September 5, 2013

Exploring the genius of Sendak

A new show at the Portland Public Library examines why readers young and old find the illustrator's books literally life-changing.

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

Beginning Friday, the Portland Public Library will show 50 works by the late children's book illustrator Maurice Sendak, considered by many to be the grandmaster of the art form.

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

Maurice Sendak’s fantastical creatures were revolutionary in their day.

Courtesy photos

Additional Photos Below


WHERE: Portland Public Library, 5 Monument Square

WHEN: Opens Friday. Through Oct. 25


INFO: 871-1700;;


"I was a huge fan, not just because (Maurice Sendak) could illustrate so beautifully, but because he wrote in a way that had never been presented before." – Whoopi Goldberg, actor

"The genius of Maurice Sendak is that he drew not only with his pencil but with his heart.” –
Brian Froud, film and fantasy artist

"Maurice Sendak helped raise my kids – all four of them heard ‘The night Max wore his wolf suit …’ many times.”Tom Hanks, actor, producer

"'Where the Wild Things Are’ (is) one of my favorite classic books of all time.”President Barack Obama

"He began to be honest in the '50s. He was laceratingly honest at a time when few others were." – Gregory Maguire, author ("Wicked")

"He's a North Star in the firmament of anyone who makes children's books, in particular for his dark and clear-eyed view of the world that was kindred to me when I was in kindergarten and kindred to me now. ..." – Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler), author

"Maurice Sendak: 50 Years, 50 Works, 50 Reasons" celebrates the 50th anniversary of the publication of Sendak's best-known book, "Where the Wild Things Are." On view through Oct. 25, the show features original works from the book, including sketches, illustrations and works on paper, as well as 50 statements from famous people who opine about Sendak's influence on their lives.

"Maurice Sendak helped raise my kids," writes actor Tom Hanks.

"I would look at those pictures -- where Max's bedroom turns into a forest -- and there was something that felt like magic there," said movie director Spike Jonze.

The exhibition is a collaboration between the library and Maine College of Art. MECA's illustration department chairman, illustrator Scott Nash, began an annual exhibition of children's book illustrators last year. Edward Gorey was the first, and now comes Sendak.

That's two giants in two years.

"I'm not being hyperbolic when I say that Maurice Sendak is one of the most important children's book artists of our time. He reinvented the way we think about modern children's books," said Nash, who has written and illustrated many children's books himself, including "Flat Stanley" by Jeff Brown and "Saturday Night at the Dinosaur Stomp" by Carol Diggory Shields. "He was part of a group of rogue artists who entered into the world of children's books and shook things up back in the late '50s up to the present day.

"He is, for many artists involved in children's books, the seminal artist."

Sendak (1928-2012) illustrated more than 100 books in his career. He received many honors for his work, include a Caldecott Award, a Newberry Medal, the Hans Christian Andersen Award, a National Book Award and a National Medal of Arts.

But perhaps his greatest accomplishment was elevating the children's book to an important literary form to be taken seriously, Nash said.

Sendak seemed to weave Old World influences with his modern approach to design. The book felt as much like the early work of 17th-century Netherlands painter Hieronymus Bosch, who was known for his fantastical imagery. "But Sendak contemporized them and made them relevant to the modern era," Nash said.

Following the success of the Gorey show in 2012, Nash knew he had to find something big as a follow-up. He put out a call on Facebook, asking people what they would like to see.

"Sendak kept coming up over and over again," he said. "About three days into it, up popped a note from a friend who said, 'Scott, if you want to do a Maurice Sendak show, I know the guy you need to talk to.' By putting the call out there, I got a direct connection to the person I needed to talk to."

The exhibition came together quickly. It's a traveling show, stopping at spaces across the country.

Nash was born in 1959, four years before "Where the Wild Things Are" was published. He was older, past his childhood, when he delved deeply into the book.

"I had a visceral reaction to it," he said. "It felt very different from other contemporary children's books that people were reading."

While Sendak is best-known for his work in the publishing world, his talents went beyond books and included designs for costumes and stage sets for the opera.

The diversity and range of his work inspired other artists to expand their artistic reach in turn, Nash said.

"I've always said that being an artist gives us a license to meddle in a bunch of different media," Nash said, noting his own work in animation and gaming. "Sendak is an inspiration for that. He said, 'I can also do an opera set. I can do theater.'

"He did not set boundaries."

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

Twitter: pphbkeyes


Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

Sendak’s Rosie starred in the book “The Sign on Rosie’s Door” and in the musical “Really Rosie.”

Courtesy photo

Further Discussion

Here at we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)


More PPH Blogs

Get the GO RSS!