Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak was a great artist although he always doubted his own abilities and achievments. He said he was merely an illustrator, though there must have been times when he knew that he was being overly modest.

Sendak and friend, 1985

In the 1950s there was a great effort to censor any work aimed at children. The crusade against comic books is well-known but fairy tales and children’s books were bowdlerized or banned as well. Bruno Bettelheim later wrote about the usefulness of fairy tales to children and how prevailing over giants was a worthwhile fantasy for small people in a large world, yet it took Bettelheim a while to come around to appreciating that Sendak was creating modern fairy tales, stories for children that included anxiety, imperfect parents, and death — stories that really spoke to children.

In the Night Kitchen greatly upset Freudian-minded folk because its hero, Mickey, falls out of his clothes, past his mother and father sleeping tight… and that recalls theories about incest and sleepwalking and catching parents in the act and all that guff. But most critics ignored the great topic of interest to children in the book: What’s going on downstairs after I have to go to bed? What are those noises and laughter? Is something cooking? I can recall times when I was five or six drifting into sleep and thinking about the magic times the adults (or someone) were having downstairs.

Sendak was proudest of Brundibar, a book based on an opera performed by children at Theresienstadt concentration camp as part of a Nazi public relations effort. He was also involved in a restaging of the opera. For kids, the book has a message: Bullies must be defied. For adults who know the back story and realize that the children who performed were later shipped off to Auschwitz, perhaps there is a different message or perhaps not.

Illustration for Brundibar

 Maurice Sendak never lied, except to his parents — he was afraid to tell them that he was gay. Children protect their parents, he said, “All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew.”

Preliminary drawing for Higglety, Pigglety, Pop

Sendak interviews:
Bill Moyers on PBS 
Hank Nuwer
New York Times, 2008

Rolling Stone article, 1976


2 comments on “Maurice Sendak

  1. nursemyra says:

    How sad that he couldn’t tell his parents. I have two sons, one gay and one straight, and I am equally proud of both of them.

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