Maurice Sendak Illustrates Tolstoy in 1963 (with a Little Help from His Editor)


Even those of us who know noth­ing else of Mau­rice Sendak’s work know Where the Wild Things Are, almost always because we read and found our­selves cap­ti­vat­ed by it in our own child­hoods — if, of course, our child­hoods hap­pened in 1963 or lat­er. Though that year saw the pub­li­ca­tion of that best-known of Sendak’s many works as an illus­tra­tor and writer — and indeed, quite pos­si­bly the best-known chil­dren’s book of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, illus­trat­ed or writ­ten by any­one — the world got some­thing else intrigu­ing from Sendak at the same time: an illus­trat­ed edi­tion of Leo Tol­stoy’s 1852 auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nov­el Nikolenka’s Child­hood.


At Brain­pick­ings, Maria Popo­va writes of the strug­gle Sendak, then a young and inse­cure artist at the begin­ning of his career, endured to com­plete this less­er-known project: “His youth­ful inse­cu­ri­ty, how­ev­er, presents a beau­ti­ful par­al­lel to the com­ing-of-age themes Tol­stoy explores. The illus­tra­tions, pre­sent­ed here from a sur­viv­ing copy of the 1963 gem, are as ten­der and soul­ful as young Sendak’s spir­it.” Here we’ve select­ed a few of the images that Popo­va gath­ered from this out-of-print book; to see more, do have a look at her orig­i­nal post.


Lat­er in life Sendak explained his anx­i­ety about accom­pa­ny­ing the words of the man who wrote War and Peace: “You can’t illus­trate Tol­stoy. You’re com­pet­ing with the great­est illus­tra­tor in the world. Pic­tures bring him down and just limp along.” At Let­ters of Note, you can read the words of encour­age­ment writ­ten to the young Sendak by his edi­tor Ursu­la Nord­strom, who acknowl­edged that, “sure, Tol­stoy and Melville have a lot of fur­ni­ture in their books and they also know a lot of facts, but that isn’t the only sort of genius, you know that. Yes, Tol­stoy is won­der­ful (his pub­lish­er asked me for a quote) but you can express as much emo­tion and ‘cohe­sion and pur­pose’ in some of your draw­ings as there is in War and Peace. I mean that.”


Again, find more of Sendak’s illus­tra­tions of Tol­stoy’s Nikolenka’s Child­hood at Brain­Pick­ings. Used copies can be found on Abe­Books.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mau­rice Sendak Sent Beau­ti­ful­ly Illus­trat­ed Let­ters to Fans — So Beau­ti­ful a Kid Ate One

Mau­rice Sendak’s Bawdy Illus­tra­tions For Her­man Melville’s Pierre: or, The Ambi­gu­i­ties

The Only Draw­ing from Mau­rice Sendak’s Short-Lived Attempt to Illus­trate The Hob­bit

Mau­rice Sendak’s Emo­tion­al Last Inter­view with NPR’s Ter­ry Gross, Ani­mat­ed by Christoph Nie­mann

An Ani­mat­ed Christ­mas Fable by Mau­rice Sendak (1977)

Col­in Mar­shall writes else­where on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­maand the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future? Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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