the same token, he gave his protagonists a kind of glorious equanimity in the face of man-eating lions, monsters, goblins, and even emotionally needy Wild Things. Without ever moralizing, preaching, or adopting a didactic tone, Sendak presented his readers with the courage to navigate the complicated territory between loneliness and belonging, knowing when to walk away from an unsatisfying existence in search of something better, and when to come home again to surrender happily to the people who love you. More than anything, his heroes revel in the chaos of living life—in the thrill of just being alive, with all of its attendant drama, its perils, occasional doldrums, and exultant, joyful heights.

Beyond writing his own books, Sendak continued to illustrate children’s books, collections of fairy tales, poetry, classic literature, and plays throughout his career, as well as designing the sets for many operas, ballets, and stage productions. In the 1990s, he collaborated with playwright Tony Kushner to produce a new translation of the children’s opera Brundibár, which was first performed by children interned at Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia in 1943. Sendak, who had lost many relatives in the Holocaust, published an illustrated book based on the opera, with text by Kushner in 2003, and the newly translated opera premiered the same year. His work has also been adapted to TV, stage musicals, and film, from the animated Really Rosie (starring Carole King) to the live action movie version of Where The Wild Things Are which premiered in 2009.

Sendak’s life, like his work, was a fascinating blend of high art, straight talk, and wry humor. He maintained a lifelong love of Disney, Mickey Mouse, and of course Fantasia, as well as a passionate devotion to Mozart, Melville, and the poetry of Emily Dickinson. He received countless awards, medals, and other honors over the course of his career and became known for his caustic wit and gruff, irascible persona—he did not suffer fools, but he loved his young fans and always responded to children’s letters. He was grumpy and cantankerous and beloved, a celebrity who lived quietly with his partner, Dr. Eugene Glynn, for fifty years, before Glynn passed away in 2007. When Sendak died in 2012 at the age of 83, accolades poured forth from everyone from Neil Gaiman to Spike Jonze to Stephen Colbert, who noted that “we are all honored to have been briefly invited into his world.”

As a lifelong fan of his books, I never thought to send Maurice Sendak a letter when I had the chance—looking back, I honestly don’t know why it never occurred to me. But today, on his birthday, I’d like to thank him for creating stories in which children are never judged harshly for being wild, for being impetuous, or willful, or less than sensible. He didn’t force his characters to behave as miniature adults, but treated them instead as surprisingly perceptive, surprisingly powerful beings whose wildness and vulnerability never undermine their intelligence or integrity in the least. He was honest about the fact that the world can be an absurd and confusing place, but encouraged us to face the unknown with courage, and hoped that we might find joy along the way. He showed us how to see the world not as scary, but sublime.

This article was originally published June 10, 2014 on Tor.com

Bridget McGovern is the managing editor of Tor.com. She lives in Brooklyn with a wild thing named Max.

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