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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Paul O. Zelinsky on Maurice Sendak: “books for children can and should acknowledge a full range of human emotions”

Reader’s Almanac continues its presentation of remarks offered at the 2013 New York State Writers Hall of Fame induction ceremony with Paul O. Zelinsky’s tribute to Maurice Sendak. Zelinsky is a Caldecott Medal–winning illustrator of such celebrated children’s books as The Wheels on the Bus, Rapunzel, and Z is for Moose.
Paul O. Zelinsky
Photograph by Tatiana Breslow
I want to express my gratitude for the privilege of inducting Maurice Sendak into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame. I only wish that he could be here to accept the honor, which I understand came very close to happening only last year, but it proved to be impossible. Maurice Sendak is already, I am fairly sure, the most honored figure in American children’s literature, having won every major award in the field. But as everyone in the field knows, it’s unusual to find a children’s book creator even in the running when honors are going to makers of grown-up art. This award, and the company it places him in, would have pleased Maurice greatly.

I hope you’ll excuse me if I presume to speak for him. I knew Maurice, perhaps not as closely as some, but longer than most, since the fall of ‘71 when I had the luck to be in the first class he ever taught. So I have heard him express many opinions and ideas, always with great fervor. And I seem to have absorbed these ideas well enough that I now carry around inside my head a little Maurice Sendak voice, which rises up occasionally to render praise or spew invective in the unrestrained and hilarious way that you might have glimpsed if you saw Stephen Colbert’s interview with him on television.

The idea that put Maurice on the cultural map was his insistence, embodied in picture books that caught the attention and earned the love of young readers everywhere, that books for children can and should acknowledge a full range of human emotions, not just the pretty or instructive ones. There is wildness in every soul, and that is as it should be. From the beginning, Sendak’s drawings were unusually expressive—vivid, funny, and full of spirit. He was already highly visible as an illustrator when Where the Wild Things Are unleashed this radical idea on the world. That it is no longer radical is proof of its enduring influence. Sendak’s books affected the very way Americans understand what childhood is.

These books don’t set out to teach lessons, but they do contain ideas—not intellectual statements, but something more like thoughts wrapped in a mystery. Maurice looked for reverberations and he looked for meaning, and he believed fiercely that what he discovered, if he worked it up right, would be accessible to anyone of any age who was open to it. If one of these right, reverberating images happened to upset the adult guardians of good behavior, it was not Maurice’s concern. In the Night Kitchen’s sensual dream broke through boundaries and disturbed a great many gatekeepers not because Maurice wanted to, but because the book needed to.

Maurice Sendak loved art; he loved it high and he loved it low. For years he worked to the strains of Mozart, who made his way into the illustrations of Outside Over There. Melville was not only an obsessively favorite writer, Herman Melville was, and still is, Maurice’s beloved German Shepherd. A massive collection of antique Mickey Mice infested Maurice’s house. He got the Disney people to give him a videotape of Pinocchio at a time when Disney cartoons were rigorously kept unavailable outside of their measured theatrical release. No matter how high or low Maurice’s own art is, and whether it works best for people whose age is one digit long, or two, or three, it is fully appropriate to pay tribute to it, and to him, here, with this induction.

Coming together like this to honor a great talent, we are also honoring ourselves, creating a link between us and this artist, or what there is of the artist that lives in our heads, in a way that links us together as well. And in the end, isn’t that the best place and the perfect response for an artist and his art?

Still, there was a Maurice Sendak who very much had his own head and didn’t need to live in ours; he lived in Brooklyn, then in Manhattan, and even though he moved to Connecticut for the second half of his life, he never gave up his Greenwich Village apartment, which qualifies him all the more for this New York State award. I miss him a lot. I am proud to induct Maurice Sendak into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame.
At a June 4 ceremony here in midtown Manhattan, The Empire State Center for the Book formally inducted eight writers into the New York States Writers Hall of Fame, which it established in 2010 to recognize New York-born or based poets, novelists, journalists, and historians who have made an indelible mark on our culture. The class of 2013 included living writers Marilyn Hacker, Alice McDermott, Walter Mosley, and Calvin Trillin, as well as James Fenimore Cooper, Countee Cullen, Miguel Piñero, and Maurice Sendak.

Previous posts from the Hall of Fame ceremony:
Honor Moore on Marilyn Hacker
Charles Molesworth on Countée Cullen
Dan Barry on Alice McDermott
Daniel Gallant on Miguel Piñero


  1. A lovely, brilliant, lucid tribute to a great artist.

  2. It takes the refined artistic sense of Paul O. Zelinsky to give the mercurial Maurice Sendak his due and Zelinsky does so eloquently.


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