Maurice Sendak, Teacher: Lessons on Art, Storytelling & Life from the Iconic Illustrator’s 1971 Yale CourseBy: Maria Popova
“Maurice’s pleasures were his obsessions, and every one of them was contagious.”
In the fall of 1971, Paul O. Zelinsky, who would go on to become a celebrated children’s book writer and illustrator, signed up for a picture-book class at Yale taught by none other than Maurice Sendak. The course was the brainchild of an aspiring writer named Helen Kivnick. In 1970, while a junior at Yale’s Ezra Stile College, she had found herself writing increasingly long poems reminiscent of children’s stories, so she fancied what a dream come true it would be for the college to offer a course in children’s books, taught by Sendak. She shared the idea with A. Bartlett Giamatti, Kivnick’s writing instructor and the master of Stiles College, who told her that if she contacted Sendak and convinced him to teach the course, the college would allow it to happen. So she leafed through the New York City phone book — a moment of pause for appreciating that noble middleman of communication made long obsolete by today’s technology — and gave him a nervous call. To Kivnick’s surprise and delight, Sendak agreed to teach the course — but on the condition that the school provide another teacher for him to help with the class, which they gladly did: Dr. Elizabeth Francis, a young assistant professor specializing in Victorian literature.
The rest, as they say, is history — and Zelinsky tells it with absorbing affection in his essay “Maurice Sendak as Teacher, Educator, and Mentor” from the altogether fantastic Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work (public library), the companion volume to the wonderful recent exhibition at New York’s Society of Illustrators.
Zelinsky writes of Sendak’s singular enchantment as an educator:
Maurice came overflowing with historical information and critical commentary that, in its concentrated delivery, defied note-taking. He spoke seriously, with energy and conviction, displaying an Anglophilia that his Brooklyn accent threw into interesting relief. Maurice’s pleasures were his obsessions, and every one of them was contagious. He drew us into his admiration for Randolph Caldecott and for Samuel Palmer and William Blake, whose Songs for Innocence and of Experience he saw as proto-picture books.
Zelinksy notes that while Sendak made his students feel as if they were “sharing in his life” as he recounted anecdotes of friends and colleagues like Edward Gorey and his magnificent editor and champion Ursula Nordstrom, “only later did the limits of his openness become clear”: Sendak didn’t once mention the love of his life and his partner of many years, Eugene Glynn, to whom Sendak’s moving posthumous love letter is largely dedicated.
As an educator, however, Sendak practiced a kind of radical, though kind-spirited, candor:
Maurice was generally protective and kind, but he could not praise what he didn’t like. … With us, as with his own writing, he did not condescend.
It was with the greatest passion that Maurice approached his art. He reserved his greatest contempt for those who, in his view, didn’t share that seriousness.
Though Sendak did away with the conventions of art education, his appreciation for art history profoundly permeated his work:
In the art department, formalism ruled. Art was abstract, and its tools, its terms, its raison d’être were visual. All subject matter was irrelevant. … Formalism wasn’t remotely Maurice’s approach. But as I learned more, I started to see that on a formal plane, Maurice’s pictures have great strength. He looked at the old masters and grasped the abstract essence of their images. You can tell it from his pictures. His illustrations for chapter books by Meindert DeJong weren’t ersatz Rembrandts; they conjured, without copying, the way Rembrandt’s drawings function, the vivacity of his line, and the judiciously placed accents. … My other teachers used the word “illustration” to mean an image that falls flat as form, whose only interest is on the level of subject matter. Sendak was quite the counterexample.
Yet despite his disdain for formalism, Sendak’s work exuded a distinct structure, the secret of which was a revelation in the art of storytelling:
If Maurice didn’t talk about the abstract choices he made as a draftsman, he did speak about the formal structure of his books, and this was an eye-opener for me. He talked about a book having rhythm, much the way a piece of music has rhythm from beginning to end. The word “rhythm” alone opened a world of understanding to me. Looking at Randolph Caldecott’s idiosyncratic layouts, where words of a nursery rhyme aren’t regularly placed through the book, stanza by stanza, but are interrupted by a wordless vignette here, or a free-standing line — Maurice showed us how it became music: the pauses and repetitions, loudness and softness, all with a big overall shape that carries you from the first page to the last.
Sendak’s streak of lovable curmudgeonliness came through in the classroom as well:
He also liked to bemoan. How hard it was to do the work, how little respect the world had for it. … But the bemoaning never grew burdensome because he kept his sense of humor and wouldn’t let himself get too carried away. Over the years, our conversations on the phone may have tended to drift into grand statements about the sad, downhill state of things, but then Maurice would stop himself. I remember once, in the middle of such a pronouncement, he said: “Why am I saying this? I’m just being fatuous.”
He had no patience for people whose hearts, as he saw it, weren’t in the right place. But for the others, his attention and patience and concern were manifest.
But Sendak’s greatest legacy, both as an artist and an educator, was one of optimism and unflinching faith in children’s intelligence. Zelinsky puts it beautifully:
He believed that art can be for children, that it mustn’t be treacly or pandering, and that it should be as rich and good as the art that adults want for themselves.
Indeed, nearly two decades after his Yale class, Sendak famously told The New York Times:
I have this idiot name tag which says “controversial.” I’ve had it since 1965, with Where the Wild Things Are. It’s like Pavlov’s dogs: Every time I do a book, they all carry on. It may be good for business, but it’s tiresome for me. … Grown-ups desperately need to feel safe, and then they project onto the kids. But what none of us seem to realize is how smart kids are. They don’t like what we write for them, what we dish up for them, because it’s vapid, so they’ll go for the hard words, they’ll go for the hard concepts, they’ll go for the stuff where they can learn something, not didactic things, but passionate things.
Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work is magnificent from cover to cover, a treasure trove of insight on Sendak’s spirit, sensibility, and evolution as an artist.