Author Spotlight: Maurice Sendak

Eliza Clark
September 26, 2011

When you hear the name Maurice Sendak, you automatically think of Where the Wild Things Are, the 1963 Caldecott Medal book that made him famous. Though much criticized when it first appeared, Where the Wild Things Are has remained a huge favorite, and attained almost cult status as a beloved classic. More recently, Spike Jonze's interpretation of the book in film has given powerful expression to the effect this book has had on the kids who grew up with it. Our culture's understanding of the "wild side" of early childhood has been, to a very large degree, shaped by this book. 

And yet, to know and love Wild Things is not to know and love Maurice Sendak.  He is author and/or illustrator to more than 100 books, some still widely read, others fallen into relative obscurity. Born in Brooklyn in 1928 to immigrant parents, he was inspired to become an illustrator by watching Disney's Fantasia at the age of twelve. (Another reason to love Fantasia!) Today, we have special reason to celebrate Sendak's "other books" because, at age 83, he has just published yet another one! So let us begin our tribute with a peek at Bumble-Ardy, the first book he has both authored and illustrated since 1981.

Bumble-Ardy is a young pig whose parents neglect ever to celebrate his birthday.  When he is orphaned and adopted by a doting aunt, he gets his chance to celebrate his ninth year in style.  The only problem: he goes behind his aunt's back to invite a bunch of "grubby swine" to a masquerade party while she's at work.  Chaos, high jinks and "dirty stunts" ensue as the grotesquely costumed pigs take over the house in a three-page illustrated spread that is distinctly reminiscent of a certain "wild rumpus" we all remember.  When Aunt Adeline interrupts the party, we are confronted with the rage, terror, love, compromise and forgiveness that can so quickly rend and then repair parent-child relationships.  It is an unsettling yet absorbing vision to say the least.

That unsettling feeling is the mark of many of the books Sendak has authored over the years.  A great favorite of ours, In the Night Kitchen (1970), tells the joyous, dream-like story of a boy who wakes from sleep to find himself in the surreal world of the "Night Kitchen" where three bakers stir him into the morning cake's batter.  Mickey escapes, protesting that he is not the milk, and flies off in an airplane made of dough to procure the missing ingredient.  Nothing could be stranger yet more memorable than this book.  Children giggle at the sight of naked Mickey floating in a bottle of milk, but it is the connection to their own dream-world that has them asking for this book again and again.

Another must-have for our shelves is The Nutshell Library, a collection of four small format books published in 1962.  With their clever rhymes and witty pictures, Alligators All Around, One Was Johnny and Chicken Soup with Rice remain our very favorite ABC, 123 and Months-of-the-Year books.  And to top off the series there is Pierre, that insufferable boy who "did not care."  Until, thanks to a hungry lion, he did care.  Maurice Sendak doesn't sugar-coat anything, least of all this "Cautionary Tale."

Of the remaining gems that Sendak authored himself, we adore Higglety Piggelty Pop!, Or: There Must Be More to Life (1967), the adventures of Jennie, a Sealyham terrier based on Sendak's own beloved dog, who goes out into the world to seek adventure and salami sandwiches.  Also high on our list is The Sign on Rosie's Door (1960), a tribute to children's engrossment in pretend play.  And we will always be fascinated if slightly disturbed by Outside Over There (1981), the story of a little girl Ida who must rescue her baby sister from goblins who have stolen her away to become a goblin's bride.  As in all his books, here Sendak transforms children's fears and feelings into images they can digest and understand.

And then there are so many other books that Sendak illustrated in his signature pen-and-ink style.  Of the scores of wonderful titles, we must mention three all-time favorites: the Little Bear series, still one of the very best early readers; Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present (a beautiful, gentle birthday story); and A Hole Is to Dig by Ruth Krauss, the very best vocabulary book ever made.

So many books to cherish! We feel lucky that our kids give us an excuse to spend time with the artwork of the great Maurice Sendak.

From the Parents

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