Magic can come from dark places. The unexpected kind, often inspired by heartache, loneliness and tragedy, is often the truest, the most resonant, and everlasting.
Maurice Sendak’s own story wasn’t an easy one. It began well enough, in Brooklyn, New York. His parents had moved from Poland with a few other relatives to escape political turmoil. As a young child, he reveled in the storytelling of his father and brother, using their tales as inspiration for his first attempts as a creator, on cardboard pieces and old paper. Engaged as he was, in his tender years, he was deeply affected by accidental exposure to the Lindbergh kidnapping, identifying with the desperation, and helplessness of the faceless family pleading over the radio. He grieved for the loss of the child, and his awareness of his own frailty became a fundamental part of his psyche, that he referenced for years to come.
As he grew to be a young man, this memory became a precursor to a true horror, one which set his path and fueled his lifelong belief that children were more resilient than grown-ups. His father’s village was destroyed, many of his relatives killed, or taken away to concentration camps. The concept of frailty gave way to mortality, and the profound loss became a heavy burden to remaining Sendak’s.
Life never stops in the wake of tragedy, and so, Mr. Sendak trudged on, bearing up, and finished high school. His love for creating followed him, and he continued to pursue illustration, working on his skill independently, creating a distinctive style. He began his career illustrating for others, knowing his aspiration to make his own stories depended on the exposure. Working his day job at FAO Schwarz as a window dresser afforded him a creative outlet, as well as the opportunity to be in a big city. As luck would have it, it also afforded him the opportunity to meet one of the most predominant editors of children’s books at the time, Ursula Nordstrom. A day after reviewing his sketches, she offered him his first job illustrating a book for Harper and Row, (now Harper Collins). From that partnership came many books that are considered to be classics, and best of all in his eyes, loved by children.
The whirlwind of success which followed the young man is legendary, and though he established himself early on, it is clear through his correspondence with his editor, that he, as most creators are, was concerned about his work, the quality, or whether it lived up to his predecessors. That he felt these emotions so keenly was revelatory at first, but upon reflection, rather unsurprising. The wonder of Mr. Sendak lies in his ability to translate emotional experiences into stories. The way he draws on his own memories to create images and text that vibrate with feeling, capturing the truth of the matter. His work, at times, joyful, and exuberant, could also be timid, and unguarded. Sometimes, there was ugliness, because that was the truth, but the ugliness helped the characters to see more clearly, and so too could the reader. There is no doubt that the art was not to be denied, but his magic lay in his vulnerability, and dedication to certitude. His willingness to tread in places of pain in order to make the best story he could muster. This is true magic; hard fought for through trial, and made to last through generations.
In the words of one young critic, after reading Higgelty, Piggelty, Pop!; or, There Must be More to Life.
“Mommy, he’s the magic man.”
With the magic words, the magic pen in hand.