Maurice Sendak's Books Have Helped Redefine Children's Literature

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Mario Ritter. This week on our program, we tell about Maurice Sendak, an award winning writer and illustrator of more than one hundred children's books.

His stories "Where the Wild Things Are" and "In the Night Kitchen" have helped redefine children's literature. Sendak has also worked on many theater and opera productions. For over sixty years, Sendak's artistic skill has brought to life richly imaginative worlds filled with children, animals and magical creatures.


Maurice Sendak was born in nineteen twenty-eight in the Brooklyn area of New York City. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland who met in New York. Maurice was often sick as a child. As a result, he stayed home and read books and drew pictures to entertain himself.

Sendak's stories are often dark and intense. For example, "Outside Over There" is about a baby who is kidnapped by goblin creatures while her older sister is not paying attention. The sister must leave the safety of home to rescue the baby from a strange and dream-like world.

Sendak has said that the idea for "Outside Over There" came from a famous kidnapping. In nineteen thirty-two, the child of the famous American pilot Charles Lindbergh was kidnapped and later killed. Maurice Sendak was only a small child at the time. But he always remembered his fear as he listened to the radio broadcasts about this tragic event.

Maurice grew up with continuous reminders about death. When he was sick, his grandmother dressed him in white clothes she thought would help him avoid death. Many of Sendak's family members in Europe were killed by the German Nazis in death camps during World War Two. He remembers his mother screaming and crying each time she learned that another family member had been killed. Sendak's parents would sometimes talk about the dead family members, especially children, who were not lucky enough to survive like Maurice had.

These influences help explain an important part of Sendak's books. They often show children overcoming evil forces and other complex situations. Many of his stories are about a child trying to survive while facing difficult emotions such as fear. In his books, Sendak skillfully combines an adult's point of view with a child's point of view. His books are magical for all age groups.


One of the first books Sendak worked on as an artist was "A Hole is to Dig: A First Book of First Definitions." To write the book, Ruth Krauss asked very small children how they would define words like "face," "dog" and "party." Published in nineteen fifty-two, this book brought wide public attention to Sendak's art work. A few years later, he drew pictures for the first "Little Bear" books, written by Else Minarik.

In nineteen sixty-two he published the "Nutshell Library." These are four little books in a box measuring about seven by ten centimeters. The books are "Alligators All Around," "One Was Johnny," "Chicken Soup with Rice" and "Pierre."

"Pierre" is a funny story about a little boy who behaves badly. His answer to every question from his parents is "I don't care." Then he is eaten by a hungry lion. But the story has a happy ending. Pierre changes his behavior when he is reunited with his parents.


One day his mother said

When Pierre climbed out of bed

Good morning, darling boy, you are my only joy.

Pierre said- I don't care!

What would you like to eat?

I don't care!

Some lovely cream of wheat?

I don't care!

Don't sit backwards in your chair

I don't care!

Maurice Sendak's drawings are very expressive. His little boys show their emotions in funny and recognizable ways. His monster creatures are more loveable than they are frightening. And his landscapes are very detailed and beautiful.

In nineteen sixty-three Sendak published "Where the Wild Things Are." It tells about the adventures of a rebellious young boy named Max, who wears clothing to make him look like a wolf. One evening, his mother sends him to his room without dinner as punishment for misbehaving. Max enters an imaginary world of large, frightening creatures. These Wild Things make him their ruler. But he becomes lonely and wants to return home.


And when he came to the place where the wild things are they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws til Max said "BE STILL!" and tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes with out blinking once…

At first, Sendak wanted to make the story about wild horses. But he could not draw horses very well. Instead, he drew the creatures to look like his family members in Brooklyn. Some critics thought the book was too frightening for some children. However, "Where the Wild Things Are" became an extraordinary success. It is still extremely popular with children and their parents. A movie version of "Where the Wild Things Are" comes out October sixteenth.


When Maurice Sendak began his career, many children's books showed a happy and perfect world. Sendak wrote books that were honest and sometimes very serious. He was revolutionary in widening the subjects considered acceptable for children's books.

In nineteen seventy Sendak published "In the Night Kitchen." It tells about a little boy named Mickey who enters the dream world of a night kitchen. He falls into a large container of cake batter being mixed by three fat cooks. Mickey builds an airplane out of uncooked bread and flies around the kitchen. This book was also very successful. However, some critics were upset that Sendak drew the young boy Mickey wearing no clothes.


Where the bakers who bake till the dawn so we can have cake in the morn mixed Mickey in batter, chanting: Milk in the batter! Milk in the batter! Stir it! Scrape it! Make it! Bake it! And they put that batter up to bake a delicious Mickey-cake. But right in the middle of the steaming and the making and the smelling and the baking Mickey poked through and said: I'm not the milk and the milk's not me! I'm Mickey!

Over the years, Maurice Sendak has also worked on many plays and operas. He helped make "Where the Wild Things Are" into an opera. He also created set designs for "The Nutcracker" ballet by Tchaikovsky and "The Magic Flute" opera by Mozart.

In two thousand three, Sendak worked with the playwright Tony Kushner on a picture book called "Brundibar." The book is based on a children's opera by the Jewish Czech composer Hans Krasa. It is about two poor children who must buy milk for their sick mother. They try to raise money from the people in their town by singing on the street. But a mean man named Brundibar chases them away. With the help of a group of children and some talking animals, they raise the money needed to buy milk.

This opera was first performed in nineteen forty-two at a center for Jewish children without parents in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Then Krasa and the children were sent to a Nazi death camp, along with most of the other Jews of Prague. Krasa directed the children performing the opera fifty-five times at the camp before they were sent to their deaths by the Nazis.

Sendak has said that "Brundibar" represented the sadness he felt about losing family members during the Holocaust. He thought that the book might help him move on from always thinking about his family's past.  Sendak and Kushner worked together to stage their own version of "Brundibar" as an opera for children.  It has been performed in several cities.

Maurice Sendak has won many awards including the "Living Legend" honor from the American Library of Congress. He has also won every major award for children's literature. The Rosenbach Library in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania has a collection of more than ten thousand drawings by Maurice Sendak. The writer began giving early versions of his books and drawings to the library beginning in the nineteen seventies.

In May two thousand seven, the Rosenbach Library opened a travelling exhibit called "There's a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak." It is now at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, California. Visitors can see many of Maurice Sendak's extraordinarily detailed drawings and learn more about the imaginary worlds he has created.


Our program was written and produced by Dana Demange. Our readers were Doug Johnson, Steve Ember and Jim Tedder. I'm Mario Ritter. And I'm Faith Lapidus. Our programs are online with transcripts and MP3 files at Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.