“I don’t set out to do books for children,” said artist and writer Maurice Sendak in a 2003 interview with art historian Jonathan Weinberg. “I don’t know how to do that. I don’t think anybody knows how to do that.”
Such an attitude might be surprising, given Sendak’s success as a children’s book author, most notably for the enduringly popular Where the Wild Things Are, which he wrote and illustrated in 1963. But behind his words is a conviction that children know more than adults generally give them credit for.
“People keep things from children now,” he continued, “in the sense that we don’t want to frighten them or upset them, yet we all know they sat and watched the [World Trade Center] towers go down a hundred thousand times. They’re just waiting for you to tell them.”
Indeed, Where the Wild Things Are tells the story of a rambunctious young boy named Max who befriends and rules over monsters before he returns to the real world. The tale laid the groundwork for the idea that modern children’s books can address themes of monstrosity, disobedience, and directly confronting personal fears.
Wild Things Are Happening: The Art of Maurice Sendak is a new book from the Columbus Museum of Art and DelMonico Books, edited by Weinberg, who is also curator of the Maurice Sendak Foundation. It accompanies an exhibition of the same name at the museum, up through March 5 — the first major retrospective of the artist’s work since his death in 2012.
Critical essays and interviews accompany sketches, self portraits, and illustrations from his lesser-known works like Little Bear (1957), Hector Protector (1965) and We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993). The book rewards readers with a deep dive into Sendak’s work and process.
We learn, for instance, about Sendak’s working routine — a “rigorous schedule,” according to his longtime assistant, and now Sendak Foundation president, Lyn Caponera, that included a daily reading of the New York Times and freshly squeezed orange juice (an excerpt of her essay is available on Literary Hub).
His love of music was also critical to his creative process. “I can share my life with music,” he said in an interview, “much better than I can share it with anybody or anything else. And it’s also a necessity.”
Much has been written of Sendak’s own childhood trauma and upbringing in the shadow of the Holocaust. The book addresses this without centralizing its influence on his work. In his 83 years of life, after all, he encountered many other monsters to address, like the housing crisis (“I’m angry at the government taking so long to do anything about homeless kids,” he said in 1994) and, as in the above quote, the 9/11 attacks.
Sendak’s illustrations carry weight all on their own for children and adults alike, and this book beautifully captures his prolific career. As a childhood Sendak fan now grown up, I find his reflections on the wild things among us the most poignant.
“We’re all living towards the end of the twentieth century and so we’re all banged up by that fact,” he reflected in 1994. “And so we know what’s happening all over the world and we know what’s happening with scourges like AIDS. And we’ve all lost best friends and colleagues. I have lost students. To not be afflicted by this, and for the work not to show it, means you’re dead.”
Wild Things Are Happening: The Art of Maurice Sendak (2022) is edited by Jonathan Weinberg and published by DeMonico Books. It is available online and in bookstores.
Wild Things Are Happening: The Art of Maurice Sendak continues at the Columbus Museum of Art (480 East Broad Street, Columbus, Ohio) through March 5. The exhibition was curated by Jonathan Weinberg.
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