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Illustrating Childhood: Maurice Sendak

”Feel Art Again” has gotten a little off schedule due to the plethora of information available about Ernie Barnes and Maurice Sendak. We’ll be working this coming week to get back on track.

In honor of last weekend’s big screen premiere of the classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, today’s “Feel Art Again” post features on the artwork of the man behind the masterpiece, Maurice Sendak.

Where the Wild Things Are (1963)

Sendak_WildThingsArguably Maurice Sendak’s most popular work, Where the Wild Things Are was originally titled Where the Wild Horses Are, with none of the monsters for which Sendak is now known. Sendak had picked the title first, because it sounded “poetic,” but changed course when, as he says, “it became very plain that I couldn’t draw horses, nor would I ever be able to draw horses. And a whole book of horses was hopeless.” Instead, Sendak created a book full of monsters inspired by his “detested Brooklyn relatives,” the type who would “lean way over with their bad teeth and hairy noses, and say something threatening like, ‘You’re so cute I could eat you up.’”

Although the book has received some criticism for perhaps being too frightening for children, it has clearly hit home with readers: since Where the Wild Things Are was first published, more than 2 million copies have sold and it has been translated into 15 different languages. It was even brought to the stage as an opera by Sendak himself in 1979.

Purchase from HarperCollins here.

In the Night Kitchen (1970)

Sendak_NightKitchenIn the Night Kitchen is the second book in Sendak’s loose trilogy—which also includes Where the Wild Things Are and Outside Over There—that explores “how children master various feelings… and manage to come into grips with the realities of their lives.” Sendak wrote and illustrated the book around the time he moved to Connecticut from New York, right after he suffered a heart attack; the book was a way for him to “say goodbye to New York” and his parents, and to “tell a little bit about the narrow squeak [he] had just been through.”

Like many of Sendak’s books, In the Night Kitchen references Sendak’s own childhood fears. Sendak, who lost the majority of his European relatives in the Holocaust when he was a child, drew the chefs of the night kitchen with Hitler-esque mustaches. Their attempt to bake Mickey into a cake alludes to the gas chambers of Hitler’s death camps. The book was the 21st most frequently challenged book of the ‘90s, according to the American Library Association, not because of the Holocaust references, but instead due to the main character’s nudity for most of the book. Some librarians have gone so far as to draw diapers onto the boy, Mickey.

The book served as the namesake for Sendak’s theater company, The Night Kitchen, which he co-founded with Arthur Yorinks in 1990. The company aims to produce plays for children that don’t talk down to them.

Purchase from HarperCollins here.

Outside Over There (1981)

Sendak_OutsideSendak’s most personal work, Outside Over There is an homage to Sendak’s older sister, Natalie, who is the book’s Ida. The book draws inspiration from Sendak’s “babyhood,” when he was cared for by Natalie, and from the Lindbergh kidnapping in 1932. At the time, Sendak was “4 years old, sick in bed, and somehow confusing myself with this baby. I had a superstitious feeling that if he came back I’d be O.K., too.” Sendak had a lasting obsession with the case that ended last year, when he traded one of his drawings for “one of the tiny reproductions of the kidnapper’s ladder that were sold as souvenirs at the New Jersey trial.”

Purchase from HarperCollins here.

Brundibar (2003)

Sendak_BrundibarBased on a 1938 opera by Hans Krasa, a Jewish Czech composer, Brundibar was written by playwright Tony Kushner (a good friend of Sendak) and illustrated by Sendak. The opera was first performed in 1942 at a Jewish orphanage in Prague. Soon after, Krasa and the children at the orphanage were taken by the Nazis and placed in the Terezin concentration camp. With the help of other talented artists at Terezin and the permission of the Nazis, they performed the opera 55 times at the camp, including a performance for Red Cross representatives sent to inspect the camp. The Nazis even recorded the children for a propaganda film before they sent the group to their deaths at Auschwitz. For the picture book, Sendak and Kushner wove the opera’s historical background into the original story, adding shades of Hitler and the Nazis to Brundibar, the villain of the story.

For Sendak, Brundibar represents the sadness he felt about losing his family members during the Holocaust. He considers the book his “crowning achievement” and “last great collaboration.”

Purchase from Barnes & Noble here.

For larger versions of the book covers, click on the images.

Fans should check out the Maurice Sendak Gallery at the Rosenbach Museum and their Sendak videos; the collection of Sendak sketches at R. Michelson Galleries; the Maurice Sendak Papers at the University of Southern Mississippi; the envelope featuring original Sendak illustrations; Sendak’s interviews with Paul Vaughan (video) and Hank Nuwer; Rolling Stone’s 1976 profile of Sendak; his “Descent into Limbo” talk at MIT (video); HarperCollins’ “Browse Inside” version of Where the Wild Things Are; the official site for the Warner Brothers production of Where the Wild Things Are; and the Terrible Yellow Eyes blog (artwork inspired by Where the Wild Things Are).

Current Exhibitions:
Where the Wild Things Are: Original Drawings by Maurice Sendak (NYC: through November 1, 2009)
There’s a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak (San Francisco: through January 19, 2010)

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