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Sendak's magical, musical illustrations

By John CechJohn Cech teaches children's literature at the University of Florida at Gainesville. / May 11, 1981



Maurice Sendak has not forgotten the fears and fantasies, doubts and joys of childhood. These are the primary materials from which he creates fascinating, frightening, often wildly funny, and above all memorable books. He has won major prizes and an enthusiastic public following, not only because his art is dazzlingly unique, but because the experiences the books represent ring true.

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"If I have an unusual gift, it is not that I draw particularly better or write particularly better than other people -- I've never fooled myself about that," Sendak is quoted as saying in "The Art of Maurice Sendak" (New York: Harry N. Abrams, $40), a lavishly illustrated biopgraphy by Selma G. Lanes. "Rather, it's that I remember things that other people don't recall: the sounds and feelings and images -- the emotional quality -- of particular moments in childhood."

Childhood "is nothing you look back on, as though you go through some silly time machine, " Sendak elaborated in a recent interview for the Monitor. "It's immanently available because it has never stopped. Reaching back to childhood is to put yourself in a state of vulnerability again, because being a child was to be so. But then all living is so. To be an artist is to be vulnerable. To notm be vulnerable means something is wrong. You've closed yourself off to something."

Sendak's own obsession with childhood things has led him to illustrate nearly 80 books, over a dozen of which are entirely his own creation. His classic monster book, "Where the Wild Things are," won the Caldecott Award for the best picture book of 1964. In 1970 he was the first American illustrator to receive the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Medal for his life's contribution to the field of children's literature.

All this came before publication of "The Juniper Tree" in 1973, a collection of new translations of Grimm's Fairy Tales, and his latest book, "Outside Over There" (New York: Harper & Row, $12.95), to be published this month. This new book was a lifetime in the gestation and five years in the making says Sendak, and the book the author/illustrator himself considers to be his magnum opus.

"Outside Over There" does not conform to standard and literal-minded expectations of what a picture book should be. Words and illustrations are not simply meant to tell a story. Sendak has created something approximating a musical composition, setting an inner experience to music.

The story is set in the late 18th century, in the world of Mozart and William Blake. The whole five-year effort was presided over by the genius of Mozart, whose music, playing in Sendak's studio, provided the writer with "a kind of Grace."

The story is about Ida, a nine-year-old-girl who is caring for her baby sister while their mother is lost in a reverie of her husband, a sailor away at sea.

"Ida played her wonder horn/to rock the baby still but never watched. So the goblins came. /They pushed their way in/and pulled baby out,/leaving another all made of ice," Sendak writes.

Ida discovers the ice-child when it melts in her arms: "the ice thing only dripped and stared/and Ida mad knew goblins had been there." She dons her mother's yellow raincoat, gathers up her horn and falls "backward out her window into outside over there" -- the fantasy realm visited by other Sendak children: Max in "Where the Wild Things are," and Mickey in "The Night Kitchen."

Floating among the clouds, Ida tumbles "right side round" into the goblins' grotto. She charms them with her horn and carries her sister back home to Mama, who has just reveived a letter from Pappa instructing Ida to "watch the baby and her Mama" until he returns. And this "is just what Ida did."

Words reveal only part of the story. Sendak hauntingly beautiful watercolors reveal deeper levels of concern that are occurring simultaneously with the external story. There's Ida's story, and the weight of her responsibility. After all, she must carry the heavy baby while her mother is lost in thought. There is the ambivalence of love tinged by resentment. And there is the gulf that exists between Ida and the adult world, which will never be able to fully believe Ida's experience.

Sendak is now recognized as more than a children's book artist. He designed the costumes and sets for three operas: his own "Where the Wild Things Are," Mozart's "The Magic Flute," and Janacek's "The Cunning Little Vixen." His Broadway musical, "Really Rosie," continues to run.

Perhaps the most telling indication that he has arrived on the artistic scene is the publication of Selma Lanes's biogrraphy. The book offers candid, reflective glimpses into Sendak's creative alchemy.

As the frail son of Jewish immigrants, Sendak has recollections that are important for understanding the images and subjects one so often finds in his books. He is one of those "hurd-gurdy, fantasy-plagued Brooklyn kids" he writes about and draws so effectively.

His work are no mere hodgepodge of casually acquired or quickly imitated images. His creative borrowings range from cherished family photographs, to advertising art and figures from popular culture, to the masters of painting and illustration, to composers (especially Mahler and Mozart).

The book is filled with illustrations. There are drawings, paintings, preliminary sketches, and a pop-up version of a wooden toy he and his brother and sister made. The reproduction are excellent, and the texts is thoroughly engrossing.

As a kind of "official" biography, Selma Lanes's work is important to our understanding of how Sendak, in particular, and artists, in general, create their works. The biography also calls attention to the need for the art world to begin taking children's books and their makers seriously.