Maurice Sendak, Where The Wild Things Are, (1972)
In an interview with the Brisbane Times in 2011, writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak recounted the following story:
“A little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children's letters – sometimes very hastily – but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, 'Dear Jim: I loved your card.' Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said: 'Jim loved your card so much he ate it.' That to me was one of the highest compliments I've ever received. He didn't care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.” (Luke Davies, Hergé and Me, Brisbane Times, accessed 8 January, 2017.
The anecdote shows the engagement Sendak felt with his young audience, his appreciation for the brutal honesty of children who, contrary to what adults like to believe, exist in a universe much like our own: filled with challenges, adventures, trouble and questions. Sendak was not one for sugarcoating his stories. He did not have much time for the polished realities adults like to tell themselves. When Where The Wild Things Are came out parents were shocked by the depictions of the wild beasts with sharp fangs causing havoc, but with children it was a ravenous success. The book celebrated children’s urge for adventure and self-reliance, rather than condemning it.
Born in 1928 to a Jewish Polish immigrant family in Brooklyn, New York, Sendak’s own upbringing was overshadowed by traumatic events: by the losses his family suffered during Holocaust, the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby in 1932, and the looming Great Depression. Sendak’s work is characterized by this tension between life and death, adult and child, modernity and the ancient histories of Judaism and Europe. An atheist himself, Sendak’s work is lined with the tropes of his upbringing and the cultural shock he experienced as an immigrant child. A sickly child, he famously modeled his ‘Wild Things’ on memories he had of his Polish family, whose ‘wild’ appearance he remembered looming over him in his sickbed.
Where The Wild Things Are reads a little like a children’s Odyssey and tells the story of Max, an unruly wild-child who climbs out of his bedroom window after having been sent to bed without supper. After getting lost in the woods, Max is crowned king of the ‘Wild Things’, sharp-toothed monsters that share his wild temperament. Unlike most children’s stories, Where The Wild Things Are acts against moralistically oppressive norms, aimed to make children into respectable adults rather than engaging with the inner-workings of their world. Sendak’s characters are usually somewhat badly behaved, headstrong individuals with a distinctive voice. His drawings can be quite dark, and his stories are motivated by abduction, disappearances and wanderings. The three prints from the Camden Collection show Max being carried by the monsters, sporting a white onesie, a golden crown and a scepter. The creatures are half beast, half mystery, with sharp claws, beaks and horns. His visual style ‘could range from intricately crosshatched scenes that recalled 19th-century prints to airy watercolors reminiscent of Chagall to bold, bulbous figures inspired by the comic books he loved all his life.’ (Margalit For, NY Times, 8 May 2012, accessed 9 December 2017).
These days, the generations born after 1960 have been raised on the shoulders of Where The Wild Things Are, much like little Max is lifted up by his monsters. As part of World Book Day, is seems only fitting to celebrate this genre-defying work that has been such an important presence in many children’s lives.
Interested in comics and illustration? Check out the House of Illustration’s page here at LoveCamden! Want to know more about the Camden Art Collection? Continue reading our full series of Hidden Treasures or look up our online archive!
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The Camden Art Collection comprises a rich variety of works dating from the late 1950s to today, by artists who have had a strong connection to the borough, including Sandra Blow, Jean Cooke, John Bratby, Maggie Hambling, Derek Jarman, Prunella Clough, Terry Frost, Adrian Heath, Wilhemina Barns-Graham and limited edition works on paper by David Hockney and Patrick Caulfield. For more information visit our online archive.