Following his brother Jack's example, Maurice first began writing his own stories when he was about nine, hand-lettering and illustrating them on uniform pages, then binding them with tape and decorated covers. He combined cutout newspaper photographs and comic strips with sketches of the Sendak family. And he began to draw.
"I was miserable as a kid," Sendak recalls. "I couldn't make friends, I couldn't play stoopball terrific, I couldn't skate great. I stayed home and drew pictures. You know what they all thought of me: sissy Maurice Sendak.
When I wanted to go out and do something, my father would say: 'You'll catch a cold.' And I did... I did whatever he told me.
"People imagine that I was aware of Palmer and Blake and English graphics and German fairy tales when I was a kid. That came later. All I had then were popular influences – comic books, junk books, Gold Diggers movies, monster films, King Kong, Fantasia. I remember a Mickey Mouse mask that came on a big box of cornflakes. What a fantastic mask! Such a big, bright, vivid, gorgeous hunk of face! And that's what a kid in Brooklyn knew at the time."
In the Night Kitchen, one of Sendak's greatest works, shows little Mickey falling naked through the night into the Oliver Hardy bakers' dough, kneading and pounding it into a Hap Harrigan plane, flying over the city, diving into a giant milk bottle, then sliding back into his bed to sleep. It is a work that pays extraordinary homage to Sendak's early aesthetic influences – especially to Winsor McCay – to the cheap, full-color children's books of the period, as well as to the feelings about New York City he had as a little boy.
"When I was a child," he told Virginia Haviland, "there was an advertisement which I remember very clearly. It was for the Sunshine bakers, and it read: 'We Bake While You Sleep!' It seemed to me the most sadistic thing in the world, because all I wanted to do was stay up and watch... it seemed so absurdly cruel and arbitrary for them to do it while I slept. And also for them to think I would think that that was terrific stuff on their part, and would eat their product on top of that. It bothered me a good deal, and I remember I used to save the coupons showing the three fat little Sunshine bakers going off to this magic place at night, wherever it was, to have their fun, while I had to go to bed. This book was a sort of vendetta book to get back at them and to say that I am now old enough to stay up at night and know what's happening in the Night Kitchen!
"Another thing is: I lived in Brooklyn, and to travel to Manhattan was a big deal, even though it was so close. I couldn't go by myself, and I counted a good deal on my elder sister. She took my brother and me to Radio City Music Hall, or the Roxy, or some such place. Now, the point of going to New York was that you ate in New York. Somehow to me New York represented eating. And eating in a very fashionable, elegant, superlatively mysterious place like Longchamps. You got dressed up, you went uptown – it was night when you got there and there were lots of windows blinking – and you went straight to a place to eat. It was one of the most exciting things of my childhood. Cross the bridge and see the city approaching, get there and have your dinner, then go to a movie and come home. So, again, In the Night Kitchen is a kind of homage to New York City, the city I loved so much and still love."
At 15, Sendak worked after school drawing backgrounds for All-American Comics, adapting Mutt and Jeff comic strips, fitting them into a page, filling in backgrounds (puffs of dust under running heels) and extending the story line when necessary.
"I began illustrating my own books during this period," Maurice recalls. "My first book was Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince, which is a story I don't admire anymore, but as a young person I felt was extraordinary. And I illustrated Bret Harte's The Luck of Roaring Camp. It was my favorite story, and what is it about? A baby that is adopted by a lot of rough men, lumberjacks – an illegitimate child abandoned after the death of its mother, I'm writing a book now about a baby – most of my books are about babies – and it seems as if I've been doing the same thing since I was six years old. I'm a few inches taller and I have a graying beard, but otherwise there's not much difference.
"People used to comment continually on the fact that the children in my books looked homely – Eastern European Jewish as opposed to the flat, oilcloth look considered normal in children's books. They were just Brooklyn kids, old-looking before their time. But a baby does look 100 years old.
"I love babies' faces and I draw them all the time. They're uncanny. When my father was dying, he'd dwindled – he had the body shape of a boy – and as I held him, I noticed that his head had become bigger than the rest of him and was rolling back like an infant's. Death at that moment was like going to sleep: 'Shhhh, it will be all right.' It's what you'd say to a feverish baby, except that he was dead.
"Infants' heads are wonderful to draw because they're so big and ungainly. You know how they fall back? Babies cry when they're held badly, they always know when they think they're going to be dropped, and when some klutz holds them, they cry. They're enormous kvetches with those mean little faces – 'Give me this!' – and at the same time there's a look that they get that makes them so vulnerable, poignant and lovable."
Shortly after graduating high school, he began to work full time at Timely Service, a window-display house in lower Manhattan, where he assisted in the construction of store-window models of figures such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs made out of chicken wire, papiermçhé, spun glass, plaster and paint. With his brother, he began to make animated wooden toys that performed scenes from Little Miss Muffet and Old Mother Hubbard, which led to his being hired as a window-display assistant at F.A.O. Schwarz toy store. His only formal art study took place at this time – two years of evening classes at the Art Students League. Unbeknownst to him, Frances Chrystie, the children's book buyer at Schwarz, and Richard Nell, the store's display director, arranged for Ursula Nordstrom of Harper and Row to see his work, and she immediately asked him to illustrate Marcel Aymés The Wonderful Farm, which was published in 1951. "It made me an official person," Maurice says.
Since then, as a writer, illustrator, and both, Sendak has published more than 70 books here and abroad, and he has been the recipient of scores of prizes and awards. He thinks of A Hole Is to Dig (1952) – with his exiguous and playful illustrations accompanying the poet Ruth Krauss' assemblage of children's definitions like "A face is so you can make faces" – as "the first book that came together for me." And he is still half-pleased with Kenny's Window (1956) – the story of a little boy who, upon waking from a dream, remembers meeting a rooster who gave him seven questions to answer ("Can you fix a broken promise?" Kenny's reply: "Yes, if it only looks broken, but really isn't"). "It's the first thing I wrote," Maurice explains. "The pictures are ghastly – I really wasn't up to illustrating my own texts then – and the story itself, to be honest, is nice but overwritten: 'Singing chimes in the city lights and the songs of the city. 'Today that kind of stuff sounds like Delius combined with Bruckner!"
After the introverted Kenny, Sendak introduced us to the fussy and sulking Martin in Very Far Away (1957). But it was in 1960 that Sendak's most indomitable character appeared on the scene: Rosie of The Sign on Rosie's Door. Based on a ten-year-old girl he spotted on the streets of Brooklyn in 1948, she is the prototype of all Sendak's plucky children, and he lovingly describes her genesis and transformations in his essay-portrait, "Rosie."
Sendak's Nutshell Library (1962) – four tiny books, each of which can be held in the palm of one's hand – is intimately tied to The Sign on Rosie's Door: Alligator, Pierre, Johnny and the nameless hero of Chicken Soup with Rice are modeled on the "men" in Rosie's life. In 1975, Sendak drew all these characters into a marvelous half-hour animated film entitled Really Rosie Starring the Nutshell Kids – a film which Sendak both wrote and directed and which features the music and singing of Carole King. (The film soundtrack, Carole King – Really Rosie, is available on Ode Records.)
From Kenny and Martin to Pierre, Max and Mickey, Sendak's characters have their origins in those Brooklyn street kids he used to observe and sketch while leaning out of his parents' second-story window – all of them enlivened and connected by that amazingly animated anima-figure who could, in Sendak's words, "imagine herself into being anything she wanted to be, anywhere in or out of the world." As her discoverer and creator remarks: "A mere change of sex cannot disguise the essential Rosieness of my heroes."
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