Maurice Sendak was a Caldecott award winning children’s book illustrator and author. I have chosen to respond to Quentin Blake’s observation that ‘…as an illustrator, you need to understand the human body – but having looked at and understood nature, you must develop an ability to look away and capture the balance between what you’ve seen and what you imagine’ using Sendak’s beloved classic Where The Wild Things Are as an example.
The Wild Things lies somewhere between reality and fantasy and perfectly fits into Blake’s criteria of an illustrator as the book’s wildly imaginative characters and landscapes reflect the storyline. Sendak captured the public’s imagination with the tale and imagery of a boy’s journey into a strange landscape inhabited by grotesque yet appealing monsters.
Originally titled “Where The Wild Horses Are”, Sendak’s unforgettable novel was intended to feature fillies, foals and mares. Editor Ursula Nordstrom adored the title, finding it poetic and beautiful, but there was one problem: Sendak couldn’t draw horses. When he told his editor that the whole horse thing wasn’t going to work out, he recalls her “acid toned” response: “Maurice, what can you draw?”
“Things,” he said, and “things” he drew.
The “things” Sendak ended up creating were inspired by his immigrant relatives and the way he viewed them as a child. “They were unkempt; their teeth were horrifying. Hair unraveling out of their noses.” Deemed by some critics and parents upon publication as horrifying, Where The Wild Things Are ultimately gave life to the demons of Sendak’s imagination and his somewhat bleak view on the world. He once said: “I’m totally crazy, I know that. I don’t say that to be a smarts, but I know that that’s the very essence of what makes my work good. Not everybody likes it and thats fine. I don’t do it for everybody. I do it because I can’t not do it.”
Sendak created other realities in his illustrations and morally never strived to style his images around what other’s thought beautiful, or expected from him. He was until the end an original and his creations in that way couldn’t help but manifest what Quentin Blake aptly said of a successful illustrator, the fine line between an authentic reality and innate imaginings.