Welcome to the fourth night of the Feast of Lights and to DG’s celebration of our favorite Jewish scribes! Night number one had Carly extolling the merits of Cassandra Clare’s Judaic-inspired fantasy; on night two, Kayla shared her love of Anne Frank; Deanna wrote about Lemony Snicket, a.k.a. Daniel Handler, on night three.
Today’s author (and illustrator!) is Maurice Sendak (1928-2012). You may know his seminal picture book, Where the Wild Things Are (1963). Sendak had a reputation for his curmudgeonly disposition just as much as his haunting illustrations and stories. However, one look at his life’s experiences–largely related to his Jewish background–and I find it easy to sympathize with his outlook.
My first and most memorable exposure to Sendak was in the Little Bear book written by Else Holmelund Minarik. My grandparents had it in their collection, and it was something I read every time I visited their house, along with Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches and Other Stories, (the Star-Belly Sneetches have, by some, even been considered an allegory for the Holocaust and the stars that the Jews were required to wear, which is also regrettably apropos to this week of celebration).
Sendak was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Polish Jewish parents, and his sometimes frightening imagination was already rampant from a young age. But it’s no wonder his books dealt with darker and subversive concepts when you consider the storm clouds over his formative years. The tragic 1932 kidnapping of pilot Charles Lindbergh’s baby haunted his childhood. A decade later, a large portion of his relatives in Europe were executed in Hitler’s concentration camps, which his father discovered during Sendak’s bar mitzvah (Jewish coming-of-age ritual held during the initiate’s 13th year of life). Additionally, Sendak struggled with his sexual identity. He remained closeted to his parents for their entire lives, revealing in a 2008 New York Times interview: “All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy.”
In the book world, Sendak was no stranger to controversy, as both Where the Wild Things Are and the less-widely-known but just as richly-illustrated In the Night Kitchen have both graced Banned Books lists. WtWTA portrayed an impish boy who wrestles with his emotions, and its supernatural content and monsters inspired by Sendak’s relatives. To critics’ dislike, it was a hit with the public at large, a Caldecott Medal award winner, and has become one of the most-beloved picture books of all-time.
All of these attributes and experiences wrought with trial culminated in making Maurice Sendak a multi-faceted, complex individual whose beloved books, characters and illustrations speak to generations of children, teens and adults alike.