Reviews of select books by Maurice Sendak

A Hole Is to Dig written by Ruth Krauss, illus. by Maurice Sendak, Harper, 1952
Entirely original in approach and content is this “first book of first definitions” in which Miss Krauss, with the help of children themselves, gives us such gems as “a seashell is to hear the sea”;  “cats are so you can have kittens.” The illustrations are perfect whether they are making it clear that, of course,  “buttons are to keep people warm “; or picturing the small boy who feels he has thought of an excruciatingly  funny definition: “A tablespoon is to eat a table with.” Like Ape in a Cape this can start children off on a  fascinating game.
—Jennie D. Lindquist, from the October 1952 Horn Book Magazine

Kenny’s Window written and illus. by Maurice Sendak, Harper, 1956
For the first time Maurice Sendak’s distinctive sketches accompany his own text. Together they have created a  little boy’s unique world blended of the reality inside and outside his window and the make-believe of his  dreams. Kenny moves in and out of these dreams in wonderfully childlike fashion. In a dream he found a garden. “Half . . . was filled with yellow morning and the other with dark green night” and there was a four-legged rooster  who gave him a paper with seven questions. It is the business of answering these that makes the story, one it is  impossible to outline, for all the episodes are different. Kenny hears a horse on the roof—you can, ” if you know  how to listen in the night “; he takes a sudden trip to Switzerland to find an ” only goat “; he plays and talks with  his toys and his dog. In mood and expression and inner meanings it is all fragile and poetic. The quiet tans and  greys of the drawings effectively suggest nighttime and dream worlds, while their lines bring out humor in the  action.
—Virginia Haviland, from the April 1956 Horn Book Magazine

Where the Wild Things Are written and illus. by Maurice Sendak, Harper, 1963
This vibrant picture book in luminous, understated full color has proved utterly engrossing to children with  whom it has been shared. As well as the pictorial grotesqueries — both deliciously monstrous and  humorous — they love the idea of a small boy, punished by isolation for his naughty “wildness,” dreaming up  hideous wild things to whom he sails away in a private boat, taming them and then becoming their king. The  situation is entirely composed and childlike—the boy treats them to going to bed without their supper. Then, of  course, he sails back home to find his supper, still hot, waiting for him. A sincere, perceptive contribution which  bears repeated examination.
—Virginia Haviland, from the April 1964 Horn Book Magazine

Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life written and illus. by Maurice Sendak, Harper, 1967
A daring imagination has woven a simple rhyme into a complex and brilliantly original tale. Jennie the Sealyham  ” . . . had everything. She slept on a round pillow upstairs and a square pillow downstairs. She had her own comb  and brush, two different bottles of pills, eyedrops, eardrops, a thermometer, and for cold weather a red wool  sweater. . . . She even had a master who loved her.” But Jennie the philosopher, convinced that “there must be   more to life than having everything,” packed her black leather bag and went forth into the world. Discovering the World Mother Goose Theatre, she tried to be hired as its leading lady, but was sent away to gain  “experience.” The word was new to Jennie, who confidently trotted off, letting gluttony lead her from one  gastronomic adventure to another. Jennie’s first encounter was with a feline milkman; then she became  nursemaid to a ferocious baby and saved both Baby and herself from the jaws of a lion. Finally, considerably  more sophisticated, she played the lead in the World Mother Goose Theatre’s sparkling production of Higglety Pigglety Pop! The fantasy is ordered and controlled, full of allusion, wisdom, and flashes of wit. Forty children  sat spellbound one day as the book was read aloud; but for an individual reader the story is enormously  extended by the pictures, each one a masterpiece of impeccable drawing, restraint, and emotional depth.
—Ethel L. Heins, from the February 1968 Horn Book Magazine

In the Night Kitchen written and illus. by Maurice Sendak, Harper, 1970
As in Where the Wild Things Are, the author-illustrator tells a simple story of a young child running the gamut of a psychological fantasy, until he returns to everyday reality. Disturbed by “a racket in the night,” Mickey “fell  through the dark, out of his clothes . . . into the Night Kitchen.” Unresisting, he was mixed into the batter of a  cake by three monstrous, yet comical cooks dressed in white and only came to himself when the cake was about  to be put into the oven. From then on, Mickey decided that he was not a mere ingredient, and escaping in an  airplane of dough, which he had hastily constructed, “he flew up . . . over the top of the Milky Way in the Night  Kitchen” and diving into a gigantic white bottle full of milk, he was able to supply the bakers with the  ingredient — the milk — that they needed. Joyful and triumphant, Mickey returned to his bed. Accompanying the  story in the form of an elaborate obbligato is the vision of a city—obviously New York—transformed by night  into an interestingly composed collection of labeled bottles, boxes, and jars, some topped with utensils  decoratively finial-like. The receptacles are pierced by lighted windows, and the sky above them is  star-spangled. The transformed city, looking like the flat backdrop found in old vaudeville performances, becomes the eerie setting for the Night Kitchen. The line drawings of the juxtaposed geometric forms are washed with subtly darkened tones of delicate color, and the bold whites and yellows add an element of luminosity; in strong contrast are the caricatured red-nosed cooks; the crude, loppy airplane made of dough; and Mickey himself, with large measuring cup on his head, looking like something out of Brueghel. The story is carried forward pictorially by a skillful adaptation of the comic-strip format. The pages are frequently divided—into three parts as well as into two, horizontally as well as vertically—and occasionally spill over into double spreads. Only adults will recognize the advertisements and hardware contemporary with the artist’s childhood, although some children may recognize the genesis of the Night Kitchen from the commercial slogan “Baked while you sleep.” And psychologists — and others — will discover where subconscious elements may appear to impinge on storytelling and picturization. It will not, however, be the first time in the history of mankind that a work of art will have had a disturbing effect.
—Paul Heins, from the February 1971 Horn Book Magazine

Outside Over There written and illus. by Maurice Sendak, Harper, 1981
Of his “self-styled picture-book trilogy” Maurice Sendak says, “‘They are all variations on the same theme: how children master various feelings—anger, boredom, fear, frustration, jealousy—and manage to come to grips with the realities of their lives.’” Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen (both Harper) are boldly conceived fantasies, but in the long-awaited third volume the artist-writer pushes the frontier of reality farther back and moves into the realm of the fairy tale. The setting of the book is eighteenth-century rural—pastoral, really—appropriate for a story that reverberates with overtones of Grimm, Mozart, and German romantic poetry. “‘My stories come in bits and pieces of memories that don’t seem related for a very long time . . . . But something in me determines they will be related.’”

“When Papa was away at sea, / and Mama in the arbor, / Ida played her wonder horn / to rock the baby still—/ but never watched.” Behind the girl’s back, infant goblins clambered in through the window and kidnapped her baby sister, leaving a changeling made of ice. But Ida climbed out of the window and, now aloft, whirled away in hot pursuit—but in the wrong direction. At last she heard, magically, “her Sailor Papa’s song” telling her to turn around and “‘catch those goblins with a tune.’” Tumbling down to the little creatures, she first captivated them by playing her horn; then, after dancing the five goblins into a frenzy, she found the real baby—her sister—”crooning and clapping as a baby should” and carried her home to safety.

Outside Over There — a book for all ages — is living testimony of the artist’s view of the picture book as “‘a beautiful, poetic form.’” The story is haunting and evocative; the artwork mature and masterly. Although Sendak has never produced anything like the new book, echoes of his previous work will be perceived: a preoccupation with the transformational quality of windows, through which the goblins arrive and depart; Ida’s floating in the air, which recalls the levitating child in such books as Macdonald’s The Light Princess, Jarrell’s Fly by Night (both Farrar), Ruth Krauss’s Charlotte and the White Horse, and her I Want to Paint My Bathroom Blue (both Harper); and most of all, his magnificent obsession with babies, whom he has never portrayed with more truth and beauty.

Despite Sendak’s long, painstaking labors with the writing, the story is more fully realized in the illustrations than in the three-hundred-fifty-word text, slightly elliptical and a bit idiosyncratic with its occasional touches of rhythm and rhyme. For the paintings show the severely disciplined work of a modem master and implicitly acknowledge the lineage of his art: the vistas and composition of classical painting; the fantastic, almost mystical landscapes (like those he did in black and white for Randall Jarrell’s books) influenced by the nineteenth-century artists he admires so much; the fully refined, dazzling technique; the subtle gradations of color. The more it is enjoyed, the more the book yields up its secrets: For instance the mysterious little cottage is actually the pavilion in which Mozart composed most of The Magic Flute; Ida’s drapery in flight is astonishingly reminiscent of El Greco; and the faceless robed and hooded goblins bear an uncanny resemblance to the statues on fifteenth-century Burgundian grave monuments.
—Ethel L. Heins, from the June 1981 Horn Book Magazine

Dear Mili written by Wilhelm Grimm, trans. by Ralph Manheim, illus. by Maurice Sendak, Michael di Capua/Farrar, 1988
In 1983 the discovery of a new story, written in 1816 by one of the foremost contributors to the canons of folklore, aroused international interest. Five years later, that story, set in picture book format, is translated into an artistic statement by an illustrator whose reputation is equally acclaimed. Whatever the tale’s origin, Its genesis in legends of the saints is immediately recognizable in structure, style, and content. Preceded by a letter, indicating that the story was written by Wilhelm Grimm to comfort a little girl he had never met, the text follows the direct plot line of the traditional tale. An innocent little girl, the sole remaining child of a poor widow, is sent by her mother into the dark forest to protect the girl from the imminent dangers of a terrible war. She is sheltered by the kindly Saint Joseph and accompanied at play by her guardian angel. At the end of three days she is told that she must go back to her parent but is given a rosebud as a talisman that she will return to the loving care of the paternal saint. When she arrives at her former home, she learns that thirty years, not three days have passed as she is reunited with her mother, now aged and feeble. After a happy and peaceful evening together, they retire. The next morning the neighbors find that the two have died. In translating the story into visual images, the artist has elected to underscore elements of universality through use of a personal idiom for a particular interpretation. The result is provocative, impressive, and complex: landscapes hearkening back to the realism of Jacob van Ruisdael and his followers are dramatically overlaid or interspersed with expressionistic elements from a later, more emotionally flamboyant period. The precision of execution is nineteenth century; the perspective is twentieth century, both in treatment and content. There is a theatrical quality suggested in the scenes: the detailed backgrounds are like stage sets; the postures of the characters recall the movements of ballet figures; a roseate glow, like stage lighting, suffuses happier scenes. Familiar Sendak motifs appear in another and more terrifying context, for he has transformed a story from 1816 into a commentary on the Holocaust: the flames behind the gathering war clouds reach out like the claws of Wild Things run amuck; in a dramatic double-page spread, the child, a reincarnation of Ida from Outside Over There (Harper), sits dejectedly in the forest, leaning against a Golem-like tree; a recumbant Mozart conducts a chorus of old-young children who observe the little girl as she wanders happily in the serenity of Saint Joseph’s garden, bordered by ancient tombstones, one of which bears the Star of David. Ultimately, we are presented with a picture of innocence preserved but childhood lost—a theme as presented quite likely too intricate for the traditional picture story and picture folk-tale  audience. In all probability the true audience for Dear Mili is comprised of the adults who discovered the art of the picture book through Sendak’s works and who will be forever indebted to the artist for his particular genius — however controversial it might at times appear — piquing sensibilities as it enlarges perceptions.
—Mary M. Burns, from the March/April 1989 Horn Book Magazine

We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy written and illus. by Maurice Sendak, di Capua/HarperCollins, 1993
In his latest book, a passionate plea for social responsibility, Sendak has created some of his most gripping and powerful images for thoughtful reflection; the illustrations include references to homelessness, AIDS, famine, and violence. Adult fans of Sendak’s work will be challenged to decode and identify references in the pictures — from New York landmarks to a Mozart-like angel, and from classic pieces of religious art to images from the Holocaust. The message about the need to care is not just for adults, because young people see, know, and worry about more than we realize. Honest and open discussion of this book with the help of an imaginative and caring adult could help speak to children’s secret fears. In the end, however, the message is ambivalent. Though the news headlines on the cover read “Kid Elected President” and “Children Triumph,” we know that children are politically powerless; and, th0ugh Jack and Guy are going to care for the abandoned child, they are still living in a dump. The story in the pictures bears only a slight relationship to the text of the two little-known nursery rhymes which run through the pages. In a setting of a dump, where figures of scantily-clad homeless urchins shelter in shacks and cardboard boxes, a pathetic third-world child asks questioningly for help as Jack and Guy glance at him over their shoulders and tell him to “beat it!” When two terrifyingly large rats steal the child and all the kittens in the area, the characters follow after them, and Jack and Guy are challenged to play cards for “the kittens and the poor little kid.” The rats hold the trump card, and the kittens and the child are carted off to St. Paul’s Bakery and Orphanage. The moon, whose expressive face has been responding emotionally to all the preceding actions, now looms large in anger and snatches up Jack and Guy, dropping them down next to the crematoria-like Bakery and Orphanage, where they find the little child. Transforming herself into a gigantic cat, the moon eliminates the rats, rescues the kittens, and carries them, along with Jack, Guy, and the child, back to their dump, where all are shown sleeping peacefully together. The double-page spreads with large images right at the surface pull us into the action and bombard us with emotion. Though readers will be alternately moved and repelled, this book should be studied and discussed. A truly significant addition to Sendak’s body of work.
—Hanna B. Zeiger, from the January/February 1994 Horn Book Magazine

Bumble-Ardy written and illus. by Maurice Sendak, di Capua/HarperCollins, 2011
Bumble-Ardy made its first appearance back in 1971 as an animated short on Sesame Street featuring a boy who invited pigs to his ninth birthday party. Forty years later, the story makes its picture book debut, and Sendak has made some significant changes: all the characters are now pigs, and a prologue describes how Bumble-Ardy’s family neglected him for his first eight years and then “gorged, and got ate.”

Adopted by his sweet aunt, Adeline, Bumble-Ardy has been instructed not to allow anyone in while she’s at work, even though it’s his birthday, but he’s already sent out party invitations to nine grubby swine. Although he is defying authority, his own invitations impose more rules than Aunt Adeline ever would, including the directive that the guests should be neither late nor early, bring gifts, and come in costume.

At Bumble-Ardy’s party, it seems, everyone must come dressed in their own version of a wolf suit; like Max, they are ready to make mischief of one kind or another, with all the freedom anonymity promises. Some costumes are subtle references to Sendak’s earlier work—wild things, night-kitchen chefs, Really Rosie, and even, as if Sendak is taunting his critics, the all-around alligator “imitating Indians.” Some costumes pay homage to the work of others, including Dr. Seuss, William Steig, and Garth Williams—all of whom disturbed critics at one time or another. In fact, the two-year-old Bumble-Ardy is shown before the title page reading a newspaper with the banner headline “We Read Banned Books.”

Interestingly, two characters recur throughout: Death, represented by a macabre skeleton; and a prim and proper lady who wears a sheriff’s badge. Neither one steps in to stop the fun, although it feels as though one of them easily could at any minute. Amusing as it might be for children’s literature buffs to identify all the allusions, the book as a whole speaks to the sensibilities of young children in the same way Sendak’s earlier classics Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, and Outside Over There did. But the art itself is more reminiscent of later works, such as Brundibar and The Nutcracker, that draw as much from his experience in designing stage sets and costumes as from his picture book illustrations. Sendak deals with the psychological reality of a good time gone bad, of anarchy unleashed, all the while acknowledging that breaking the rules can be fun, and perhaps even necessary, whether one is a child or an artist.
—Kathleen T. Horning, from the September/October 2011 Horn Book Magazine

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