Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Maurice Sendak RIP - the last of the great picture book authors! - How Picture Book Publishing Works, Today.

Christopher Walken reads & comments on "W.T.W.T.A."
Maurice Sendak 
Sendak was the best known children's book author/illustrator of the last half of the 20th century. He was "The King of Children's Picture Books" and what every children's book author who followed him wanted to emulate. The only problem being, the process dramatically changed and children's book publishing was never again allowed to reach the same level of "ART" Sendak established and maintained. 

Sendak, 83, passed away yesterday due to complications from a recent stroke. He wrote and illustrated more than a dozen picture books and illustrated over 100 books by others. "Where The Wild Things Are" published by Harper & Row in 1963 is the book he is most associated with and it has become an icon of children's literature and our times. Other books he wrote and illustrated include "In the Night Kitchen" (1970), "Outside Over There" (1981), "The Sign on Rosie's Door" (1960), "Higglety Pigglety Pop" (1967) and "The Nutshell Library" which was a squirrel sized boxed set of books, including: "Alligators All Around", "Chicken Soup With Rice" & "One Was Johnny" (1962). Last September he released "Bumble-Ardy" and soon a new book "My Brother's Book" will be published. 

His work is wildly acclaimed as being the "Best of the Best in Picture Books" with solo, block buster exhibitions in major museums around the world. He has also been widely criticized for the dark and scary nature of some of his work. Sendak wrote and illustrated books based exclusively on his childhood memories - which were sometimes scary. These raw memories have resonated with millions of children who could relate to having the same feelings. He always said the characters in "The Wild Things" were based on his large, relatives who hovered over him "like a pack of middle-aged gargoyles" during his days as a bedridden, sickly child in Brooklyn, NY.

Sendak was also well known as a theatrical set designer. Starting with his own opera "Wild Things" (co-created with Tony Knussen) for which Sendak wrote the libretto and designed the costumes. He has also created sets for Mozart's "The Magic Flute" and Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker", to name a few theatrical works.

His big break in publishing came while he was designing window displays at F.A.O. Schwarz. The store's book buyer introduced him to the prominent children's book editor, Ursula Nordstrom, with Harper & Row. Sendak was asked to illustrate a few books for her. Soon, he wrote and illustrated the book "Kenny's Window". The book is based on his own lonely days spent staring out of his apartment window down at the other children having fun and playing, in the street below.

Sendak received many fan letters. "Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it.... I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”

(Note: Only the first 18 minutes are about Sendak)

Until later,


My encounter with Maurice Sendak.
When I was writing the thesis for my Master's Degree from Syracuse University titled "Origins of the Signature Style" I scheduled a meeting with Maurice Sendak to discuss his style of crosshatching and watercolor. The meeting was set up through a mutual acquaintance, another very famous illustrator. I was given his exact address, how to get there and was told he would be expecting me. 

I showed up, mid-morning, at his isolated home (more of a compound) in rural Ridgefield, Connecticut and knocked on the front door. Suddenly behind me, standing in the gravel road at the end of the sidewalk, was Maurice Sendak with his two German Shepherds: Herman and Melville. He asked in a very disturbed voice, "Who are you and why are you here?" I answered with my name and explained I was there to interview him. He then barked the command "SIC 'EM". I stood there grinning like Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat, happy as a lark to be meeting Maurice Sendak. All the while these two large and angry German Shepherds, growling with teeth bared, were running toward me at full speed. At the last second, Sendak called the dogs off. I had not flinched or even appeared the least bit nervous, just happy for my encounter. 

After earning some respect for standing my ground, he walked to me and retrieved the dogs now lying just in front of me. He asked again why I was there. I recounted my story about how I thought the meeting was set up and he said he would gladly give me the interview, but I must call him directly to set it up. I pleaded for a time later during that same day, but it was not possible. I left, but brought him back a very good bottle of French Burgundy, along with a thank you note for our interview in the future. Unfortunately, I had to leave on a flight the next morning. I never was able to get back to Ridgefield for my personal interview, but I did get a good story.


Think of the great picture books of childhood: "Green Eggs & Ham", "Make Way for Ducklings", "Good Night Moon" and "Where the Wild Things Are". These books were written for young imaginations only. Sendak was, from the very beginning of his career, able to put his "ART" first, meaning: the "idea for the book" was his alone, written from his concept of childhood and never presented as a part of a marketing plan. Sendak was the last of the children's book authors who was allowed to create entirely for the enjoyment of the children, without first defining "exactly which children were his target market".

In the last few decades of the 20th century, the Children's Book Industry consolidated into 3 or 4 large publishers with many smaller houses under one roof. This consolidation made fewer and fewer editors available to review and champion new authors. The book business became just that, all about business. First an editor had to prove to "higher-ups", the feasibility of a title, the audience the author brought with them and the market segment specifically attracted to the book, before any book was considered for publication. This sea change is the reason why brands like "Barney" and "Disney Characters" have become so visible and why any celebrity who has been interested in writing a children's book has had easy access to quick publication and promotion. 

But the up and coming "Maurice Sendaks" of the past 30 to 40 years have been shut out or have struggled - some talent has surfaced, but none with the sustained success in children's books that Maurice Sendak knew. Most books today are retellings of old story lines, only with new characters and settings. You can easily see Cinderella, The Three Little Pigs, Snow White, or some other well known plot in all of them.

Thus the real loss from pure market oriented publishing, has been the lack of genius - there have been few children's books published in the last 30 years one could consider fresh or substantially new.  
(Sources: Youtube, The New York Times,, PBS, personal research and a conversation with Marice Sendak)  
ARTSnFOOD, All rights reserved. Concept & Original Text © Copyright 2012 Jack A. Atkinson under all International intellectual property and copyright laws. Images © individual artists, fabricators, respective owners or assignees.

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