MAURICE SENDAK: A CELEBRATION OF THE ARTIST AND HIS WORK
Curated by Justin G. Schiller and Dennis M.V. David
Edited by Leonard S. Marcus
Harry N. Abrams Press, 224 pages
reviewed by Tahneer Oksman
In a collaborative comic strip published in The New Yorker in 1993, cartoon versions of Art Spiegelman and Maurice Sendak amble through a forest littered with their own creations peeking out at them from the background. Sendak’s character wisely pontificates, “Childhood is deep and rich. It’s vital, mysterious, and profound. I remember my own childhood vividly…” In the final panel, he adds, “I knew terrible things. But I knew I musn’t let adults know I knew.”
Those of us who grew up reading Sendak’s beloved children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are—which is to say, very many of us—undoubtedly recognize in those words the strange and titillating worldview that belonged to the wolf-suit wearing Max. In a gorgeous 200-plus page coffee table book recently published by Abrams and in conjunction with a 2013 Sendak retrospective, Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work, readers can immerse themselves in this vivid worldview. The book is broken up into eleven chapters, each focused on a different theme relating to Sendak’s life and work. There’s a chapter dedicated to the posters Sendak designed (“Sendak used the extra space to stretch out with his favored characters,” explains Steven Heller in the accompanying essay); another chapter tracks Sendak’s work on stage, including his opera design (“Oy gevalt!!” the children’s book author exclaimed when first contacted by the opera director Frank Corsaro, who asked if he’d be interested in collaborating on The Magic Flute); and still another is devoted to his work as an educator (“If you’re going to steal, steal good,” he once told a member of his 1971 Children’s Books course at Yale).
These amusing tidbits help us get to know the man who stumbled into the world of children’s literature just before the market for such works exploded in the postwar 1950’s. Born in 1928 to Polish immigrant parents, Maurice, or Moishe, got his start as the assistant window director of FAO Schwartz. Soon he was noticed by Ursula Nordstrom, a woman whom Leonard S. Marcus describes as “America’s most daring publisher of books for young people” at the time. Sendak had already fixed on the object of his artistic explorations. As his cherished works repeatedly reflect, he was fixated on the question of “how children survive in a world largely indifferent to their fate.” In Chapter X, titled Where the Wild Things Are (though wild things manage to show up in almost every Sendak-related project after their 1963 debut), curator Patrick Rodgers has an essay on three preliminary drawings from the children’s book. Comparing early watercolor drawings to the final product, Rodgers shows how Sendak carefully toiled to condense details in order to convey the force of Max’s emotions. Through changes in posture, expression, and movement, for instance, he transformed the wild things into the objects of Max’s active imagination to emphasize the young boy “as the author of his own cathartic fantasy.” As a teacher, Sendak explained this process of condensation as an attendance to rhythm – how a book could, as Sendak’s student Paul O. Zelinsky recalls, “become music.”
And the rhythms that can be traced in Sendak’s stories are, certainly, a central aspect of what makes them so memorable and appealing. Children’s books are meant to be read again and again, like lyrical poetry. But they are also meant to be looked at, fondled, and, dare I say, torn. In Sendak we find an author keyed into “the young child’s natural impulse to improvisation and self-reinvention,” as Leonard S. Marcus so beautifully explains. That impulse—to favor words alongside pictures, sense as well as nonsense, the fantastical and the real—may be latent in the adult reader, but it is always there in the background, lurking and even beckoning, like one of Sendak’s wild things.
Tahneer Oksman recently completed her Ph.D. in English Literature at the Graduate Center at CUNY. Her articles on women’s visual culture have been published or are forthcoming in a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, Studies in American Jewish Literature, Studies in Comics, and several upcoming anthologies. She has taught at NYU-Gallatin, Brooklyn College, and Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Currently, she is at work on a manuscript on Jewish women’s identity in contemporary graphic memoirs. She is on faculty at Marymount Manhattan College as Assistant Professor of Writing and Director of the Writing Seminar Program.