Photo: Maurice Sendak at the Rosenbach Museum & Library, Philadelphia.© 1985 by Frank Armstrong
Part four in this series is based on my notes taken at the Highlights Foundation workshop, "Books that Rise Above," that I attended last October in Honesdale, PA. Today I am privileged to touch on parts of Leonard Marcus's talk about Maurice Sendak (1928-2012) and how he changed children's literature forever.
What We May Know about Maurice Sendak
Maurice Sendak was self-taught; he did not attend college. He is known as the most original picture book artist of our time. The reasons are many and varied. A few from my notes are that he had important mentors. He knew more about the history of children's books than anyone, which Leonard pointed out is crucial. His childhood was filled with emotion, which is what he was good at. He and his brother made their own fun; they started with nothing and found a lot.
What We May Not Know
In the chapter on Leonard's interviews with Sendak in Leonard's book, Show Me a Story! Why Picture Books Matter, Sendak said he and his older brother held newspaper comics up to the glass window, traced the characters then colored them. They built a miniature of the 1939 World's Fair out of wax. He was an unhappy child, said he made everybody else unhappy, too, except his brother. He adored his brother and felt he saved his life. The illustrator of more than fifty books, author of seven by 1964 when he won the Caldecott Medal for Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak transformed himself with each book. He did not want to be known for one type of book.
How Maurice Sendak Revolutionalized Children's Literature
Leonard discussed earlier children's books and those written by Sendak's contemporaries to help shed light on the landscape in which he worked. Prior children's stories portrayed a romantic image of childhood, i.e., happy young Dick and Jane-types running through fields of flowers; and such contemporary books as Robert McCloskey's Time of Wonder. Sendak understood that children take books to bed with them and read stories to their cats; also, that children's feelings run deep. He believed children can't be protected from how they feel. And, children's books can help them be honest about even their worst feelings. His direction, instead, was toward works like Little Fur Family by Margaret Wise Brown published in 1946, which was presented in an experimental format, and tuning in to how children learn and what children enjoy, which Ruth Krauss, author of The Carrot Seed, did by visiting preschools and listening to what children say.
Leonard's take-away: Sendak wanted to express himself as much as he could. He used his fame as an opportunity to be a spokesman for children, to broadcast the idea that adults aren't the only ones who have First Amendment rights. Children do, too. How I benefited from Leonard's talk: I am touched by Maurice Sendak. Not only by becoming more familiar with his works, what they mean to the world and how they were created. But also, perhaps I benefited most by learning about Sendak's life, which is illuminated so vividly in Leonard's book, Show Me a Story!. I was amazed to find quite a few parallels to my own life, as I imagine might be true of most of us, which has helped me better analyze my own childhood.
If you would like to read past posts in this series, please visit:
Part One: Two Ways to Hook and Keep Your Reader
Part Two: Nouns Need to be Concrete and Appear More than Once
Part Three: Tent Pole Structure
Next month: Leonard Marcus: Let the Wild Rumpus Start
In future posts: A link to the complete list of "Books that Rise Above" will appear at the end of this series.
Sources: Photo: Many thanks to Patrick Rodgers, Curator of the Maurice Sendak Collection at the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia for putting me in touch with photographer Frank Armstrong, who took the above photo at the museum and graciously allowed me to include it in my post. Books: Marcus, Leonard, Show Me a Story! Why Picture Books Matter. Massachusetts: Candlewick Press, 2012; Sendak, Maurice. Where the Wild Things Are. New York: Harper Collins, 1963; Krauss, Ruth, The Carrot Seed. New York: Harper Collins, 1945; and McCloskey, Robert, Time of Wonder, Viking Press, 1957.
Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 40 articles for children and adults, six short stories for children, and is in the final editing stages of her first book, a mystery story for 7-9 year olds. Publishing credits include seven biosketches for the library journal, Biography Today, which include Troy Aikman, Stephen King, and William Shatner; Pockets; Hopscotch; and true stories told to her by police officers about children in distress receiving teddy bears, which she fictionalized for her column, "Teddy Bear Corner," for the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office Crime Prevention Newsletter, Dayton, Ohio. Follow Linda on Facebook.