Today is Maurice Sendak's birthday, and people have been talking a lot about him on the internet. I read one person calling him a "magical grump." I had no idea about the grump part! In this collection of his essays and reviews, he is wholly sincere, passionate, and altogether wonderful in expression about children's literature.
Overall Recommendation: Essential reading for anyone interested in children’s literature, plus anyone interested in learning more about Maurice Sendak as an artist and craftsman.
What made me pick it up?
I came across it at Caliban Books, a used-and-rare bookshop in Pittsburgh, while I was in the midst of reading Dear Genius, so it caught my eye, as Sendak was a protégé of Nordstrom’s (this book is dedicated to her, in fact), and I was more attuned to Sendakia than I might otherwise have been. As I continued to read Dear Genius I decided that I really needed to read some of Sendak’s words on his own work, since it plays such a prominent role in Nordstrom’s career as an editor—but Dear Genius, of course, only shows her side of things.
What is there to like?
I don’t know quite what I was expecting when I decided to begin reading this book, but I can say that any expectations I might have had, it far surpasses. Sendak is so thoughtful and conscious and knowledgeable about not only his own work but the work of great illustrators of the past and his own contemporaries, and about the craft of illustration, that the reader comes away from this book with a greater understanding of and appreciation for what pictures books are capable of, as well as feeling as though we are all incredibly lucky to have had Sendak both as an artist and a commentator on children’s books.
Sendak is exceptionally wise about childhood experiences, and the great and crummy things about being a kid, and where kids draw their creative power, and what they’re looking for. What I find especially relevant is the way he talks about how destructive and oppressive and simply false it is when adults romanticize childhood in such a way that strips it of its darkness and potential. Particularly striking is what he has to say about Peter Pan in the essay "Maxfield Parrish," and Little Nemo in "Winsor McCay."
Another insightful point that Sendak makes (and I suppose this qualifies as a “spoiler,” if such a thing were to exist for this kind of book), is how the text and the illustrations of a picture book have to work together to be successful. That is, an illustration can’t simply present a literal portrayal of what is described by the text, and the text can’t be so didactic that the illustrations must reproduce it exactly. In a really good picture book, there must be room for imagination—on the part of the reader as well as the illustrator and writer—to make connections between what is happening in the story and what might or must have happened to create what is taking place in the illustration. Sendak is especially illuminating on this point when discussing his favorite illustrator, Randolph Caldecott, and and in the essay "A Conversation with Walter Lorraine."
What is there not to like?
It is out of print, which may make it hard to get and/or expensive.