20 Maurice Sendak Quotes on Writing, Art & Literary Heroes


Happy birthday to Where the Wild Things Are author and illustrator Maurice Sendak. The Brooklyn-born artist who depicted children as creative, powerful beings with rich lives and minds of their own was inspired by a number of influences during his lifetime, including painters, musicians, and other authors. Sendak was often interviewed about children throughout his career, but the author had a lot to say about the art of writing and illustration—which we share, below. Read on for Sendak’s personal thoughts on everything from creating a work of art to his literary heroes.

“Being defenseless is a primary element of childhood. It’s not that I don’t see the naturalistic beauty of a child. I’m very aware of that beauty, and I could draw it. I know the proportions of a child’s body. But I am trying to draw the way children feel—or, rather, the way I imagine they feel. It’s the way I know I felt as a child.”

“During my early teens, I spent a lot of time at the window, sketching the kids at play, and those sketchbooks are, in a sense, the foundation of much of my later work. Maybe that’s another reason the children in my books are called European-looking. Many of them resemble the kids I knew growing up in Brooklyn. They were Jewish kids, and they may well look like little greenhorns just off the boat. They had—some of them, anyway—a kind of bowed look, as if the burdens of the world were on their shoulders.”

“What I love is reading. And air. Air when at night you open the window by your bed and the curtain lifts. . . . Do you know that beautiful letter that John Keats wrote to his brother about the making of a soul, the soul of the artist? I don’t want to draw the soul. I just want to be in that life. I don’t want to be a monster.”

“I don’t know what that means. How do you write for children? I really have never figured that out. So I decided to just ignore it. I knew that my books would only be published as children’s books. And I once objected fiercely to that. I wanted Outside Over There to be realized as a complex work of art. Well, it wasn’t. And I had to live with that. And yet, perhaps, in some ways, it’s my favorite book of everything I’ve ever done. But it’s a weird book. It’s a weird book. It’s a weird world.”

“I don’t believe that there’s a demarcation. ‘Oh, you mustn’t tell them that. You mustn’t tell them that.’ You tell them anything you want. Just tell them if it’s true. If it’s true, you tell them.”

“You cannot write for children. They’re much too complicated. You can only write books that are of interest to them.”

“As an aspiring artist, you should strive for originality of vision. Have something to say and a fresh way of saying it. No story is worth the writing, no picture worth the making, if it’s not the work of the imagination.”

“Art has always been my salvation. And my gods are Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Mozart. I believe in them with all my heart. And when Mozart is playing in my room, I am in conjunction with something I can’t explain — I don’t need to. I know that if there’s a purpose for life, it was for me to hear Mozart.”

“You must never illustrate exactly what is written. You must find a space in the text so that the pictures can do the work.”

“An illustration is an enlargement, and interpretation of the text, so that the reader will comprehend the words better. As an artist, you are always serving the words. You must never illustrate exactly what is written. You must find a space in the text so that the pictures can do the work. Then you must let the words take over where words do it best. It’s a funny kind of juggling act.”

“Kids don’t know about best sellers. They go for what they enjoy. They aren’t star chasers and they don’t suck up. It’s why I like them.”

“I hate those e-books. They can not be the future . . . they may well be . . . I will be dead.”

“A book is really like a lover. It arranges itself in your life in a way that is beautiful.”

“Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, ‘Dear Jim: I loved your card.’ Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, ‘Jim loved your card so much he ate it.’ That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”

“I wasn’t gonna paint. And I wasn’t gonna do ostentatious drawings. I wasn’t gonna have gallery pictures. I was gonna hide somewhere where nobody would find me and express myself entirely. I’m like a guerrilla warfare in my best books.”

“Herman Melville is a god. … I cherish what he did. He was a genius. Wrote Moby-Dick. Wrote Pierre. Wrote The Confidence-Man, wrote Billy Budd. … Oh, yes. Look at him. … Scares the bejesus out of people and makes them hate him. Because he’s so [[good.] Claggart has him killed in that book. Claggart has his eye on that boy. He will not tolerate such goodness, such blondeness, such blue eye. Goodness is scary. It’s like you want to knock it. You want to hit it. Are we a country of beating down things? We love seeing people go down.”

“The ripeness was a letter that John Keats wrote to his brother who emigrated to America describing what it was like to have a peach or piece of a peach in his mouth. And it’s one of the sexiest things you will ever read of how slow you should take the peach. Don’t rush it. Let it go through your palette. Let it lie on your tongue. Let it melt a little bit. Let it run from the corners. It’s like describing the most incredible sex orgy. And then, you bite. But, it must be so ripe. It must be so delicious. In other words, you must not waste a second of this deliciousness which for him was life and being a great poet. That you savor every, everything that happened. I want to get ripe.”

“An illustrator in my own mind — and this is not a truth of any kind — is someone who so falls in love with writing that he wishes he had written it, and the closest he can get to is illustrating it. And the next thing you learn, you have to find something unique in this book, which perhaps even the author was not entirely aware of. And that’s what you hold on to, and that’s what you add to the pictures: a whole Other Story that you believe in, that you think is there.”

“I’m not Hans Christian Andersen. Nobody’s gonna make a statue in the park with a lot of scrambling kids climbing up me. I won’t have it, okay?”