We wanted to take a minute to reflect on the example Sendak set for other creatives of every ilk. He was a fearlessly honest writer. He was a talented artist who illustrated over a hundred books, and designed opera sets, musicals, and television shows. His cultural commentary on pretty much any topic—from publishing and mental health to being a young gay Brooklynite in the 1960s—cut to the quick of human experience. He came of age during a period of cultural sanitization and was often criticized for being “too” honest in his books, which spoke frankly to the sometimes-terrifying experience of being a child. Some of his best quotes on creativity, publishing, and children are collected below.
The Sanitization of Children’s Literature
Sendak, the child of Polish immigrant parents who lost many family members in the Holocaust, refused to shy away from the realities of childhood; nightmares, monsters, rebellion, and arguments make frequent appearances in his work. Talking to Maus author Art Spiegelman in 1993, he described unsavory parental praise thusly: "People say, 'Oh, Mr. Sendak. I wish I were in touch with my childhood self, like you!' As if it were all quaint and succulent, like Peter Pan. Childhood is cannibals and psychotic vomiting in your mouth! I say, 'You are in touch, lady—you’re mean to your kids, you treat your husband like shit, you lie, you’re selfish… That is your childhood self!'"
Though he was routinely criticized by conservative groups for portraying what they saw as “adult” themes, he stood his ground, maintaining that parents (and authors) need to be honest with children. In his acceptance speech for the Caldecott Medal in 1964, he had this to say about how adults misrepresent childhood:
“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."
Sendak was fascinated by the city he grew up in, and portrayed it often as a sometimes hellish, often wonderful riddle. Though he’s obviously most famous for Where the Wild Things Are, he wrote frequently about his native Brooklyn. As the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson notes today, In the Night Kitchen is one of his most mesmerizing books, telling the story of Mickey, a little boy dreaming over Brooklyn (taking cues from the classic turn-of-the-century Little Nemo comics).
Davidson writes that Sendak was unceasingly honest in his portrayal of life in the city: “[he] found the images and words to let children know that he recognized that their lives had cryptic alleyways.”
On Creative Success
Sendak was honest about struggling to succeed early in his career. He took a job at FAO Schwartz doing window installations, telling NPR’s Terry Gross that eventually he ran out of steam. “I was too frightened. I just lost it.” A friend paid for his first therapy session, and he made it a fixture in his life. He talked often about feeling pressure from his parents and peers: “Everyone said, 'Oh, you’re so talented and you’re going to get a book and you’re’—and, of course, nothing happened as soon as I wanted it to.”
Talking to the AP, he described his sucess as mundane, saying "I didn’t sleep with famous people or movie stars or anything like that. It’s a common story: Brooklyn boy grows up and succeeds in his profession, period.”
A Book Is a Book Is a Book
Sendak was a firm believer in the universality of stories. He laughed at the idea that children’s literature is a separate genre from literature in general. In the same 1993 New Yorker piece with Art Spiegelman, he said "Kids books… Grownup books . . . That’s just marketing.”
In an era of iPads and Nooks, he dismissed the digital readers an ultimately unimportant fad, telling the Guardian in 2011, "I hate [e-books]. It’s like making believe there’s another kind of sex. There isn’t another kind of sex. There isn’t another kind of book! A book is a book is a book."
On Living and Dying
In 2011, he talked about being preoccupied by death (his long-term partner passed away in 2007): "I have nothing now but praise for my life. I’m not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more. … What I dread is the isolation. … There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready."
One last quote from this 2011 interview speaks to both his life and work: "I can’t believe I’ve turned into a typical old man. I can’t believe it. I was young just minutes ago."