10 Things You Might Not Know About Maurice Sendak

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Glyndebourne Festival Opera; Ira Nowinski/CORBIS

Maurice Sendak's books were shaped by his own childhood, one marked by the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, the concentration camp deaths of most of his extended family, and parents consumed by depression and anger. When Sendak started illustrating and writing for children, he vowed that he wouldn't write stories of sunshine and rainbows, because that's not real life. Here are a few other things about Maurice Sendak's real life you may not have known.

1. Sendak and his brother visited Manhattan’s F.A.O. Schwarz in 1948 to try to get the company to purchase their handmade, fairytale-inspired wooden toys. Though the toy store declined to purchase the brothers’ work for reproduction, they were impressed with Sendak’s artistic eye and asked him if he’d be interested in a job dressing windows. He worked at F.A.O. Schwarz for three years while taking classes at the New York Art Students League.

2. Where the Wild Things Are was originally titled Where the Wild Horses Are, and was intended, of course, to feature fillies, foals and mares. Editor Ursula Nordstrom adored the title, finding it poetic and beautiful, but there was one problem: Sendak couldn’t draw horses. When he told his editor that the whole horse thing wasn’t going to work out, he recalls her “acid tone[d]” response: “Maurice, what can you draw?”

“Things,” he said, and "things" he drew.

Side note: Ursula Nordstrom was also the editor of a few classics like The Giving Tree, Goodnight Moon, Harold and the Purple Crayon and Charlotte’s Web among others. Not a bad resume.

3. The “things” Sendak ended up creating were inspired by his immigrant relatives and the way he viewed them as a child. “They were unkempt; their teeth were horrifying. Hair unraveling out of their noses.” Though the monsters were modeled after his family, they weren’t named after them; in fact, the things had no names in the book. They finally received monikers when Wild Things was made into an opera. “We had to have names to tell [the actors] when they were screwing up. They had Jewish names: Moishe, Schmuel. But the names were dropped after the opera. They never had names until they became movie stars.”

Here’s a bit of the opera:

4. It wasn't until he was older that Sendak realized how lucky those immigrant relatives were to be alive - and how lucky he was. Most of his extended family died in concentration camps, which his father discovered the day of Sendak's bar mitzvah. He attended the happy event anyway. When unknowing guests burst into "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" when Mr. Sendak walked through the door, Maurice knew something horrible had happened by his father's expression. "My father's face was vivid, livid, and I knew I had done something very bad, that I had made him suffer more than he had to. This 13-year-old ersatz man."

5. Even if Where the Wild Things Are hadn't been such a hit, you probably would have known Sendak’s work anyway. Prior to the success of his own books, Sendak illustrated the popular Little Bear series by Else Holmelund Minarik.

6. Though many parents and libraries initially protested that Where the Wild Things Are was too scary for children, it was his later book, In the Night Kitchen, that landed on the American Library Association’s frequently challenged and banned books list. It features a little boy named Mickey, who is nude throughout most of the story, likely because he’s dreaming. “Have you never had a dream, yourself, where you were totally naked?” he said, when Stephen Colbert asked him about the nudity. (Colbert: “No.” Sendak: “I think you’re a man of little imagination.”) Because of Mickey’s full frontal and some of his nude antics in the book (he jumps into a milk bottle, for instance, and later slides down it), critics have deemed it inappropriate for children. It was #24 on the ALA’s frequently banned books from 2000-2009.

7. Sendak believed that the Lindbergh baby kidnapping very much affected his childhood, his work and his views on life in general. Though he was only 3.5 years old when the tragedy occurred in 1932, he says he vividly remembers the whole thing, including hearing Mrs. Lindbergh’s tearful voice pleading with the kidnappers via radio to rub camphor on her infant’s chest because she didn’t want his cold to get worse. “If that baby died, I had no chance. I was only a poor kid, okay? [When the Lindbergh baby was found dead] I think something really fundamental died in me.”

8. Waiting for a sweet Where the Wild Things Are app for the iPad so your kids can explore the book in a new way? Don’t hold your breath. To say that Sendak disliked eBooks is an understatement: "F*** them is what I say; I hate those e-books. They cannot be the future... they may well be. I will be dead, I won’t give a s***!”

9. Sendak never told his parents that he was gay. “All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy,” he told The New York Times in 2008. “They never, never, never knew.” His partner of 50 years, Eugene Glynn, passed away in 2007.

10. I’ll leave you with some Sendak quotes:

  • “A woman came up to me the other day and said, ‘You’re the kiddie-book man!’ I wanted to kill her.”
  • On Max as an adult: “Well, he’s in therapy forever. He has to wear a straitjacket when he’s with his therapist."
  • On parents who think the Wild Things movie is too scary for children: “I would tell them to go to hell. That's a question I will not tolerate."
  • “I think it’s unnatural to think that there is such a thing as a blue-sky, happy-clouded childhood for anybody.”
  • "I refuse to lie to children."
  • "I'm totally crazy, I know that. I don't say that to be a smartass, but I know that that's the very essence of what makes my work good. And I know my work is good. Not everybody likes it, that's fine. I don't do it for everybody. Or anybody. I do it because I can't not do it."

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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November 23, 2013 - 9:55am
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