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Donald and the Golden Crayon

P. Shauers, Donald and the Golden Crayon

Today (20 Oct. 2018) would be Crockett Johnson’s 112th birthday.  In commemoration of that event, I have two — yes, two — posts for you!  The first is an interview with the author and the publisher of the new satirical book Donald and the Golden Crayon.  Enjoy!


P. Shauers, Donald and the Golden Crayon: opening page

“In the middle of the night, Donald woke from his terrific sleep and cried out ‘Covfefe!’”

So begins Donald and the Golden Crayon, the first book-length parody of Crockett Johnson’s classic Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955). It’s a reminder that, prior to his Harold books, Johnson was best known as the cartoonist behind the satirical comic strip Barnaby (1942-1952), whose five-year-old title character resembles a slightly older version of Harold. Barnaby’s garrulous trickster of a fairy godfather, Mr. O’Malley, was the vehicle for most of the strip’s satire —  a much more likable con-artist than the Donald who stars in this book.

P. Shauers, Donald and the Golden Crayon: St. Basil's Cathedral

Donald and the Golden Crayon spins a tale that combines the tone and sentence structure of the Harold books with the malevolence and pettiness of Donald Trump. Near the book’s end, Donald is “tired” and so “made a cozy little place to sleep” (that strongly resembles St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square).  Inside, “His room was beautiful, just beautiful. It had beautiful golden curtains, a tremendous golden statue, and a wonderful golden bed. It even had a steamy golden shower.” Trumpian adjectives bounce around in simple, Johnsonian sentences.

P. Shauers, Donald and the Golden Crayon: golden showers

To me, the book reads as mockery of “President” Trump. This two-page spread (above) includes a statue of a Roman soldier brutalizing another man, and a reference to the alleged pee-pee tape — which also features in the book’s title, and the pseudonym P. Shauers. Earlier pages reference Donald’s racism,…

P. Shauers, Donald and the Golden Crayon: the wall

show Donald ignoring flood victims will displaying his ignorance about climate change,…

P. Shauers, Donald and the Golden Crayon: climate change

have Donald pollute the water,…

P. Shauers, Donald and the Golden Crayon: pollution

and so on.

Last week at the Frankfurt Book Fair, I talked with the book’s publisher, Pete Schiffer. He assured me that the book was not taking a side on Mr. Trump. Explaining why he was drawn to the book, he said, “we liked that the book framed a lot of the commentary without being positional.”  So, I asked…


Me: What do you mean “without being positional”?

Pete: I mean that there isn’t a position taken. It’s just the facts given. One can read into it in any direction they would like by piecing the facts together in different ways.

Me: So, you say “not positional.” I would imagine that fans of the title character may find this less enjoyable than opponents of the title character. But that’s not your take on it?

Pete: They could. Depends on what perspective they’re coming from.

Me: Really?

Pete: They could come behind it and say “Yes this is the way that things are and the way they should be” and get behind it.

Me: Really?

Pete: People have all different opinions, and I’m not one to put any words in their mouth.

Me: So, your take on this is that it’s somewhat apolitical, as a book. It doesn’t really take a side. It’s representing a moment, and that’s all. Or am I putting words in your mouth?

Pete: No, you’re not. The intention is not to take a side — to put the facts out as they are and let people decide for themselves.

Me: I know it’s only just out, but has the response confirmed that? Has the response confirmed your goal?

Pete: With people that we’ve shared it that are leaning in one direction or another, that is the response we’ve had so far is that.

Me: Interesting. The response you’ve had so far is that —?.

Pete: Depending on one’s position, they read into it based on their position.


Donald and the Golden Crayon is apolitical?  It’s true that irony does depend upon a community of readers who share the ironist’s understanding of the subject.  So, I could see how fans of 45 might enjoy simple sentence structures and spare illustrations that depict their hero’s cruelty, racism, and ignorance.  While I could imagine readers not getting the satire, I am skeptical of the claim that the book does not take a side.  Happily, the publisher very kindly put me in touch with Mr. P. Shauers himself, and we had the following conversation via email.


Nel: In talking with Pete (your publisher) at the Frankfurt Book Fair, I was struck by his comment that he sees Donald and the Golden Crayon as essentially apolitical.  He said that both critics and fans of Mr. Trump have enjoyed the book.  Your chosen pseudonym and the book’s mimicry of Mr. Trump’s sentences led me to interpret this as a more politically engaged work — specifically, as more anti-Trump than pro-Trump.  So, let me ask you.  Would you describe Donald and the Golden Crayon as more of a fond homage to Mr. Trump or more of a sustained mockery of Mr. Trump?   Or how would you describe the book’s political leanings?

Shauers: Oh, it’s a mockery.  I think what my publisher was talking about is that everything in the book is factual, based on real quotes or events.  So, in that sense it is neutral, but the way Donald is portrayed is definitely meant to have him come off as cold and cruel as possible.  I’m very anti-Trump.  I’ve never been too political, because I often don’t really get what’s going on.  I don’t understand global economics, how deficits work, or what tariffs are good or bad.  But with Trump, it’s his daily cruelty and nastiness that gets me.  It’s the lying and bullying and company he keeps that motivated me to draw this book.

I made an odd connection while working on this…when I was in middle school, I was bullied pretty non-stop for a few years.  And no matter how bad it got, the school never did much about it.  It made me feel as if the grown-ups weren’t doing their job, and if they wouldn’t make the bullying stop, who would? I’ve been experiencing the same powerless feelings how since the election.  So I fight back with paper and pen.

Nel: Who do you see as the audience for Donald and the Golden Crayon?  (Adults only?  Some children?  Conservatives?  Liberals?  Crockett Johnson fans?)

Shauers: I see the audience as adults who are not fans of Trump, and possibly need a good laugh.  I don’t kids will really get what’s going on with it.  While making the book I have met some conservative people who are sickened by Trump, and they have found the book to be humorous.  Which goes back to what the publisher was saying that both sides could enjoy it.  I don’t think any fanatical MAGA’s will enjoy it, in fact we’re hoping for some negative press from the deplorables.  I do hope the picture book community finds the book funny.

Nel: If you don’t mind my asking, how do you identify, politically?  (If you do mind my asking, then just skip this question.)

Shauers: I’m a liberal, and find myself getting more and more so as I get older, and I see what’s going on these days.  I was raised in a really conservative, white town and the racism and narrow-mindedness I saw growing up left a mark on me.  I moved to NYC when I was 18 as I couldn’t get out fast enough.

Crockett Johnson, Barnaby, 27 Apr 1945

Nel: Though his politics are largely invisible in the Harold books, Johnson’s earlier work had more of a satirical edge — Barnaby, most famously.  Do you know the Barnaby comics?  Did they at all influence your decision to draw upon the Harold books in your parody?

Shauers: You know, I’ve read some Barnaby, but not in a long time, and only a bit of it.  I don’t really “know” it. It’s been on my radar to reinvestigate it again.

Nel: What influenced your decision to choose the Harold stories as the vehicle for your satire?  I ask because this is the first book-length parody of any of Johnson’s works.

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): coverShauers: The idea to use Harold as a base for the parody came up last year. It seems that there were some attempts to make some new Harold books, and my agent had thrown my hat in the ring as a writer/illustrator.  I didn’t get the project, and I don’t know what happened to it.  While I was thinking about it, the similarity between Harold and Donald popped into my mind, and I knew Trump signed everything with a golden sharpie, so that was the stepping off point. 

I looked at Harold closely, and was thinking about how he makes the world as he sees it, and makes it up as he goes. Which is what Trump does, and it just seemed to click.  If you have to think too hard about connections within a parody, it’s not working.

Nel: In your book, what motivated the choice of Donald’s Pulp Fiction/mobster suit?  Black (instead of Harold’s white jumper) so that you could stick to a limited color palette (as Johnson did)?  Visual allusion to Trump’s mob affiliations?  Something else?

Shauers: Hah!  The mob connection never crossed my mind. I tried a blue suit/red tie, which is much more his style, but it wasn’t minimal enough.  I really wanted it to feel like a Harold book, and they only use different values of purple, and shades of black.  I did keep his little footy pajamas, and they were very fun to draw.

Nel: If Harold met Donald, what would Harold do (or draw or say)?

Shauers: Yikes.  Let’s keep all the children away from Donald.

Nel: Your publisher said that the “P. Shauers” pseudonym was simply to avoid any confusion between this book and your many (over 40!) children’s books.  Are there other reasons for the pseudonym?  Is it say, easier, to write about Mr. Trump under the guise of a pseudonym?  Have you any plans to reveal your true identity?

Shauers: I used a pseudonym because I have been writing and illustrating for children since 1995.  I didn’t want any librarians to think this was for kids, and I didn’t want any right-wing nutjobs to go after my books in any way.  It just seemed easier and cleaner.  Recently, I had a school librarian scold me for talking politics while on my “real name” Twitter account. She said she was very offended and wouldn’t buy any of my books. So, I’m glad I chose to use P. Shauers for this.  Plus, it’s an easy gag. (David Milgrim used Ann Droid on his Goodnight iPad for the same reasons.) 


If you enjoy political commentary in the guise of a children’s book, you’ll enjoy Donald and the Golden Crayon.  It’s a clever parody, and its thin-skinned satirical target not only lacks a sense of humor, but hates to be mocked by others.  So, let us continue to mock him.

Finally, if you’re an American citizen reading this, please vote!  The restoration of our democracy depends upon you.

Follow P. Shauers on Twitter via: @thegoldencrayon


Crockett Johnson birthday posts from previous years

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More Expeditioners! A Chat with S. S. Taylor

S.S. Taylor, The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton's LairGreat news for fans of S. S. Taylor’s The Expeditioners! The second book is out! OK, officially, The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton’s Lair will be published on September 23, but Barnes & Noble says that it’s already shipping. So, I would guess that you can order it now — from there or (preferably!) your local bookseller. If you have not read the first book, The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon (2012), well, you’ll want to start there, of course. And then — lucky for you — you can dive right into book two!

S.S. TaylorS.S. Taylor kindly took the time to chat with me about The Expeditioners, via Gmail chat, earlier today. At only one point did I mention a spoiler, but I’ve blotted out that sentence so that you’ll need to select the text in order to see what it says. In addition to discussing her influences, her thoughts on dystopias, and other matters, I also learned that the Expeditioners will be more than a trilogy. So, that’s even better news for fans of the first book!

Enough prologue.  Here’s our conversation.

Philip Nel:  Thanks for taking the time to chat about The Expeditioners!

S.S. Taylor:  Thank YOU!

S. S. Taylor and Ben Towle, Amelia EarhartNel:  My pleasure!  First question.  Prior to The Expeditioners, you wrote mysteries, and a graphic novel about Amelia Earhart. Were there any ways in which those writing experiences prepared you for this one (if, indeed, they did)?

Taylor:  Absolutely. I think I’ve always liked writing about ordinary people who have extraordinary things happen to them. That’s pretty much the definition of an amateur detective novel and Amelia Earhart sort of fits that bill too. She was a social worker before she became a famous pilot.

Nel:  Ah. Good point. Even real-world extraordinary people (often) start as ordinary people. We just forget that fact because we only know them — or, really, know of them — because of their extraordinary achievements.

Taylor:  Exactly. That was what drew me to the early part of Amelia’s career, which I focus on in the graphic novel. She (and we) didn’t know who she was going to be yet. And obviously adventure novels for kids are about extraordinary things happening to kids, which is every kid’s fantasy. Even though Kit’s father was an Explorer, he is surprised at being drawn into this crazy adventure.

Nel:  Right, right. And you really get the sense in The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton’s Lair that — hmmm, I want to phrase this in a way that isn’t a spoiler — as in a classic fantasy narrative, there are people who are “chosen” to follow certain paths.

(Incidentally, if we do get into any “spoiler” territory, I can just reproduce that part of the interview so that people have to select the text in order to read it.)

Taylor:  Yeah. It’s a trope, but for good reason. I think every kid — I know I did — feels like she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to DO, what her purpose it. Do I matter? Why am I here? All that great existential stuff that comes up around age 10 or 11 or 12. And characters who discover that they are meant for great and important things let kids try on a huge and important destiny, if that makes sense, while they figure out what their real one is.

Nel:  Heck, I think many adults feel like they don’t know what they’re supposed to do. “Do I matter? Why am I here?” I ask those questions all of the time.

Taylor:  Me too!

Nel:  Well, perhaps one day we’ll grow up and find our destiny, eh?

Taylor:  Wouldn’t it be nice if someone just said, “You? Oh you’re supposed to save the world from evil”?

Nel:  Would it?  That sounds terrifying.

Taylor:  But clear!

Nel:  True. Clear and terrifying!  A winning combination!  Well, if you survive….

S. S. Taylor, The Expeditioners, illustrated by Katherine Roy (2012)So, speaking of combinations, I wonder if you think in terms of genre at all.  Do you?  I ask because, if I had to classify these novels, I’d say they’re steampunk adventure fantasy mysteries, with a bit of science fiction, too.  (I love the attention given to the alternate world’s technology.)  They don’t neatly fit into one genre, and I like that. But, as a writer, do you worry about these labels?

Taylor:  I started out thinking of them as straight-up adventure novels. But I discovered that a lot of the things I wanted to say about the world put it firmly in SF and steampunk territory. It’s funny because I think a lot of the inspiration came out of my interest in colonialism and imperialism and sort of trying to reimagine the age of exploration with a more contemporary view of colonialism and imperialism but in order to do that, I needed to create this futuristic, SF world.

I don’t think I’m capable of writing anything that doesn’t have a mystery in it.

Nel:  Ah! I was picking up on that anti-colonialist / anti-imperialist bent.  I love it when Coleman says, “I don’t say ‘discovered’ because as far as the Arawak people who were living here were concerned, they didn’t need to be discovered. They’d been here for a long time. They hadn’t wanted to be found.”

Taylor:  A long way of saying that I don’t worry much about labels. I still describe them as adventure novels. I love Katherine Roy‘s illustrations for the book and I think she’s done such a great job of capturing that mix of genres, of old-fashioned adventure stories, but also the steampunk and SF elements.

Nel:  I’m glad you mention Roy’s art — love her work, too. Perfectly compliments your text. And, returning to what you said a moment before, having the mystery gene (if that’s what it is) is a great gift, I would think — because that sense of mystery keeps people turning the pages.

Elspeth Huxley, The Flame Trees of ThikaTaylor:  Yeah, I loved novels like The Flame Trees of Thika and Agatha Christie as a kid and I think this is my attempt to retain some of the romance of that literature, but to hopefully ask the questions that will make readers think about what it is to be the colonized person.

Nel:  Nicely put. I was thinking of these as like classic adventure narratives from the early twentieth-century, but with a critique of colonialism instead of a passive (or active) endorsement. The first Expeditioners novel, too. They “find” this “lost” civilization, but have the good sense to let it stay lost.  OK, that’s a spoiler to anyone who’s not read the first book.  I’ll blot that out.

Taylor:  Yup. I was just reading about uncontacted people in the Amazon and how the Brazilian government is grappling with how to protect them. It’s so complicated.

Nel:  Indeed. That also brings me to another question I have. What sort of research do you do in creating the world of The Expeditioners? The world of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials was heavily influenced by the research he did into Victorian England for the Sally Lockhart books. I would guess that research on Amelia Earhart may have helped with Sukey (especially in the first book). But I’m going to guess there was a fair bit of research involved for the rest, yes?

Taylor:  Yeah. I did some research on Victorian technology, steam, clockwork mechanisms, etc., but also on the early days of petroleum exploration. I think it was more casting my imagination into this alternate world though, and saying, “Okay, if petroleum hadn’t been discovered in great quantities yet, what would have been available to people?” I also did a lot of research into fascist/totalitarian governments and how they did things, how they created bureaucracy. That was fun

And I read a lot about the golden age of exploration, trying to imagine if it had happened later than it did.

Nel:  Fun with fascism! (Well, in a fictional sense.) Indeed, if I had to add another genre to my “genre” mix, above, I notice a dystopic strain running through the Expeditioners books — food shortages, oligarchical / totalitarian government. If you’re doing research into fascist/totalitarian governments, I assume you’re conscious of that strain(?). If so, were there any particular dystopian works that inspired you?

Cormac McCarthy, The RoadTaylor:  Yeah. Like everybody else, I loved the Hunger Games, though I read it after I’d mostly written the first book. I loved The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, and I’m sure that was an influence. I’ve now read some more YA dystopia, and I find it really interesting that kids are so drawn to it. Lots of people have written about this, but I think it’s both a reflection of their anxiety and maybe also some sort of desire for a fresh start or to be able to remake the world.

I think there’s something attractive to kids about a world where the usual rules don’t apply and you get to make your own, form a society.

Nel:  Yes, I’m also interested by the current popularity of dystopian fiction. As you say, it’s likely a reflection of contemporary anxieties about the world. I also wonder what dystopian fiction’s popularity (especially YA dystopian fiction) tells us about how we imagine our collective futures.

Taylor:  Yeah, when I talk to kids, I actually see that they find these stories exciting because they make adventure and freedom possible. After a nuclear holocaust, nobody cares whether you make your curfew or not! I think so much of children’s lit is about vicariously experiencing freedom and independence.

Nel:  I like your optimistic reading — dystopia can also provide the impetus to challenge the rules, to create a new and better world.  So, you know, the West kids & others are completely justified in defying authority because the authorities are corrupt.

Taylor:  Yes!

Nel:  So, I don’t have a natural transition to this question, but one thing I really enjoy about the novels is that they avoid gender stereotypes. M.K. (the youngest West child) is an inventor & engineer. Kit, our narrator and the middle West child, is introspective.  Sukey is brave.  So is Joyce.  Indeed, they all have a combination of strengths and weaknesses that aren’t especially gendered. Even the pirates – Monty Brioux has both men and women on his crew. How conscious are you of avoiding stereotypes?

Taylor:  Very conscious, though I think you have to be conscious of not being too conscious, if you know what I mean. They have to be themselves first. Part of creating an alternate world for me was about creating a world where there is less rigidity about gender roles. One of the things about having kids of my own that has been such an eye opener is how gender roles are transferred so early. I especially wanted to show girls who are capable and brave and mechanically minded, but I realized I also wanted the boys to have flexibility. That may be part of why Kit is the first person narrator.

So yeah, I’m very conscious of it and I’m happy to see that many other writers seem to be. There are a lot of brave, capable heroines on the shelves right now.

Nel:  Even the names give you flexibility.  M.K. is a girl, but the initials don’t tell you that.  And, when I started reading The Expeditiioners and the Secret of King Triton’s Lair, I’d forgotten whether Kit was a boy or a girl.  It took me a few pages, before a pronoun tipped me off!

Taylor:  Yeah, I’m inside his head and I really want to show his emotions and insecurities as well as his developing competence and bravery.

Free to Be . . . You and Me (LP, 1972)Nel:  Excellent! Those are helpful to see, and (since I was an insecure kid, myself), I know I’d have liked that when I was a younger reader, too.  Oh, I like your point, also, about being “conscious of not being too conscious.”  You don’t want it to seem forced (and it doesn’t!).  But, you know, since you grew up with a consciousness of gender roles — or conscious of their existence — perhaps that sort of non-stereotypical writing comes more easy to you than it may have come to writers of earlier generations?  Out of curiosity, were you a Free to Be … You and Me kid?  Did you grow up on that record or book?

Taylor:  Yes. Free to Be … You and Me, marching at ERA rallies, the whole deal. I think those of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s had a better situation than kids do today, to some extent. Certainly the merchandizing has changed.

Nel:  A couple of final questions because I’ve just realized we’ve been chatting for nearly an hour.  For how long had you been planning The Expeditioners, and was it always a trilogy?  How much of the story did you know when you began, and how much do you discover as you write?

Taylor:  It’s actually a six-book series! It says trilogy somewhere but that’s not right. I had been thinking about it for maybe a year before I started writing, not terribly long. The first book really was a process of discovery. The second book was hard to write because I was actively figuring out the whole rest of the series in order to write it. I now know most of it, but I didn’t until I was about halfway through the second one.

Nel:  Oh boy!  Six books!  Well, that’s the best news I’ve had all week.  I thought there were going to be just three.  Hooray!

Taylor:  I’m glad that’s your reaction!

Nel:  Well, of course it is!  You see, Sarah, it is your destiny to write these novels.  YOU are the one chosen to do it.

Taylor:  Thank you. I feel very relieved now!

Nel:  Glad I could help you sort that out. :-)  One final question and then I’ll let you go (promise!). Can you tell your avid readers when we might expect to see The Expeditioners, Volume 3?

Taylor:  I’m working on it right now. I’m so excited about it. There’s espionage and a trek across a desert and  . . . I can’t say anything more. But, we think it will be out in spring of 2016, if all goes according to plan.

Nel:  Hoo boy!  Looking forward to it!  Thanks so much for taking the time to chat!

Taylor:  Thank you so much. I really appreciate it!

Nel:  My pleasure!


Author portrait & cover art: Katherine Roy.

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“If I like what I’m doing, the kids will like it, too”: Marc Simont (1915-2013)

Marc SimontWhen his roommate, Robert McCloskey, wanted to study ducklings for his next book, Marc Simont let him adopt a whole group of them. McCloskey followed them around their small Greenwich Village apartment, sketching each one from all angles — work that would help make his Caldecott-winning Make Way for Ducklings (1941) a classic.  Simont would win his own Caldecott for A Tree Is Nice, written by Janice May Udry (1956). He won two Caldecott Honors, one for Ruth Krauss’s The Happy Day (1949) and the other for his own The Stray Dog (2001).  And he illustrated so many other classic children’s books (over 100!), from James Thurber’s Many Moons (1990) to Marjorie Sharmat’s Nate the Great series (1972-1998).

According to the New York Times, Simont passed away on July 13th. He was 97.

When researching my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (published last year), Simont was one of the first people I spoke to —  back in July of 2000.  At that time, I thought it was only going to be a book about Johnson, and so I didn’t ask him as much about Krauss.  But we did talk a little about her.

Marc Simont: … Of course, Ruth, as I say, was somebody I knew much better.  She was a difficult writer to work for…

Philip Nel: Because…?

MS: For instance, she interfered a lot.  I say “interfered” because I don’t like people to get to close to me when I’m working.  And she would have none of that.  In other words, she wanted to see roughs.  And every rough, she would have comments to make.  And it was very funny.  But, you know, thinking back on it, she was quite good.  She had made a real study of children, very intellectual, being emotional at the same time.  She wasn’t cold about it.  But she really got into it.  She had gone to Bank Street, and they had a course there, they had a place where they brought the kids and they couldn’t see they were being observed — a kind of voyerurism.  And she was quite good.  And I could see how she and Maurice Sendak would hit it off very well.  Because he was very much a children’s artist and author.

PN: You mean, in the way he observed children, and got the details of their movements down….?

MS: I knew Maurice when he started – we had the same publisher, Ursula Nordstrom.  He would talk about the kids in his neighborhood in Brooklyn, and how he watched them.  One little girl – she was the boss, and she ran the show, and all the kids played together.

PN: You can really see that in the illustrations he did for Ruth’s books — especially A Hole Is to Dig, Open House for Butterflies.  The personality really comes through.

MS: Exactly.  A lot of them, in my case, I don’t do any of that at all.  I go by the fact that I used to be a child myself, and there’s something always left, and if I like what I’m doing, the kids will like it, too.

Of working with Ruth, he later elaborated:

MS: … They [Krauss and Johnson] were people that I saw, I was delighted to see them when I saw them, but we weren’t really that close.  With Ruth, of course, professionally.  And, most of the time, I was put off by her.

PN: Well, she seems like she was fairly difficult to work with, from talking to people but also from reading — I was reading her letters at HarperCollins a few weeks ago.  I think she required extra maintenance on the part of those who worked with her.

MS: But, as I say, as I look back on it, she was very sound.  Her remarks were very good.  The thing is that anybody trying to hold my hand, even if they’re on the right track, if they try to hold my hand while I’m working, causes me to want to shake, to shake [them] off.  And, she also had a little bit of the political correctness thing.  I remember once I did an illustration of a primitive guy, and I had a beard on him like a Stone Age man, and she said “well, no we can’t have that because that implies that he was Stone Age, that he was primitive, that he wasn’t intelligent.”  I couldn’t believe it that she would say things like that.  And now people are saying it all the time.

PN: She was a bit ahead of the curve on the political correctness issue, I guess…

MS: Yeah, that’s true.

PN: That’s interesting.

MS: I’m sure she was ahead of her time on the feminism, too.  I’m sure she was.

Ruth Krauss and Marc Simont, The Happy Day (1949)In addition to The Happy Day, Simont illustrated three other Krauss books: The Big World and the Little House (1949), The Backward Day (1950) and the new edition of A Good Man and His Good Wife (1962; originally illustrated by Ad Reinhardt, 1944).

He was extraordinarily kind to me.  After our chat, he FAXed me copies of correspondence with both Johnson and Krauss, including Krauss’s typed manuscript for The Happy Day, with her notes on where the text should be placed on each page!  Indicative of his generosity, along with this correspondence, he took the time to amend what he said about Ruth: “I was glad to look through my correspondence and find the letter I remembered as criticism which wasn’t at all.”

One more anecdote, since it got cut from the bio.:

I remember once we went to a party in Greenwich Village, where a group of young men were doing a farewell party for Truman Capote.  And big signs saying “Caio” and so forth and so on.  And Truman Capote didn’t show up.  (Laughs.)  I think Ruth and Dave took me to that thing.  But I know I never kept up with any of the people at the party.  It was just a one-evening thing.  If it hadn’t been for that detail of the party for Truman Capote and Truman Capote didn’t show up, I probably wouldn’t have remembered it.

Marc Simont, The Beautiful Planet (2010)The “Dave” in the above reminiscence is Crockett Johnson (his given name was Dave). I guess my editors thought it superfluous to mention a farewell party for Truman Capote at which the guest of honor failed to show. And they may be right.  I, of course, thought it was funny. And so did Simont.

It seems that, every month, another giant from the field of children’s books leaves us. That said, Simont evaded this sad inevitability for longer than most. 97! And still working in his final years, too. His most recent picture book, The Beautiful Planet, was published in 2010. Remarkable. My thanks to him for his gifts to the art of children’s books, and to lending a hand to a neophyte biographer. Godspeed.

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Sendak on Sendak

Maurice Sendak: Two Wild Things and Max

It looks like the collected works of Maurice Sendak have exploded all over my office… because I’ve just finished a draft of an article on Sendak — one of many pieces I agreed to write this summer (and one reason why this blog has been so quiet lately).  He was one of our most articulate creators of children’s literature, and so I thought I’d share a bit of his collected wisdom here.  Also, I generate so many notes when writing an article, and many of them never make it into the final piece. So why not share a small sliver of them with others? To that end, I’m collecting below (1) nine video interviews with or documentaries on Sendak, and (2) nine quotations from interviews with Sendak (including one from an unpublished conversation with me).


Nine Video Interviews/Documentaries


Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak. Directed by Lance Bangs and Spike Jonze. HBO Films, 2009.

As I watched this earlier today, I realized that I’d put off watching it because I wasn’t sure if I was ready to see images of Maurice, alive and talking.  But it’s been over a year, and I shouldn’t have put it off.  Sure, I was a little teary in places, but Sendak is also funny and wonderful.  Start with this one.  Indeed, if you’ve any interest in Sendak, pick up a copy of the DVD.  40 minutes.


Maurice Sendak on his work, childhood, inspirations. Rosenbach Museum, 2008.

A 10-minute mini-documentary, from the Rosenbach Museum, where Sendak’s papers are held.


A Celebration of Maurice Sendak at the 92nd Street Y. 15 Sept. 2008.

The DVD of Tell Them Anything You Want includes excerpts from this.  Here’s the whole thing.  It’s 1 hour and 45 minutes in all, but — for those of you with the time and the attention span — it’s well worth your while.  After introductory remarks, Eleanor Reissa gives a reading of Where the Wild Things Are in Yiddish. Then, remarks from Eyal Danieli.  After that, Spike Jonze, Lance Bangs, and Spike Jonze introduce their dramatization of Sendak at the 1939 World’s Fair, and they show this short film (also included on the DVD of Tell Them Anything You Want).  Next, Linda Emond reads (and sings) Outside Over There.  Stephen Greenblatt suggests that Caliban (from The Tempest) is the literary ancestor of Max, and makes other connections between Shakepseare’s work and Sendak’s. Stephen Gosling & Elizabeth Keusch present highlights from an operatic adaptation of Higglety Pigglety Pop. That’s followed by a film clip of people from the Pacific Northwest Ballet, who staged The Nutcracker with Sendak’s sets, in 1983.  James Gandolfini reads In the Night Kitchen. Next, Dave Eggers offers a tribute to  Sendak, and reads from his (Eggers’) adaptation, Wild Things.  Chuck Cooper, Aisha de Haas, Kimberly Grigsby, Denis O’Hare & Alice Playten sing “Pierre” from Really Rosie.  Meryl Streep reads The Sign on Rosie’s Door, Catherine Keener reads a speech of Sendak’s. Next a video of Sendak’s book covers, interspersed with photos of Sendak himself.  Vince Landay (producer of the Wild Things film), Spike Jonze and Max Records (who stars as Max) introduce a minute of the Wild Things film — looks like an early version of the trailer. Finally, a few words from Tony Kushner, an official proclamation from New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and a thank you from Sendak himself.


Maurice Sendak on NOW with Bill Moyers. PBS, 2004.

A full transcript is available on PBS’ website. The second half, in which he discusses Brundibar, is (as you might expect) darker.  17 mins., 40 seconds.


“TateShots: Maurice Sendak.” The Tate Gallery. 2011

Sendak talks about Where the Wild Things Are, Herman Melville, and William Blake. He talks the most about Blake and Outside Over There. 5 minutes.

For more on Blake and Sendak, see Mark Crosby’s annotations, explaining Blake’s influence on My Brother’s Book.


“Maurice Sendak’s Favorite Books.” Martha Stewart Living. April 2000.


A happier Sendak talks about Where the Wild Things Are, Ursula Nordstrom, In the Night Kitchen, his favorite children’s books. Outside Over There.  8 minutes.


“Grim Colberty Tales”  The Colbert Report.  Comedy Central.  24 and 25 Jan. 2012

“Grim Colberty Tales, Part I”

“Grim Colberty Tales, Part II”

Outtakes, aired 8 May 2012:  “Uncensored — Maurice Sendak Tribute & ‘I Am a Pole (And So Can You!)’ Release.”

Lively conversations, in which Maurice Sendak suggests that the mouse (in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie) be exterminated, calls Newt Gingrich “an idiot of great renown,” and draws an elderly Polish woman pole-dancing.


“An Illustrated Talk with Maurice Sendak” with drawings by Christoph Neimann. New York Times, Dec. 2012

Using excerpts from Terry Gross’s Sept. 2011 Fresh Air interview with Maurice Sendak, Christoph Niemann draws his response. Listen to the entire interview here. Have a hanky ready. Video is 5 mins. Entire Fresh Air interview is 20 mins.


“Maurice Sendak on Being a Kid.” From Blank on Blank Studios. PBS Kids Digital Studios. 2013.

Animated excerpt of Andrew Romano and Ramin Seetodeh’s Sept. 2009 interview with Sendak. 5 mins.


Nine Quotations from Maurice Sendak


1963

Brian O’Doherty, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Alchemist.” New York Times Book Review 12 May 1963: 22.

It’s hard to keep the lines open to one’s childhood — there’s a feeling of unsafety. There’s nothing more fearful in life than childhood dreads or fantasies.

— Maurice Sendak

 


1964

Maurice Sendak, Caldecott & Co.: Notes on Books and PicturesMaurice Sendak, “Balsa Wood and Fairy Tales.” 1964. Collected in Maurice Sendak, Caldecott & Co.: Notes on Books and Pictures. 1988.  New York: Noonday Press, 1990. 157-159. Quotation is on p. 158.

I don’t think I’m stretching the point when I suggest that this “let’s-make-the-world-a-happy-easy-frustration-less-place-for-the-kids” attitude is often propounded in children’s literature today. There are, however, many enlightened people in the field who think the creative artist has greater scope of subject matter than ever before. But, even so, I believe there exists a quiet but highly effective adult censorship of subjects that are supposedly too frightening, or morbid, or not optimistic enough, for boys and girls.

— Maurice Sendak


1976

Rolling Stone, 30. Dec. 1976: cover by Maurice SendakSelma G. Lanes, The Art of Maurice Sendak. 1980.  New York: Abradale Press/Harry N. Abrams, 1993. Quotation is on page 189. Interview is actually from Jonathan Cott’s “Maurice Sendak: King of All Wild Things,” Rolling Stone, 30 Dec. 1976.

Librarians objected to In the Night Kitchen because the boy is nude.  They told me you can’t have a penis in a book for children; it frightens them.  Yet the parents take their children to museums where they see Roman statues with their dicks broken off.  You’d think that would frighten them more.  But “Art” is somehow desexualized in people’s minds.  My God, that would make the great artists vomit.

In a nursery school courtyard in Switzerland, there was a statue of a nude boy running.  It was anatomically correct except for the genitals, which were a bronze blur.  The children were upset by this; their parents complained, and the genitals were carved in.  In this country, it would be the other way round — we prefer the blur, the fig leaf, the diaper.

— Maurice Sendak


1981

John Cech, Angels and Wild Things: The Archetypal Poetics of Maurice SendakJohn Cech, Angels and Wild Things: The Archetypal Poetics of Maurice Sendak. 1995. University Park, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. Quotation is on p. 29. Cech’s interview was conducted in 1981.

[Childhood] is imminently available because it has never stopped. Some people ask, “How do you do it, Mr. Sendak? Why do you have this recollection? You must have some special love for children.” Nonsense! I can reach back and touch it, but most of us can’t either because we don’t want to, don’t know we can, or are terrified by the mere thought of it. Reaching back to childhood is to put yourself in a state of vulnerability again, because being a child was to be so. But then all of living is so — to be an artist is to be vulnerable. To not be vulnerable means something is wrong. You’ve closed yourself off to something. How can you be a good artist? How can you possibly take things that happen in the way that is put upon you as an artist without being vulnerable? It’s taking advantage of what we are congenitally — that is, people filled with childhood things.

— Maurice Sendak


1983

Jonathan Cott, Pipers at the Gates of Dawn: The Wisdom of Children’s Literature. New York: Random House, 1983. Quotation is on page 64. This should probably be listed earlier in my chronology because the interview conducted prior to 1983 — probably in the 1970s.

I love immaculate, rigid, antiquated forms where every bit of fat is cut off, so tight and perfect you couldn’t stick a pin in it, but within which you can be as free as you want. And I’m not an innovator — that’s not my talent. I’ve just taken what’s there and tried to show what you can do with it. Like the picture-book form, which requires an extraordinary condensation of feeling and words. It should last just a few minutes for the child, since most children have very short spans of interest. But I personally love the art of condensation, squeezing something big into its pure essence.

— Maurice Sendak


1993

Art Spiegelman and Maurice Sendak. “In the Dumps.” New Yorker 27 Sept. 1993: 80-81. Quotation appears on p. 81. After Sendak’s passing, the New Yorker‘s blog published a short interview with Spiegelman which included the original two-page spread.

Childhood is cannibals and psychotics vomiting in your mouth! … In reality, childhood is deep and rich. It’s vital, mysterious, and profound. I remember my own childhood vividly. I knew terrible things… but I mustn’t let adults know I knew…. It would scare them.

— Maurice Sendak


2001

Philip Nel, telephone interview with Maurice Sendak. 22 June 2001.

I’ve taken on so many of her [Ruth Krauss’s] traits and Ursula’s traits.  These were my models.  And I will not tolerate oblique language.  She taught me how to say “fuck you.”  I never said things like that until Ruth said them, and she said them with such a joie de vivre.  But it’s not arbitrary.  It was — oh, I don’t know what it was, I won’t pretend to know what it was.  It was that it freed me.

— Maurice Sendak

For more from this (unpublished) interview, see “The Most Wild Thing of All: Maurice Sendak, 1928-2012.”


2006

Cynthia Zarin, “Not Nice.” New Yorker 17 Apr. 2006: 38-43.

The job is to make ravishing, scary books… I grew up with monsters. The invisible monster is the worst. Where is he?

— Maurice Sendak


2011

The Comics Journal 302 (2013): coverGary Groth, “Maurice Sendak Interview.” The Comics Journal 302 (Jan. 2013): 30-108.  Quotation is on pp. 55-56. Interview conducted in October 2011.

You can’t look back on those old days and say, “Gee they were great.” They weren’t great at all. They were terrible. Childhood was a nightmare, truly a nightmare. It only got better as I was leaving school. And the only way I left school was by illustrating my physics teacher’s book [Atomics for the Millions]. Otherwise I’d still be in high school.

— Maurice Sendak

For more from this interview read “Maurice Sendak, Uncensored” or pick up a copy of the current Comics Journal.


More on Sendak (mostly on this blog, but not entirely):

Source of image at top of this post: BookByte Blog.

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Maurice Sendak, Uncensored

The Comics Journal 302 (2013): coverComics people will already know what is being billed as (and probably is) Maurice Sendak’s Final Interview.  (It was conducted in 2011, and he died last May.)  So, I’m writing this for all the children’s literature people out there: here’s why you might want to read this interview, which appears in the latest issue (no. 302) of The Comics Journal.

Pre-publication, Sendak’s fantasy of assassinating President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney got the most publicity. People who didn’t know Sendak were shocked, not realizing that he was making a dark joke. That said, it’s no understatement to say that he truly despised the Bush administration. One of the first times he and I spoke (on the telephone), Maurice referred to President George W. Bush as “that fucking fuckface.” This was back in June 2001, before 9/11 became an opportunity to launch “pre-emptive war,” before Abu Ghraib, before warrantless wiretapping, before torture, and all the rest. Needless to say, Sendak’s opinion of the administration did not improve over time.

Yes, you read his nickname for Mr. Bush correctly. What’s particularly delightful about this interview is that it has not been expurgated. Often, reporters edit out Sendak’s exuberant profanity. Gary Groth (who conducted this interview) leaves it all in. As a result, when you read the interview, it sounds like Sendak talking with you. He loves Henry James, “Jew-hating motherfucker that he is.”  He has an irrational, “impersonal hatred” for Alec Baldwin, “that fat-faced fuck.”  And so on.

He and Groth talk a lot about movies, including why Buster Keaton is better than Charlie Chaplin, favorite actresses (Simone Signoret, Bette Davis, Carole Lombard) and why most contemporary films aren’t worth seeing. But they also talk about William Blake, Herman Melville, Salman Rushdie, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Franz Schubert, and Vincent Van Gogh’s wife.  It’s a wide-ranging interview, covering many subjects.

The Comics Journal: Sendak interview

As is always the case, Sendak is quotable:

On the creative process: “I’m trying to be honest with you. That you never feel you’ve gotten it right because you have a kind of vision, or a kind of feeling. But your body, your hands, the brush in your hand — nothing equips you to fulfill what the original impulse was. So the original impulse is the most exciting thing” (43).

On the publishing industry: “we cannot, I think, separate ourselves from our time. Like when I began in the ’50s … Young people were welcomed. New things were happening, a surge of energy, a surge of hope. A surge of happiness. And now it’s all dwindled. And so I say, look, I’m very lucky that’s when my time was. What a blessing that I could be there and then and be with editors and people in the publishing world who appreciated young people and wanted them to be crazy like I was. Nobody wants them now” (47).

On writing children’s books: “I get criticized for doing too many serious books. Why is there a dead child in your books? Why is there a chagrined mother? Because that’s the way it is. It works both ways. You either become very superficial and do it for the money, or you become very serious and you turn people off. And if it’s a book for children, my God! I would not know how to write a book for children. I’ve never written a book for children. And yet I’m known as a children’s-book writer and illustrator, OK?” (53).

Bonus: the interview is lavishly illustrated with both art from Sendak’s books and images from other works he mentions. There’s an essay by Alexander Theroux, and a reminiscence from Gene Deitch. (I also contributed an overview of Sendak’s career.) But the interview itself will be of greatest interest.

Though lengthy, the interview does not cover everything important. They don’t talk about Ruth Krauss, one of the key professional relationships in Sendak’s life. (For that, you’ll need to read Sendak’s “Ruth Krauss & Me: A Very Special Partnership” [Horn Book, May/June 1994] or my bio. of Johnson and Krauss.) But this was to have been as the first in a series of interviews, and so Groth never got to ask all of the questions he’d planned to. In any case, for a comprehensive interview with someone as accomplished as Sendak was, you would need an entire book.

Above all, in reading Groth’s interview, it’s great to hear Maurice’s voice — his salty, funny, grumpy, insightful, irascible voice — just one last time.

Related content at The Comics Journal:

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Remembering Remy Charlip (1929-2012)

Remy Charlip. Photo by Paul Chinn, SFC / SF

As you may have heard by now, Remy Charlip has passed away at the age of 83. The author of Fortunately (1964), Arm in Arm (1969), Thirteen (1975) and many others, Charlip was also a dancer, choreographer, and the model for Brian Selznick’s rendition of Georges Méliès in The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

He was also one of many people I interviewed for the biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.  He knew them both, and illustrated two of Ruth’s books — A Moon or a Button (1959) and A Fine Day For… (1967).  During our interview (23 March 2003), he told me about working with Ruth on the first of these two books.

Philip Nel: Well, let’s see.  Maybe we should just start with when you first remember meeting them — or meeting Ruth.

Remy Charlip: OK.  Well, actually Ruth sent me a fan letter.  She saw my book that I did of Ruth Krauss’s [Margaret Wise Brown’s] called David’s Little Indian.

PN: Mmm-hmm.

RC: Do you know that book?

PN: I don’t know David’s Little Indian, no.

RC: Anyway, it was published after Margaret Wise Brown died, and it’s a story about a little boy who finds a little Indian and together they name the days.  So, she said she loved the book, and I don’t remember the letter very well, but I do remember that either she asked me to get in touch with her or I got in touch with her.  I don’t know.  I knew her books — I think I knew A Hole Is to Dig and I’ll Be You and You Be Me.  And I’ll Be You and You Be Me is a very — one of my favorite books of Ruth’s.  She influenced me in writing.  I think Arm in Arm actually came as a direct inspiration from her work.

I usually tried to read some (or most) of an author’s work before I interviewed him or her. In this case, I did not: I had grown more aware of the mortality of my interviewees. So, as soon as I had his telephone number, I gave him a call.

RC: Well, one thing I learned, for instance, was we did — I decided — she started to, after a while — let’s see, what was the first book that we worked on together?

PN: Well, A Moon or a Button?

RC: A Moon or a Button.  OK, so, we did that, and (Laughs).  And this is very interesting.  She brought me up to see Ursula Nordstrom, and Ursula would have no truck with me at all.  I made full-color paintings for that book, and the first thing Ursula said to me was, “Black-and-white separates the men from the boys.”  It was a total insult, and a total, you know, particu — you know.  Um.  I don’t know.  Maurice used to call her “the” — and you can’t print this —

PN: OK.

(I’ve cut Maurice Sendak’s occasional nickname for Urusula.)

RC: And, so, I think what Ursula really resented was that in Ruth’s generosity, she would always work with people who were younger, who were inexperienced, and who she thought had some talent and would like to help them — and as well as to work with people that she thought [their] work was exciting.  So, let’s see — so, she got very upset.

PN: Ruth did.

RC: Yeah.  At Ursula.  And, she took my paintings, she kind of gathered them up from the desk in her arms and hands, and threw them up in the air, and ran out, crying, to the ladies room.  Ursula ran after her.  And I sat there thinking, “The children’s book business is much more exciting than I thought.”  (Laughs.)

PN: (Laughs.)

Discussing Ruth’s poem, “The Song of the Melancholy Dress,” he told me:

RC: And anyway, I asked her where she got the idea for the melancholy dress, and she said, “Oh, I overheard somebody say something at a party, and the woman said that she bought a melon-colored dress.”  And, so, a lot of her ideas came from misunderstandings, and I love that because I found that very helpful when one is working, you know, that you –.  And that’s really creativity, when you use something as something else.  And so, when I did the Paper Bag Players, which is a children’s theater, the costumes were all made out of common-place household objects and material — like, say, a shower curtain for the water, a box, big box, for the costume of a soldier — you know, that kind of thing.

PN: Mmm-hmm, mmm-hmm.

RC: And, or a lampshade as a hat, lace curtains for a dress.  So, the Paper Bag Players was all about how you can — so, that’s another thing that I actually learned from her — in another way, I mean, I also had friends who were, like Lou Harrison, for instance, who one day said, “I’m going shopping up in the Bronx.  Would you like to come with me?”  And I said, “Sure.”  And we went up to an automobile graveyard, and had a little meter with him, and he was hitting brake drums to get the sound that he wanted, a particular note. And he was very — it was very urgent that he do it because they were now not making the break drums in the same way that they were.  They made thuds instead of boungs.

PN: Ahh, I’ve gotcha.

RC: So, it was probably something at the time, where I myself take things that you ordinarily look at one way, but then you can look at it in another way.

PN: And that’s a good description of what Ruth does.

It’s also a good description of what Remy did.

For an example of that (and of his sense of humor), you might take a look at this excerpt from his It Looks Like Snow, which I posted back in March of 2011.

Photo by Paul Chinn, from the San Francisco Chronicle‘s obituary.

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The Most Wild Thing of All: Maurice Sendak, 1928-2012

Maurice Sendak, 2011

But the wild things cried, “Oh, please don’t go—

We’ll eat you up—we love you so!”

And Max said, “No!”

—Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963)

In June 2001, I went to hear Maurice Sendak speak at Yale University. A couple of years earlier, I’d started working on a biography of Crockett Johnson, and I knew they were close. I had written him to see if he would be willing to chat, but, the previous April, he had declined via a letter from his assistant: “Mr. Sendak does not have any useful recollection relating to Ruth and Dave…. He hopes your research yields more valuable results and best wishes!” So, I thought: I need to try again. I’ll go, I’ll ask him during the Q+A period. When that time came, I was very nervous. He’d already turned me down once. What if he gets angry at me for pestering him? But… I plucked up my courage, and asked.

He looked me in the eyes, and after the briefest pause said Yes. I should talk to him after the Q+A. I did. He wrote his home number down in my notebook, and told me to call.  I did.

I remain astonished at his extraordinary generosity toward me, who (at that time) had published a handful of articles and no books… and yet was going to write a biography. Why even give someone like me the time of day?

This is why. Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson — along with their mutual editor, Harper & Brothers’ Ursula Nordstrom — were the most important people in shaping his early career. In the early 1950s, he began visiting their Rowayton Connecticut home on the weekends, while working on Krauss’s books. They were his “weekend parents” who helped shape him into the great artist he would become. He stayed with them many times during the ’50s, illustrating eight of Krauss’s books, starting with the groundbreaking A Hole Is to Dig (1952).

So, he was willing to help me. I phoned, we chatted, and then set up a time for a longer conversation later that evening.  At 9pm on June 22nd, I phoned him.  We talked for the next two hours.  The phone call began like this:

Philip Nel: Let’s hope the tape works.

Maurice Sendak: Oh, you’re taping it?

PN: Yes, if that’s alright with you.

MS: Yes, that’s fine.  You’re going to hear an odd sound now and then which is my putting a colored pencil into my sharpener ’cause I’m going to try and draw as we speak.

PN: OK.

MS: I have to finish a page a day, a layout a day, for the book I’m doing.

PN: What are you doing?

MS: Well, it’s a book based on an opera, an opera that I’m going to produce.  I have a little children’s theatre which I’m getting rid of, but this is our last thing to do.  It’s an opera that was performed in a concentration camp in Prague, there’s a very famous concentration camp called Theresienstadt.  It was actually Emperor Tieresias’ army encampment right outside the city.  During the war, it became a camp, and it was known as Hitler’s favorite camp.  There was a movie made to impress Red Cross and diplomats coming that all that they were hearing about dead Jews, dead gypsies, dead gays was all a lie.  And a film was made showing volleyball and chess and children, part of a children’s opera, some brief moments.  And the true fact is that there was an opera composed in the camp.  A young composer named Hans Krasa and his librettist wrote an opera for the children in the camp.  And the opera is called Brundibar, and it’s one of the only things we have of Mr. Krasa except for a trio and some songs because he was incinerated when he was about 35 along with the librettist and all the children who performed the opera.

PN: Wow.

MS: We now have the rights to the opera — took us a long time to get it — and Tony Kushner, the playwright

PN: Yeah, Angels in America.

MS: Yeah.  Is one of my very most wonderful friends.  I begged him to take the job of translation because the original English translation is horrible.  The Czech is beautiful, but it’s got to be sung in English, so we translated it, and we got people interested in doing it, staging it.  It has been done, but in schools, in community centers.  It’s never had a real production.  And so in order to raise the money for it, we agreed we would do a picture book.  So, Tony extrapolated from the libretto into a very gorgeous complex story — the first time he’s ever done anything like this.  He’s amazing.  He just adapted it, without any fuss or feathers.  Gorgeous, gorgeous funny language.  And I’m doing the picture book because we need the money for the stage production, and Hyperion will pay for a good part of the stage production and the trade is they get the picture book.  And I was very sick for a year and a quarter, and of course I’m terribly late.  So, I’m trying very hard to catch up.

PN: Wow.

MS: And, it’s beautiful, beautiful work — a perfect way for me to wind up, actually.  So that is it.

PN: Wow.  I’ll be fascinated to see that — the book — when it comes out.

MS: Yeah, the book is evolving because Tony keeps rewriting and I keep rethinking, and we swore we would not make it too dark.  It would be the sweet, little Czech peasant opera.

PN: Well, good luck.

MS: It’s hopeless already.  I have Hitler in it, I have Eva Braun in it, I mean I’m just uncontrollable.

PN: It would be difficult to avoid the darkness.

MS: Impossible.  But, really, seriously must to an extent in order to not obscure what these people really set out to do, which was to write a charming piece to amuse the children.  It’s just that history beclouds it so much.  It is difficult to do.  It is difficult.  But it’s also great fun.  I’m having a wonderful time.

PN: I’m fascinated.  I’ll be interested when it comes out to show it to my class.

He asked about my class.  I had just begun teaching Literature for Children at Kansas State University.  “I always wonder how you teach children’s literature,” he said.  I offered to send him a syllabus.

MS: To me, it’s really a great mystery.

PN: Well, I’m new to teaching it.  I’ve taught it only for a year.  So, I’m pretty close to that sense of mystery.

MS: Well, once the mystery settles deep on you, then you’ll know how complex this thing is.  It’s always been considered low man on the totem pole, one page in the New York Times, and it’s all treated like Peter-Pan-ville.

PN: Right.

MS: It’s very tiresome, and it used to irritate me profoundly when I was young and now I just can’t afford the energy that goes to being irritated.

After a little more conversation, he started to tell me about Ursula.  And Ruth.  And Dave. (David was Crockett Johnson’s real first name, and his friends called him “Dave.”)  Maurice was very open, direct, and shared an enormous amount of deeply personal memories with me — tears in his eyes, as he described his visit to Ruth just before she died. I felt like his therapist, mostly listening, asking the occasional question. By the end of the conversation, I felt as if during the course of those two hours we had become old friends. He invited me to visit him in Ridgefield. I accepted.

(I never did manage to get out there, which is something I now very much regret, of course.)

Maurice Sendak became the biography’s third central character.  Dave and Ruth are the two co-stars, but Maurice gets third billing — or would, if the book were a film.  Beyond the decade of the 1950s, when he was collaborating with Ruth and staying with them some weekends, he visited in 1963 when he got stuck working on Where the Wild Things Are.  What should he call the three wordless two-page spreads in which Max and the wild things cavort in the forest?  Dave suggested “rumpus.”  So, just before the wordless pages start, Sendak has Max say, “Let the wild rumpus start!”  Dave and Ruth were so important to Where the Wild Things Are that Sendak has said, “I feel as though Max was born in Rowayton, and that he was the love child of me, Ruth, and Dave.”

Maurice and I collaborated on getting Crockett Johnson’s Magic Beach published in 2005, with an afterword by me and a foreword by him. We kept in touch. Generally, I’d write him a letter, and then a few days later, he’d phone me back. It was always astonishing to pick up the phone and hear Maurice’s voice on the other end. Or to find his voice on your answering machine. I don’t think I ever quite got over the fact that Holy cow, I’m talking with Maurice Sendak.  That, truly, was “the most wild thing of all!”

In the summer of 2008, I sent both him and Nina Stagakis (who knew Johnson and Krauss very well) an early draft of the manuscript up until the mid-1950s. How was I doing? Anything I might improve? Anything missing? As he recuperated from triple bypass surgery, he read what had become a double biography of both Johnson and Krauss.  On September 10th 2008, he left a message on my office phone.  He said he liked it, it was good work, but he had a few questions. Call him back. I did. He was hesitant to criticize, but I wanted to know. So, he offered his critique: “For me, it was me and Ruth.  And, for you, it was you and Dave.”  Ah, I said, so I need to have more Ruth in there.  He said, well, it’s your manuscript and you can do what you like.  I said, no, I want there to be a balance between the two.  He said, it’s “like a missing color from a palette.”

So, after our phone call, I started going back through the manuscript, and creating a map for each chapter that included a one-line summary of each paragraph which I then labeled either “CJ,” “RK” or “CJ-RK.”  I made the same map for all subsequent chapters, too.  This allowed me to see where the book was unbalanced, and to create a balance, trimming “CJ” sections, expanding “RK” sections.

Maurice was a little out of sorts that September night. In addition to being in recovery, he was also in mourning — his partner of 50 years, Dr. Eugene Glynn, had died the year before. And, at the start of our conversation, he alluded to an article about him in that day’s New York Times, which he described as “a very odd interview that’s very frank.” So, he said, “I’m telling you because I may sound odd.” Wondering what he was talking about, I looked it up (on-line) as we spoke. That’s the article where he at last talks openly about his sexuality. The interviewer asks whether there were anything he had never been asked, and Maurice answers, “Well, that I’m gay.” So, I think he may have feeling a little more vulnerable than usual that evening. (I expect that, if I had just told the New York Times a secret I’d been keeping for 80 years, I’d feel vulnerable, too.)

That was the last time we spoke.

He continued to be supportive of the biography, granting permission to use artwork, and sending me a scan of a photo of him in his 20s — I wanted an image of how he looked at the time he met Ruth and Dave. I believe my biography of Johnson and Krauss will mark the photo’s first publication, though I’m not sure.  But this was all done through his assistant, Jennifer.

My sense of his final years was that he was devoting the life he had left to his work and to mentoring other artists. So, though he no longer returned my occasional letters by phoning me, I figured: well, if I were in my 80s, I would also claim as much of my time for myself as I could! And: He’s been so very generous to me. I can’t complain. I could worry about him, though. I did worry about him.  Whenever he talked to the press, he sounded sad. And he’d sounded sad to me, when last we spoke.

I did write him, and thank him for all he’d done. I was planning to write him again, in a few months’ time, sending him a signed copy of the bio. and another thank-you. (Sigh….) Well, at least he got to see page proofs. The publisher sent him those a few months back.

When I heard the news this morning, “No!” was my first reaction. Yes, I knew he was 83, and he’s never been in the best of health. (He was sickly as a child, and had his first heart attack just before he turned 39.) Still, I assumed he’d always be there. I assumed I’d get the chance to write to him again.

But it was time for him to board Max’s boat and sail away.

Farewell, Maurice.  And thank you.

More on Maurice Sendak (last updated 14 July 2012, 10:15 pm Central Time):

More on Sendak from Nine Kinds of Pie (this blog):

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