building new castles every day

From childhood to university: How Maurice Sendak still guides me

In Learnings, Thinkings on May 19, 2012 at 7:52 PM

There are many reasons to publish to a blog. You can publish highlights of current events, you can share photos of your dog, or you can help your Modern Vancouver Family find a house. But today, as I weed through stacks of collected papers and prepare to move house, I want to publish a paper I wrote in university.

Don’t yawn yet. The paper’s topic is actually quite timely and, in my biased opinion, quite interesting. It’s about the work and impact of influential Maurice Sendak, who passed away Tuesday, May 8, 2012.

But first, some context:

Since my own childhood, I have been fascinated with the stories adults tell children through all mediums: television (Sesame Street), magazines (OwlKids), and books (The Giver, just to name a few, before the Internet age). But sometimes you get caught up in life (i.e., university and hopes for a job) and forget what excites you (a clever illustration). So in my final semester of university, I enrolled in an elective course called EDUC 465: Children’s Literature and Culture. It was the reminder I needed to work at what I love.

Halfway through the semester, we were assigned a take-home midterm exam. Choose a children’s book illustrator. Review the illustrator’s critical reception. Discuss the illustrator’s signature style. Analyze one picture book that you think best exemplifies the illustrator’s work. Use explicit examples to support your ideas. Quote directly from the courseware. Provide a copy of the illustration. 

In short, it was the best assignment ever. 

So to celebrate the late Maurice Sendak, and to show my gratitude for having been set on a path towards working at what I love, here is that paper. (Note: Since I am the author and the publisher — hooray for self-publication — I’ve taken the liberty of editing out some of the academic reference brackets and page number junk so that it doesn’t induce an early bedtime. But, c’mon, it’s still academic. So I’ve included pictures!)

Maurice Sendak 

Prepared for Dr. Elizabeth Marshall
EDUC 465, Summer 2009

One of the things a visual narrative can do,
perhaps more truly than words,
is to replicate the logic of dreams.
– Jonathon Jones, 2008

Maurice Sendak is not just a children’s book illustrator and author. He is arguably “one of the most powerful men in the US” (O’Doherty). He has the ability to “give shape to the fantasies of millions of children” and to retain “a vivid sense of what life was like from the viewpoint of a child.” Two of Sendak’s books in particular, Where the Wild Things Are (1963) and In the Night Kitchen (1973), exemplify these arguments.

Both books are part of Sendak’s ‘trilogy.’ Along with Outside Over There (1981), these were a group of books he wrote and illustrated to explore his own ‘inner’ subject: that is, how fantasy acts as a coping mechanism for children. Both books are “fantastical dream narratives” in which the protagonists, Max and Mickey, enter their dream worlds, perform symbolic tasks and eventually return to their own rooms. According to Sendak, these two books are variations on this theme: “How kids get through a day, how they survive tedium, boredom, how they cope with anger, frustration.”

Critical Reception

Sendak’s depiction of fantasy in Where the Wild Things Are and in In the Night Kitchen received significant criticism, both positive and negative. The negative came in the form of adult fear and censorship: Where the Wild Things Are was deemed too frightening for small children while In the Night Kitchen was attacked for its cartoonish style (as it was distinctly different from his previous work) and his use of nudity.

Positive criticism of these books described Sendak’s work as “revolutionary” and “heroic.” Public opinion suggested that ‘ordinary’ children should not behave like Max, Mickey, the Wild Things or the Oliver Hardy bakers. Rather, Sendak “reminded us that the world of children’s fantasies is one of their best-kept secrets” (Silvey).

Sendak’s work repeatedly challenges assumptions about children. His work invites adults to “recognize their detachment as parents and look inside the child’s mind, to learn something” (Zornando). He is known for his versatility and for his belief in matching his illustrative language with the author’s textual narrative (Alderson). Critics repeatedly recognize Sendak’s “unusual gift” of maintaining his “child self”and creating “a kind of map of the emotional and visionary terrain of childhood.”


Due to the variety of his works, Sendak’s signature style is difficult to pinpoint. From the flat, comic-book style of In the Night Kitchen, to the richly detailed pen-and-ink drawings of The Juniper Tree, to the detailed crosshatching of Where the Wild Things Are and the soft, lyrical watercolours of Outside Over There, Sendak’s style maintains subtlety, superb control, sensitivity and a “deliberate sense of responsibility for the child for whom he is writing” (Swanton).

His style is precise and firm in Wild Things: “Max can dream a thing so forcefully, it is real. Sendak finds a way to express this visual as graphic robustness” (Jones). His work uses surrealism, a “rich fabric of references,” and has been paralleled with New York surrealist Joseph Cornell and Andy Warhol (Jones).

Sendak’s influences: Andy Warhol

Though drawn in different media or moods, Sendak’s work often makes use of “clots of characters who resemble one another but who function rather as a Greek chorus” (e.g., the Oliver Hardy bakers and the Wild Things themselves). Sendak’s work “unscroll[s] with a resemblance, page to page, but no repetition: things are subtly different each time they’re drawn.”

His style has a “distinctly European flavour” and is influenced by nineteenth century toys, books and illustrators, such as George Cruikshank and John Tenniel.

Sendak’s influences: George Cruikshank

Sendak’s influences: John Tenniel

Even hints of Picasso and his 1937 Minotauromachy can be found in Sendak’s work, particularly Where the Wild Things Are.

Sendak’s influences: Pablo Picasso

Maurice Sendak is also heavily influenced by music and theatre: “I hoped rather to let the story speak for itself, with my pictures as a kind of background music––music in the right style, in the best taste and always in tune with the words.” Perhaps then Sendak’s style can be described as flexible and adaptable but always a “consistency of motifs and images…you could call it theme and variation, range and repetition…impressively varied” (Maguire).

Case Study

Of the two books I’ve chosen, I believe In the Night Kitchen best exemplifies Sendak’s work as an illustrator because it contains many aspects of his flexible yet referential style. In the following analysis, I will offer examples from various pages in the book and will refer to one in particular, the only text-less and double-page spread on which Mickey has ascended into the night sky and the three bakers watch him from below, increasingly distanced from each other, setting up “a rhythm of approach for the eye to work up to the leap above the milk bottle” (Maguire).

Maurice Sendak creates meaning through the use of borders, specific typeface, placement of text relative to pictures, and pictorial dynamics.

Comic-book frames are used in Night Kitchen to indicate scenes and sequences. The initial and final pages in which Mickey is leaving and returning to his room, include much more white space outside the comic frame borders than the middle pages. Nodelman & Reimer write, “Events seen through strictly defined boundaries imply detachment and objectivity, a fact that many illustrators of fantasy world use to advantage.”

Along this vein, Sendak’s use of strict borders and obvious white space emphasize when Mickey is within his fantasy and when reality returns. Sendak also breaks his borders with dialogue bubbles and parts of his characters to, as Nodelman argues, amplify tension. This is particularly useful in conveying the intensity of Mickey’s wrath when he shouts, “QUIET DOWN THERE!”

The typeface used throughout the book is handwritten, by Diana Blair, and is incorporated effectively into the illustrations, making the entire book visually smooth yet tactile. Type size varies during dialogue and is always upper case which insinuates that the story is told from a third-person narrative perspective. The placement and relationships of pictures and words, such as the dialogue bubbles and narrative boxes, are contained within the comic frame borders. The hand-drawn text is seamlessly blended into the pictures, permitting them to not only work together but become co-dependent.

Other illustrated objects derive “much of their significance…from within a picture itself, particularly from the ways in which the objects relate to one another” (Nodelman & Reimer. Sendak uses (and equally avoids) shape, size, grounds and changing focus to achieve this significance. “Square shapes are rigid, round ones accommodating,” say Nodelman & Reimer, yet Sendak’s use of square and round challenge their conventional significance by breaking his characters and objects out from their rigid frames.

“Larger figures tend to have more weight [read: importance] than smaller ones,” (Nodelman & Reimer, p.288) yet when Mickey is being stirred into the cake batter, only his small hand or forehead is visible but the reader is drawn to search for him, raising his importance over the larger bakers. Sendak does drawn on the conventional significance of figure and ground as Nodelman & Reimer describe: Mickey and the bakers are outlined in thicker black lines than their surroundings to emphasize their importance; and characters are shown “against fuller grounds” of the ‘night kitchen’ so to emphasize “the effect of the characters’ environment on them” but also Mickey’s effect on the night kitchen.

“Variation in focus also affects the way viewers respond to a scene,” and Sendak changes the focus throughout Night Kitchen, moving from middle-distance (Mickey in bed) to close-ups (page-height bakers) to long shots (double-page spread of Mickey above the milk bottle). Despite these variations, Sendak seems to maintain “a shallow depth of field, where the main action of the page…is never more than an implied eight feet deep” (Maguire). This is perhaps Sendak’s way of achieving what Nodelman & Reimer call a balance between intimacy and distance.

Sendak creates mood through colour (hues, shades and saturation), shapes, lines and his chosen media, watercolour paints. Predominating hues in Night Kitchen include white, browns, yellows and blues. Shades of these hues tend to be darker, creating a “gloomier” mood. However Sendak’s use of bright white and yellow for the moon is so bold and jovial that this contrast in shades creates an appropriate mood for a victim-turned-hero story.

Sendak’s use of shape and line follow Nodelman & Reimer’s assertion to create a sensual texture to the book: round shapes, such as the bread dough and the chubby bakers, “are soft and yielding” (the dough is malleable and the bakers fear Mickey eventually). Angular shapes, such as narrative text boxes, are “rigid and orderly” while uncompleted lines, such as the ‘beam of light’ text box which guides Mickey down into the cake batter, are “energetic.”

Finally, Sendak’s choice to use watercolour paints as his medium creates mood through its translucency, creating “the impression of light” (Nodelman & Reimer). His avoidance of “absolute opacity…acknowledges the presence of the paper” (Maguire). Perhaps Sendak wanted this effect so to remind the reader that despite his bold, believable pictures, the book is just a book: a visual depiction of a dream.


Through his use and manipulation of these artistic conventions, Sendak expresses his attitudes about his audience, both children and adults. Perhaps this is his most unique contribution to the field of children’s literature: he initiated a revolution, “turned the entire tide of what is acceptable, of what is possible to put in a children’s book illustration” or in a children’s book as a whole (Silvey).

Sendak assumes that children are “fantasy-plagued” and that adults have forgotten this coping mechanism but should not fear it. His works, particularly his personal trilogy, repeat a thematic structure in which fantasy is deployed to handle frustration and anger. Through my research of Maurice Sendak, I found most significant his versatility and range of impact on so many ages of people. His significance to children’s literature is his “tremendous bond of sympathy between text and illustration;” a steadfast belief in the “total effect of the book” (Swanton).

To this day, critical reviews are being written about Sendak’s work and it is to his credit that so many children and adults are continually challenged to explore their personal ‘night kitchen’ and to discover ‘where the wild things are.’


Bibliography (if you care to know more)

Alderson, B. (1993). Maurice before Max: The yonder side of the see-saw. Horn Book Magazine, 69(3), 291. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier. (2009). Maurice Sendak: Biography. Accessed June 25, 2009 from

Hunt, P. (2003). Literature for children: Contemporary criticism. New York: Taylor & Francis. Accessed via SFU NetLibrary.

Jones, J. (2008, April 12). Wild things, I think I love you. The Guardian. Accessed June 25, 2009 from

Maguire, G. (2003). A Sendak appreciation. Horn Book Magazine, 79(6), 667–682. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier.

NNDB. (n.d.). Maurice Sendak. Accessed June 25, 2009 from

Nodelman, P. & Reimer, M. (2003). The pleasures of children’s literature (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Sendak, M. (1970). In the night kitchen. Harper Collins Publishers.

Sendak, M. (1963). Where the wild things are. Harper & Row.

Silvey, A. (2002). The essential guide to children’s books and their creators. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin. Accessed via SFU NetLibrary.

Swanton, A. (1971). Maurice Sendak’s picture books. Children’s Literature in Education, 2(3), 38–48. Retrieved from

Zornando, J.L. (2001). Inventing the child culture, ideology, and the story of childhood. New York: Routledge. Accessed via SFU NetLibrary.

  1. Try Colin Thompson’s books, too, if you haven’t seen them. Very different to Maurice Sendak but still inspiring, in a detailed, meticulous kind of way! (sneak preview I’ve just found randomly:

    • Nice sneak preview, and thanks for sharing. I found Mr. Thompson’s website but, sadly, he does not blog from what I can tell. When did you first come across his work?

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