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From our Files: Maurice Sendak interview, 2002

Maurice Sendak, self-taught artist and author of "Where the Wild Things Are" (1963), would eventually write or illustrate over 90 books, beloved by generations of children into adulthood.  Sendak, who died today, spoke with Monitor reporter Gloria Goodale on the occasion of an exhibit of his artwork at Los Angeles' Skirball Cultural Center in 2002.  He spoke about his personal history growing up in Brooklyn amidst the tumult of family upended after World War II; his escape into an inspired, illustrated world; and his expansion into musical and opera collaborations.

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"The wild things really represent all the strange relatives coming from foreign lands who came to stay with the Sendaks because they were the first to establish a home in America," says curator Gilbert. "They hugged the little boy too hard, spoke words he couldn't understand and ate all the food in his house. Sendak was terrified of them," she says, and he used that sense of helplessness to create a character that still speaks to children today. "He wanted to give them a sense of power to fight their fears," she says, adding that he did not reveal this connection to real people until all these relatives had passed on.

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After the huge success of "Wild Things," Sendak had the financial and artistic freedom to choose his assignments. "In the Night Kitchen," (1970) and "Outside Over There," (1981) completed the picture-book trilogy, he began with "Wild Things."

He pushed to have the last book published as both an adult and a children's story, but it was not successful. Once again, Sendak faced the unhappy prospect of being pigeonholed as "merely" a children's book illustrator. It would require several more decades – during which attitudes toward children's literature changed and Sendak received more awards for his contributions – before the recognition he sought would arrive. When it came in the form of the 1997 National Medal of Arts, he found he had outgrown the need.

"I was accepted at the grown-up party," he says, now with amusement. "The medal said, 'American Artist,' but by then," he adds, "I didn't need it." He feels the same over the debate of whether his work is considered fine art. "The distinctions of fine art bore me to death," he says. His work is all that matters to him now.

Artistic snobbery

But for those in the wider world of illustrated children's literature, the battle is still being joined. As the éminence grise, Maurice Sendak sets the standard. "Snobbery is the biggest obstacle to him being recognized as a fine artist," says Nichols Clark, director of the new Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. "And it's not just Sendak. There are many illustrators who are far better artists than those who consider themselves fine artists."

The change in attitudes toward the field of illustration isn't going to happen overnight, says Mr. Clark, but it is happening. He points to steps forward like the refurbished reputation Norman Rockwell received after a recent retrospective.

"That was a major step in people beginning to recognize that people working in this genre need to be taken seriously," he says. If the market is any indication, the change is under way. Clark points to a sale of an illustration by children's book author Chris Van Allsburg for $65,000.

Sendak, meanwhile, continues to work on his latest project: an opera based on a work that was performed by Jewish children in a Nazi death camp. Music, he says, is his first passion. He says one of his biggest disappointments in life is that he was born with no musical skills. Collaboration is the closest he gets. Besides, he says, hard work pleases his inner child.

"I'm still as enamored and turned on by work as I was when I was young," he says with a twinkle of satisfaction. "I'm still employed at 74. That's no small thing, I've come to appreciate."


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