‘Something Wonderful Out of Almost Nothing’

Copyright ©1993 by Maurice Sendak
One of Maurice Sendak’s original drawings for We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, 1992; from the exhibition ‘Maurice Sendak: A Legacy,’ which will be on view at the Rosenbach Museum and Library, Philadelphia, June 10, 2012–May 26, 2013

Only a few people have been both great writers and great illustrators of children’s books. In the nineteenth century there was Edward Lear, and in the twentieth Dr. Seuss and—perhaps the most gifted of them all—Maurice Sendak, who died in May at the age of eighty-three.

Sendak’s best-known work, Where the Wild Things Are (1963), shocked some adult readers at first; later it was recognized as a brilliant breakthrough. It gave graphic expression to what every parent knows—that kids are sometimes angry and even violent; and it proposed that these impulses could be explored and enjoyed rather than repressed and denied. Within a few years Where the Wild Things Are was a recognized classic. It wasn’t a fluke: the same originality and psychological insight was already evident in Sendak’s earlier work, most notably perhaps in Pierre: A Cautionary Tale, the best of the four tiny books (each less than 3 by 4 inches) in his Nutshell Library (1962).

The classic cautionary tale is a story, often in verse, in which a child misbehaves and is severely punished. Usually the tone is exaggerated and comic, but it can also be frightening. In Heinrich Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter (1845), which terrified generations of kids, a little boy who sucks his thumbs gets them cut off by giant scissors. Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales (1907) are lighter in tone, but they follow the standard plot of bad behavior and awful retribution.1 As usual in such tales, adult friends and relatives utter warnings, but they don’t do anything to protect the child or seem very upset by what happens. In Belloc’s “Jim, who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion,” his mother merely remarks afterward:

“Well—it gives me no surprise,
He would not do as he was told!”
His Father, who was self-controlled
Bade all the children round attend
To James’s miserable end,
And always keep a-hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse.

This is a joke, of course, but not a very pleasant one.

Sendak’s Pierre suffers from what looks like bad temper and sulkiness, but could be the kind of apathy that, according to psychologists, is one of the symptoms of depression. He rejects his parents’ love:

One day his mother said
when Pierre climbed out of bed,
“Good morning, darling boy,
you are my only joy.”
Pierre said, “I don’t care!”

With similar angry indifference, Pierre responds to offers of cream of wheat with syrup and a trip to town. No matter what anyone says, he replies, “I…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.