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Widely considered the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century, the world knew Maurice Sendak for more than a dozen picture books he wrote and illustrated himself, most notbaly “Where the Wild Things Are.”
But Richard Egielski, another award-winning illustrator, knew Sendak—a son of Polish Jewish immigrants who died May 8 at age 83—as a mentor and a friend. In his New Jersey studio, surrounded by framed illustrations of his work and that of his teacher, Egielski credits Sendak with helping him establish his mindset for picture books.
“Before I took Maurice’s class I used to like to do pictures in sequences, one image following another, but I didn't know what to do with that,” Egielski told JointMedia News Service. “In Sendak’s class at Parson’s School of Design in New York, we talked about the picture book, and he helped me learn how to tell a story visually using a combination of exciting images that make kids want to turn the page when they see them.”
Egielski said Sendak introduced him to writers like Arthur Yorinks, who wrote “Hey, Al,” the book in which Egielski’s illustrations earned the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 1987.
“His work was a huge influence on me,” Egielski said of Sendak. “I can’t think of a better picture book illustrator or writer than Maurice. He was an innovator in that he was able to express certain emotions in picture books when nobody else was doing that.”
Claudia Nahson, curator at The Jewish Museum in New York, studied Sendak and his work and came to know the artist when she organized an exhibition of his work (Wild Things: The Art of Maurice Sendak) that was on view at The Jewish Museum in 2005.
“He was an extremely sensitive person and artist,” Nahson told JointMedia News Service. “I enjoyed his work because it moves me deeply. Incredible talent combined with tremendous honesty is what makes his work so poignant.”
“His life-long wrestling with those ‘wild things’ within us all that can never be tamed, led him to create art and stories replete with meaning, and with great depth of feeling,” she said.
Egielski said Sendak’s idea for “Where the Wild Things Are” came from his Jewish upbringing, a time when his parents occasionally yelled at him in Yiddish when he broke the rules.
“He told a funny story that when he was growing up he did not know one ethnic group from another,” Egielski said. “There was an Italian family across the hall and he just thought they were happy Jews. His parents spoke Yiddish and when he did something they didn’t like they would call him a vilde chaya, which means wild thing.”
Selected as a “Sendak Fellow,” children’s book illustrator Denise Saldutti said that was one of the most amazing experiences of her life. Four “Sendak Fellowship” recipients shared a house on the artist’s property in Connecticut for a month. Artist Roger Sutton wrote about the recipients for The Horn Book, a publication about books for children. Each artist got “a room and a month to do his or her work, and counsel—if they want it—from Sendak,” according to Sutton.
“One of the main things I got from being with Maurice is that you can never give up when things don’t look so good,” Saldutti told JointMedia News Service. “Even if you wanted to give up, you couldn’t.”
In December 2011, an exhibition at The Jewish Museum titled “An Artist Remembers: Hanukkah Lamps Selected by Maurice Sendak” featured 33 menorahs of varied eras and styles.
Sendak selected the menorahs from The Jewish Museum’s existing—and extensive—collection. Born in Brooklyn, Sendak described his childhood as a “terrible situation,” as much of his extended family died in the Holocaust, exposing him at an early age to death and the concept of mortality.
At the time of the Hanukkah lamps exhibition, Sendak said in an interview with JointMedia News Service that the simplicity of the exhibition’s menorahs reminded him of the Holocaust.
“It is inappropriate for me to be thinking of elaboration,” Sendak told JointMedia News Service. “[The menorahs] are very beautiful. But this is not what instinctually I want to say about this kind of thing. So, I surprised myself, because there are some very beautiful ones. The beauty is contained in the fact that it is a menorah, and that you never forget what its purpose is. So all the elaboration goes into what the purpose of the ornament is. It’s charming, and this is taking elaboration and making much beauty out of it.”
Saldutti suggests Sendak fans watch Spike Jonze’s documentary to get a glimpse of the man and the artist. “You’ll see that he loved to laugh and had a great sense of humor,” she said. “He was very open about things, he was honest, and he looked inside of you, not just what’s on the surface.”
Jonze filmed a series of interviews with the author. The interviews became the basis for Jonze’s 2009 television documentary, “Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak.” Jonze also co-wrote and directed the 2009 film adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are.” In the documentary, Sendak spoke about his youth, family, thoughts on death, his career, and some of the controversies that came from his books.
In Jonze’s tribute, viewers see the man who spoke to children and adults through his stories and illustrations in a way no one else could. Sendak’s fans, young and old, grieved when they heard about his death. Perhaps the older fans also lamented the loss of their childhoods and smiled remembering those wonderful romps “In the Night Kitchen.”
“The fact that Maurice dove in and tried what he tried and did it honestly and because it was during the time of change, Woodstock and the Beatles, that helped,” Saldutti said. “These two things—Maurice and the time period—combined to make him a success.”