Maurice Bernard Sendak (June 10, 1928 – May 8, 2012)

I read today that Maurice Sendak has died.

I find myself overwhelmed with sadness. Beyond admiration for his incredible skill as a writer and illustrator, a lot of that sadness is nostalgia that’s tied in with the experience of Sendak’s books. So many books – and so different, so many styles. The most incredible thing about the diversity of approaches Sendak employed is that in each, for all their variation, it is still very clear who the illustrator was – every single one looks exactly like a Sendak drawing.

It is hard to imagine a childhood without the bold, vintage comic-book style of Mickey’s adventures from “In the Night Kitchen”. Milk! Milk! Milk for the morning cake!

In the Night Kitchen - Maurice Sendak

Contrast this perfectly good illustration style with the playful cross-hatching in “Chicken Soup With Rice” (Sipping once! Sipping twice!), recalling Victorian era chapbooks.

Chicken Soup With Rice - Maurice Sendak

Moving right along, the intensely detailed inking of “Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life” is a marvel to behold.

Higgledy Piggledy Pop - Maurice Sendak

Another direction is shown in the whimsical, modern line and wash fills in “What Do You Say, Dear?” (An orchestra of bears!), representing another style that Sendak frequently worked with to excellent effect.

What Do You Say Dear - Maurice Sendak

Finally, consider the stunning ink and watercolour lushness of newer, darker tales such as “Dear Mili”…

Dear Mili - Maurice Sendak

… or “Outside, Over There”.

Outside Over There - Maurice Sendak

Sendak was often criticized for the scariness in his tales, and was the frequent victim of censorship. Even so, “Where the Wild Things Are” is so universally popular because its intensity has so deeply affected generations of children and fired their imaginations.

Where the Wild Things Are - Maurice Sendak

Certainly we want to protect our children from new and painful experiences that are beyond their emotional comprehension and that intensify anxiety; and to a point we can prevent premature exposure to such experiences. That is obvious. But what is just as obvious — and what is too often overlooked — is the fact that from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.

Acceptance speech
upon being awarded the Caldecott Medal for “Where the Wild Things Are” (1964)

How many illustrators could have built an entire career on just one of these styles, or one of these books?

Sendak illustrated over a hundred books and even his lesser-known work shows total mastery of his craft and a profound blend of seriousness and playfulness that verges on sublime. He won dozens of awards over his lifetime, basically every children’s illustration award worth having. It seems almost improbable that one man could be so talented, so prolific, and create such touching, lasting works.

Maurice Sendak was one of the greatest illustrators of the 20th century.
RIP, Mr. Sendak.