Maurice Sendak’s memory magic

Connect emotionally with young readers with lessons from one of the most beloved children's authors of all time.

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

What made Maurice Sendak of Where the Wild Things Are fame such a game-changer in the field of children’s literature? A clue: It wasn’t only his artistic talents. Sendak had an uncanny ability to connect emotionally with his readers by using both literal and subconscious memory. The good news? His methods apply to all children’s writers – and even those writing in other genres.

Sendak believed if you want to write for young people, your writing must connect to the emotions of children on a deep level. To best produce this kind of work, children’s writers must mine their own emotional memories and transfer them to the page, for as Sendak said, “Truthfulness to life – both fantasy life and factual life – is the basis of all great art.”

Advertisement

“Maurice was very strong on digging for emotional truth,” says Jean Gralley, former staff artist for Cricket Magazine and an accomplished picture book writer and illustrator. She studied with Sendak at Parsons School of Design in the 1970s.

“He helped us understand that many writers write out of sentiment and nostalgia for childhood, a sanitized memory of what it was like,” Gralley says. “He reminded us that childhood held the deepest fears and highest joys of our lives. Childhood was wonderful but also terrifying, all its emotion unvarnished…he urged us to dig through the layers of protective varnish and mine the raw fears and delights of the child still inside us.”

Are you passionate about books, authors and writing? Sign up for our weekly newsletter, full of tips, reviews, and more.

How can we accomplish this feat? We can begin with a study of the work of the master himself, as I do with my university classes in writing for children and young adults. My favorite Sendak models are Where the Wild Things Are (1963) and Outside Over There (1981).

Some students miss the urgency of Max’s need for escape in Where the Wild Things Are or fear Ida’s story in Outside Over There will frighten children. But the more intuitive ones see what Sendak has achieved immediately. Of course, so do most children who read his books. According to Sendak, children already possess the anger, the anxiety, and the discontent from which the adults in their world wish to spare them. They are looking for ways to understand these wild and frightening emotions. They find them in the pages of a well-constructed, emotionally charged book. Fortunately for writers, this holds true whether we’re writing for preschoolers or young adults.

Sendak, Max, and Ida

To learn more about Sendak’s craft, I examined some of his original art and manuscripts at the Rosenbach museum and library, part of the Free Library of Philadelphia network. The materials since have moved to The Maurice Sendak House & Archive in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and will be available again to researchers in early spring 2019 at The Maurice Sendak Collection at the University of Connecticut.

Studying that amazing collection underlined for me the importance of establishing that emotional connection to childhood in a way that is honest and accessible. Prior to the 1960s, with a few notable exceptions, picture books were fairly bland. Subjects considered unsuitable – such as rage at parental control – were not explored. Where the Wild Things Are opened the door to the resentment and anger all children sometimes feel in their powerlessness. The story sheds light on emotional truth.

Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak
Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak

Max, star of the iconic picture book, is so angry with his mother that he wants to eat her up, to flee both her and her controlled world of tablecloths and bedroom carpets. Max needs the emotional release he finds in “the place where the wild things are.” At first Sendak imagined the Wild Things as mythological creatures like griffins, but he wasn’t satisfied with them. In a 1989 speech at the New York Public Library, he said, “They didn’t come out of me; they were borrowed monsters.” As his sketching progressed, Sendak realized the monsters had taken on the features of his Jewish relatives who descended on the Brooklyn home of his childhood, ate all the family food, and assured him that they loved him so much they could eat him up. Sendak’s monsters became real when they were part of his own reality.

Ida from Outside Over There is a well-meaning girl with outsized responsibility to protect her baby sister while her father is at sea and her mother is mourning his absence. Ida harbors resentment – even hatred – for her sibling, but she is one of what Sendak calls the “trudging children” who try to please and carry on, despite the mistakes adults make. At first Ida doesn’t notice when goblins steal her baby sister, replacing her with a changeling made of ice. When she does, Ida realizes she must go “outside over there” to rescue her sister.

Sendak called Outside Over There “the most personal of my books, and my favorite,” perhaps because it is based on what terrified him most when he was a child: the 1932 kidnapping of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s baby when Sendak was 4 years old. Sendak’s book became an effort to change history, to rescue the Lindbergh baby as Ida rescues her baby sister. (It may also have been a way for Sendak to deal with the memory of an emotionally unavailable mother.) The story allows children to come to terms with their own deep anxieties and find inspiration through Ida’s resourcefulness.

Advertisement

Just as with many of Sendak’s works, these books are strikingly different in style, but, as author and children’s literature expert Leonard S. Marcus says of Sendak, “…the visual manner and medium of a book mattered far less than the emotional truth it had to tell.” Emotional truth is what Sendak offers his readers; it’s what every writer of children’s books should provide, whether we’re writing for preschoolers, middle graders, or young adults.

Reliance on the subconscious

Though some of Sendak’s art was rooted in the reality around him, he also relied heavily on his subconscious to inspire his direction, especially in the realm of fantasy, something every one of his books required. In Sendak’s observations about his recurring dreams and emotional memories, there are parallels to the writing philosophy in From Where You Dream when author Robert Olen Butler writes, “Art comes from the place where you dream…from your unconscious; it comes from the white-hot center of you.”

We see this in the pages of In the Night Kitchen, a picture book that consistently appears on the American Library Association’s list of frequently challenged children’s books for showing its protagonist nude. Sendak’s bakery is drawn from his memories of the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, which he visited when he was 11. Maurice’s older sister, Natalie, abandoned him in front of the Sunshine Bakery, where he was at first tantalized by the aromas and the three fat little bakers waving at him from a balcony and then grew increasingly anxious when his sister didn’t return. Years later, those bakers appeared on the pages of In the Night Kitchen.

Sendak’s childhood was not a particularly happy one, so he had a great deal of both literal memory and subconscious emotional memory to share. As an adult, he underwent psychiatric analysis and had a psychoanalyst as his life partner, so one could assume he was well-tuned to his own emotional bellwethers.

In a 1988 interview, Sendak said he used “memories of things, social and political things that occurred in the world that frightened me as a child, things that I have to play with, re-create, or exorcise.” Sendak made use of everything at his disposal: literal, emotional, and subconscious memories; the social and political climate in which he lived; and his unique fascination with the world around him. As writers, we need to find ways to explore ourselves in all our complexities, perhaps through creative exercises.

In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

Early in his career, Sendak used one such practice: free association sketching done to classical music. He did these fantasy sketches mostly in a five-year period from 1952 to 1957. Sendak drew when he was awake yet not entirely in a typically conscious state – akin to the dream stage that Butler writes about in From Where You Dream. The informal drawings reflect what psychoanalyst Dr. Richard Gottlieb calls “childhood terrors, elations, rages, and depressive affects, including grief.”

The fantasy sketches I saw at the Rosenbach were riffs on cannibalism, a motif we see in many of Sendak’s children’s books, including Where the Wild Things Are. They allowed Sendak to tap into his unconscious. He stopped doing them when he felt himself exerting too much conscious control over the drawings. It seems Sendak would agree in principle with Butler’s opinion that “your ambition as an artist is to give voice to the deep, inchoate vision of the world that resides dynamically in your unconscious.”

Advertisement

In 1970, when Sendak accepted the Hans Christian Andersen Award, he said, “Happily, an essential part of myself – my dreaming life – still lives in the potent, urgent light of childhood.” This is surely the “white-hot center” to which Butler alludes. Having those emotional memories and finding a way, through words and pictures, to communicate them to children was Sendak’s greatest gift.

Finding the right words

In addition to mining his own emotional experiences, Sendak knew the importance of being an astute observer of children in all their varied emotional moods. He was a sickly child, often more of an observer than a participant, yet he would watch from his apartment window as children played and fought on the street below. He’d capture their emotions in quick sketches. Sendak was a master in rendering the emotional weather of a child through illustration, yet he also understood the importance of finding the correct words to express emotion.

Sendak believed “everything begins with writing.” He never spent less than two years on the text of a picture book, even though each one averaged less than 400 words. “Only when the text is finished,” he said, “…do I begin the pictures.” As writers, we must challenge ourselves to push beyond the obvious word and easy image to find what might best spark recognition in the reader.

Sendak also teaches us to be tireless researchers, finding the material – be it ephemera, historical references, or cultural connections – to charge our work with authenticity and meaning. Like Sendak, we should strive to trust in our own memories and life experiences.

Sendak’s inspiration for the picture books I examined came from his earliest childhood. Some of it – like the Lindbergh baby kidnapping – he barely remembered consciously. Of course, he couldn’t very well forget those visiting Jewish relatives. But morphing them into Wild Things was a subconscious choice he didn’t recognize initially.

If we follow in Sendak’s footsteps, everything is grist for the writer’s mill: popular culture (Sendak loved Mickey Mouse, after all!), newspaper clippings, advertisements, nursery rhymes and fairy tales, photographs, art, and music. We can learn to open ourselves to the wider world and use our unique experiences to allow our own distinct material to emerge. We can also incorporate more “play” into our daily routine, experiment with alternate art forms, and work very early in the morning or late at night when our subconscious may be more accessible.

Initially, these methods of improving our writing may seem far removed from “craft,” but they truly are techniques that lie at the heart of writing excellence. By acknowledging children’s deep emotions, we provide models to live by and, in some cases, catharsis in dealing with overpowering passions. That’s the gift we give our readers.

To paraphrase Maurice Sendak in Where the Wild Things Are, we need only sail “back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day” to find the distinct magic that will produce that emotional connection to our own young readers.

 

Gretchen Haertsch has taught writing courses, including writing for children and young adults, at Arcadia University near Philadelphia for 18 years. She has an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in writing for children and young adults. She has had both fiction and nonfiction published in children’s magazines, and has written children’s textbooks for McGraw-Hill. She is currently working on a middle grade biography about Louisa May Alcott.