The world of children’s literature — indeed of all literature and certainly illustration — bid farewell to one of its titans recently as Maurice Sendak passed away.
I never had the opportunity to meet Mr. Sendak, but he had a profound impact on me and my interest in children’s books and drawing. As many readers know, Max McDaniels was named in tribute to Max from Where the Wild Things Are. The very idea that a little boy could sail to a land of nightmarish creatures and still be the wildest of all was such a wonderful and unexpected concept that I was enchanted. I simply could not get enough of that book and would page through it, discussing with my siblings about which monster was the coolest or the scariest or the most intriguing. Through it all, however, was Max – mischievous, fearless, boyish Max who set sail on a boat when an ocean came tumbling by….
It’s often said of Tolkien that the SIlmarillion was really his most beloved creation; the work of his heart while Lord of the Rings was a more commercial enterprise. With Sendak, I think the work of his heart was In the Night Kitchen. While he’s infinitely better known for Where the Wild Things Are, it was In the Night Kitchen that really captured the essence of what Sendak was trying to explore, capture, and relate within his stories. In a televised interview, he recalled being a little boy in Brooklyn and seeing a trio of bakers working in a window display for Sunshine Bakers and being absolutely captivated by the smell of milk and cake and these wonderful figures in their baker hats. When the bakers waved to him, he waved back and a memory (and wonderful book) was born. To me, Sendak’s books will always be about exploration and self-discovery and possess an element of indefinable mystery, danger, and wonder that is really so profound and lasting. Although he had a reputation for being difficult and irascible (and perhaps not even liking children!) he possessed a genius for telling stories and drawing pictures that trigger something deep within us. He is certainly one of history’s greatest storytellers and illustrators and he will be sorely missed.
Here’s the interview in which he discusses his work and his wonderful experience with the bakers that inspired In the Night Kitchen.