George & Sendak: A Tribute to Two Remarkable Children’s Books Creators

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Giant Talent
A Tribute to Two Remarkable Children’s Books Creators

The month of May marked the loss of two creative giants in the field of children’s literature – Maurice Sendak and Jean Craighead George. Both were prolific masters of their craft, and two of the last great talents fostered by maverick editor, Ursula Nordstrom. Their books should be in every family library, for no kid should grow up without them.

Jean Craighead George, Ambassador of Wilderness, 1919-2012

When I first read Julie of the Wolves (1972), by Jean Craighead George, I was a modern girl living in an east coast town on the edge of a big city. The story about an Eskimo girl fleeing an arranged marriage and surviving on the tundra with a pack of wolves was far from my own reality. But I couldn’t put the book down. I escaped into the Alaskan wilderness. I heard the howl of the wolves, saw the frozen landscape through the furry hood of a parka, felt the bite of bitter cold. It was exciting and dangerous, and nothing short of magical.

This is one of the gifts Jean Craighead George imparts in her writing. She takes you to wild, beautiful places, like the Alaskan wilderness, or the Florida Everglades, or a Venezuelan rain forest, and introduces you to its animals and people, its weather and topography. A strong footing in science and nature, meticulous research, keen accuracy, and inspired imagination characterizes her writing and makes it vivid and alive. It was her hope that in taking readers to wild, beautiful places, they would come away from her stories wanting to protect earth’s creatures and the vanishing landscape.

George grew up in Washington, D.C., part of a naturalist family who spent much of their time outdoors, hiking, camping and canoeing, which laid an early foundation for George’s life-long passion for the natural world. She started her career in journalism, and was part of the White House Press Corps before her leap into children’s books. Her first book, Vulpes the Red Fox, was published in 1948, and George went on to publish more than 100, many of them award winners, in fiction and nonfiction, from picture books to novels, during her lengthy career.

She traveled extensively, bringing an exacting authenticity to her work. On assignment in Barrow, Alaska, she learned to communicate with a wolf and the seed was planted for her book about Julie and her wolves. In her travels, she also took time to be with the people native to that area, and learned about their culture and traditions, thus weaving another dimension into her work.

For My Side of the Mountain (1959), George traveled back into her own childhood when she herself tried to run away. Her protagonist, Sam Gribley, goes farther than George ever did, leaving New York City for the Catskill Mountains, where he creates his own world in the wilderness. George drew from a well of experiences for this story, from Sam’s feelings about nature to the idea of living inside a tree and even to using a falcon for hunting. Sam’s resourcefulness and his ability to survive despite the odds have inspired readers across the world to renew their relationship with the outdoors.

The force of nature and George’s relationship with it continuously shaped her work. Her series, “Thirteen Moons,” which portray natural events associated with a seasonal moon, was hatched when she heard the call of a great horned owl outside her window on a January night. And her “One Day” series, eco-dramas set in a specific environment, came about when she saw life interacting in the ecosystems of the woods, the desert, the prairie, the alpine tundra, and the tropical rain forest, and really felt she had become an ecologist.

Ever passionate about her calling, she never stopped working. More recently, she had collaborated with illustrator Wendell Minor on a series of picture books, and with composer Chris Kubie, to bring the sounds of nature to her stories. She published a handful of books in the past few years, including The Last Polar Bear (2009), The Cats at Rockville Station (2009) and The Buffalo Are Back (2010). With so many children still being inspired by Sam Gribley, she also put together the Pocket Guide to the Outdoors (2010), so readers can do all the things Sam does in My Side of the Mountain, like build a shelter, start a fire, find water, and identify wild edibles. She was still working on several projects at the time of her death at age 92, and these will be published posthumously. Look for books on a Galapagos turtle, eagles, and whales.

All of Jean Craighead George’s work brings to the forefront the importance of protecting wild places and the animals that live there. She was not afraid to tackle serious environmental issues like endangered species, global warming, conservation, and coexistence in her stories. And by doing so, showed us how connected we are to nature, and how, ultimately, our own survival as human beings depends on it. If there were an ambassador of wilderness in kids’ books, it surely would have been Jean Craighead George.

Maurice Sendak, Wild Thing, 1928-2012

I grew up feasting on Maurice Sendak’s Nutshell Library (1962). Cracking open the little books, I’d read and re-read the stories and poems, especially Pierre. I couldn’t get enough of him. I was shocked by his behavior and yet spellbound by it, his naughtiness and ennui, even in the face of a lion. Odd and darkly comedic, the book didn’t just knock my funny bone but resonated deep in my psyche.

I kept reading Sendak throughout my childhood, and then into adulthood, and on into parenthood. His picture books operate on many levels for me, from being good, romping stories to visually exuberant stages to landscapes of archetypal images and rich symbolism. They embody both the mythic material of dreams and the hard truths of real life.

Sendak grew up in Brooklyn, New York, the youngest of three children, in a Jewish family. He loved to draw, and was already illustrating his brother’s stories when he was a young boy. A fortuitous job as a window designer for FAO Schwartz led him to a collaboration with Ursula Nordstrom, and his career in children’s books was launched. After illustrating other people’s stories, like Ruth Krauss’s A Hole Is To Dig (1952), and Meindert De Jong’s The Wheel on the School (1954), he illustrated his own story called Kenny’s Window, in 1956.

Sendak went on to illustrate over 100 books, including the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Leo Tolstoy. And how can we forget that it was Sendak who created the timeless images of Little Bear (1957) for Else Holmelund Minarik’s stories. He also brought his talents off the page and into the theater where he designed sets and costumes for operas and ballets for many years, even making appearances on stage singing and acting.

He had enormous creative talent, and he was an absolute genius of the picture book. His dark humor and artistic magic, his ability to tell a story within a story, and his unabashed truthfulness, elevated his work to a superlative art form. His books won numerous awards including the Caldecott Medal and the Hans Christian Andersen Award for illustration. He understood pacing and timing and what happens in the gap between the pages. He knew how to play with words and pictures to create a third layer of story, like what he does between the terse, unsentimental storyline and the overly romantic pictures in Higglety Pigglety Pop (1967), a portrait of his beloved dog, Jennie.

The book he is probably best known for, Where the Wild Things Are (1963), smashed open the controlled world of the nursery and all its niceties. Max was a new kind of character, bold and bad, and he led the way for many more wild, unruly characters to sail into children’s books. And, of course, there were the monsters, which had never really appeared in kids’ books before this time. Their wild rumpus, which encompasses the wordless climactic peak of the book, caused quite a stir. Now considered a childhood classic, Where the Wild Things Are continues to enchant children and to validate their complex, often tangled inner life. With its perfect intermingling of simple text and pure Sendak style illustration, it continues to hold relevance nearly 50 years later.

Where the Wild Things Are, together with In the Night Kitchen and Outside Over There, form a triumvirate of childhood and a window into Sendak’s own inner life. He described writing those three books as “excavation work,” each book taking him deeper into himself.

In the Night Kitchen (1970), which is about a young boy and his delicious adventure helping the bakers make the morning cake, was inspired by a real event from his childhood. While at the 1939 World’s Fair, he was watching bread baked by little men in white caps. Little Maurice stood with the crowd waving at the bakers, the smell of biscuits and cake wafting over when he realized his sister had left him. There was panic and crying, policemen, and eventually a ride in a police car. Those bakers dressed in white re-appear in this book, as does the baking and the batter, and what Sendak called a “profound love of luscious things.” The boy’s nakedness in several of the pictures raised some controversy, prompting the book to be banned and to even be graphically altered with diapers drawn onto the boy. But for Sendak, the nakedness was part of that lusciousness, and completely right for the story. There was no shame in it. That willingness to take risks, to not sell out, to choose instead to make dangerous art, sets his work apart.

Outside Over There (1981) is about a baby kidnapped by goblins, a shadow of a memory that haunted him from childhood – the kidnapping and death of the Lindbergh baby. He had to plummet as far down into himself as he could go to unearth the story. Barely re-emerging, Sendak was able to rewrite the ending of the Lindbergh story by having the baby in his own story return home alive. The book explores the deep fear of separation and what Sendak felt was the indifference with which some adults could treat children.

And yet, even a story with this kind of edge could become something remarkable in Sendak’s hands. He had a special ability to turn something dark into a thing of beauty, whether it is a kidnaping in Outside Over There, or the Holocaust in Brundibar (2003), which was based on an opera performed by the children of Terezin, a Nazi concentration camp, or death in Dear Mili (1988), a Wilhelm Grimm fairytale about a young girl who is sent into the woods to escape war and dies when reunited with her mother, or homelessness, poverty, and AIDS, in We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993), which uses two old nursery rhymes as the framework for a potent visual interpretation and social commentary on the ills of the modern world.

His most recent work, Bumble-Ardy (2011), is the first book he both wrote and illustrated in 30 years. The story is about a pig who gives himself a birthday party even though his aunt forbids him to. It is loosely based on a two-minute animation Sendak did with Jim Henson for Sesame Street in 1971. The story is a wild masquerade, full of the exuberance of childhood, that harkens back to Where the Wild Things Are. And like Max, who returns home to find his hot supper waiting for him, Bumble-Ardy is forgiven for his infraction, and the story ends with that strong, enduring love between a parent and child. But this is not the last work we’ll see from Sendak. He had been working on a picture book inspired by his brother, which will be published next year.

Sendak believed in going all the way, in being “ferociously honest.” That honesty is part of what makes his books so compelling and fearless, and at the same time, strange, provocative, and often controversial. At the core of Sendak’s power is his fierce respect for children and their ability to handle intense issues and ideas. He once wrote that his books are written for and dedicated to ”Children who are never satisfied with condescending material. Children who understand real emotion and real feeling. Children who are not afraid of knowing emotional truth.”


Cheli Mennella

Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.

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