Family is central to Maurice Sendak’s artwork. Chicken Soup with Rice pokes fun at his mother, for whom “every solution to life was chicken soup.” His illustrations for Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Zlateh the Goat (1966) are infused with portraits of his lost relatives, primarily Holocaust victims, salvaged from photo albums. Even the monsters in his most famous book, Where the Wild Things Are, are modeled after his relatives in Brooklyn. Sendak describes them as, "Jews from Eastern Europe [who] were always grabbing your face and saying, 'We could eat you up.' “
Sendak grew up in Brooklyn during the depression. He lived with his parents, both Polish immigrants, a sister, a brother, and many maternal aunts and uncles nearby. When he began illustrating, he was asked, “Where are your blond children? They look like dumbfounded immigrants!” which they were, according to Sendak.
On the other hand, it is not only his own family that is reflected in Sendak’s work. Sendak is a product of the time period in which he grew up. The baby in Outside Over There is modeled after the kidnapped Lindbergh baby who was in the news during Sendak's childhood, and many of his stories portray the traditional middle class families that society put forward as ideal when he was a young man and began creating books for children in the 1960s. Books such as In the Night Kitchen and Pierre show the protagonists in middle class homes (the children have their own bedrooms) with both parents present.
Sendak is known for turning traditional images on their heads, however. Even the most conventional family situations become something extraordinary in his hands. Max from Where the Wild Things Are, Mickey from In the Night Kitchen, Ida from Outside Over There, and even the character in Mommy, his new pop-up book, leave the safety of their homes and families and do strange and wonderful things, things beyond their experience.
A familiar theme runs through all the stories, though—all of the children can return. Children have a deep need to defy and then rely on adults. The family structure that is present in Sendak's work gives the child protagonists the freedom to have an explosion, misbehave, leave, or confront monsters. They have to make decisions without the help of adults, and perhaps step into the adult role temporarily, but they are able to solve the moment and return to the bosom of the family. Per Ronda, children’s literature reflects, and reflects on, our society. The definition of family can vary, depending on an individual's view. The ideology of the nuclear family is shown in many books for children--the family is viewed as a “haven in a heartless world;” a source of emotional nurture and spiritual guidance. Families can also be shown as something against which to rebel. Sendak manages to interweave both of these pictures of family into his work.
In Pierre, the main character is loved and supported by his family, but he doesn’t care. It isn’t until he is eaten by a lion that he returns to being a responsive member of the family fold. One can view the animated version of the story, with music by Carole King, below:
Here is a link to the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tfc_LpijW6w&feature=related
Sendak makes picture books a worthy art form in which to dramatize family life. Although the places he describes and the creatures he creates are sometimes fantastic, the relationships he depicts are very realistic. There is a focus on family relationships in many of his stories—the boy and his mother in Where the Wild Things Are, and the sister and the baby in Outside Over There, for example. Even the devil has a close relationship with his grandmother in "The Devil and His Three Golden Hairs" from The Juniper Tree.
In We are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993), Sendak shows a less traditional family picture—two men end up caring for the homeless child in need of help. (I find this interesting because Sendak recently revealed that he was gay.) The message of family being there to protect and safeguard is still present, however. The brutally honest illustrations acknowledge how menacing the city can be for children living in a hostile adult world, but at the core of this work, like many of Sendak’s works, there is the theme that the child will get through the day and return to his family.
The moon often appears to be watching over the scenes and characters in this story, like a mother peaking out the window at her child to be sure that he is alright, even when he is off on an adventure. She is giving needed independence and autonomy while observing and providing comfort. It once again demonstrates the central theme of family that can be seen in so much of Sendak's work for children. He shows children that although it’s possible for things to be bad, they are surrounded by family--by people who love them and will protect them.