Archive for Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak’s Will

Maurice Sendak, Northeast cover (Hartford Courant Sunday Magazine, 19 Dec. 1993)

Wills offer unique insights into people’s lives — what they value most, how they see themselves, how they hope to be remembered. Ruth Krauss left most of her estate to homeless children, a fact which floored Maurice Sendak, when I told him: she died the same year that We’re All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, Sendak’s book about homeless children, was published. Today, on what would have been Maurice Sendak’s 87th birthday, here is his will (click for a pdf).

And here is my inevitably subjective interpretation of what this 22-page document tells us about Maurice Sendak. If the named items in his collection of manuscripts, letters, toys, and ephemera tell us which literary and cultural figures were dearest to him, then those figures are:

  • Beatrix Potter
  • Mickey Mouse
  • Herman Melville
  • Henry James
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
  • James Marshall

Maurice Sendak, cover for Herman Melville's Pierre (1995)But especially Herman Melville, who is named three times. To the Rosenbach Museum and Library, Sendak gives all of his “rare edition books, including, without limitation, books written by Herman Melville and Henry James” (2), and his “collection of letters and manuscripts written by persons other than [him], including, without limitation, letters written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (also known as the Brothers Grimm) and Herman Melville; and the publishing contract for ‘Pierre’ between Herman Melville and Harper and Brothers Publisher” (3). His affection for all of these figures is well known. In 1995, he even did an illustrated edition of Pierre, dedicating the pictures “in remembrance of” his brother Jack, who died earlier that same year. What fascinates me is that he so loved the novel that he obtained a copy of Melville’s contract with Harper and Brothers.

Sendak, Melville's Pierre: "Youth is hot, and temptation strong" Sendak, Melville's Pierre: [untitled] Sendak, Melville's Pierre: "The secret is still a Sendak, Melville's Pierre: "Pierre and Isabel stood locked"

Sendak’s love for Mickey Mouse is also no secret. He named the protagonist Maurice Sendak's earliest extant drawing: Mickey Mouse (1934)of In the Night Kitchen “Mickey” after the mouse (and because “M” is Sendak’s own first initial), and painted that book’s “Mickey Oven” in the red of Mickey’s shorts and yellow of Mickey’s shoes. (Originally, he’d wanted to use an image of Mickey, but Disney refused to grant permission.) Sendak’s earliest surviving drawing (from 1934, the year he turned 6) is of Mickey Mouse. So, Mickey’s appearance in the will is more confirmation than revelation. Still, though, it is the first item he lists among those going to the Rosenbach: “Such articles of my Mickey Mouse collection as my executors, in their sole and absolute discretion shall select” (2). He then directs that “the remaining balance of [his] Mickey Mouse collection” go to the Maurice Sendak Foundation, Inc.

Maurice Sendak, detail from Mickey Oven, In the Night Kitchen (1970)

Suggesting that he wanted to help scholars study the works of those he collected, Sendak also took care to locate like materials together. When I interviewed him back in June 2001, he fretted over whether work related to his collaborations with Ruth Krauss should go with the rest of his materials or to the University of Connecticut at Storrs, where her papers are. In that conversation, he concluded that the Krauss work should go to Storrs. The will James Marshall and Maurice Sendak, Swine Lake (1999)indicates either that he changed his mind or forgot this earlier decision, but he does remember to send “all of [his] collections of books and related papers, drawings, works of art and letters created by James Marshall” to Storrs. He also gives his “two (2) walking sticks that previously belonged to Beatrix Potter and William Heelis” to the Beatrix Potter Society in London.

There’s something about these physical objects that captures the imagination — Maurice Sendak with Beatrix Potter’s walking sticks! Maurice Sendak with original letters from Mozart, Melville, and the Brothers Grimm! Maurice Sendak with vintage Mickey Mouse toys! What we collect reflects who we are. The books on the shelves, the art on the wall, and the saved childhood memorabilia all offer a glimpse into a person’s interior life. When I think of these things that were dear to him, I imagine him at home, contemplating his collection. I also wish I’d taken him up on the invitation to visit, but I was then too shy, too intimidated by the idea. (Visit the great Maurice Sendak? At his home? Me? Uh….).

Maurice Sendak's will (2011)His will suggests that, if we are to catch sight of Sendak’s inner life, we will have to glean it from his works and from the works of those he collected. The second item on the will’s first page orders the destruction of his personal papers: “I direct my executors to destroy, immediately following my death, all of my personal letters, journals and diaries” (1). As a biographer, I feel a pang of loss at this sentence — what insights these materials would have offered! But I am not writing Sendak’s biography. And whoever does will have plenty to work with. In addition to being a public figure (many interviews!), Sendak collected his non-fiction in Caldecott & Co. (1988), worked with Selma Lanes on The Art of Maurice Sendak (1980) and with Tony Kushner on The Art of Maurice Sendak Since 1980 (2003). All three of these works are partly biographical. Adding to that record, next year will mark the appearance of Peter Kunze’s Conversations with Maurice Sendak, which includes — for the first time — my 2001 interview.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963)I remember Sendak once saying, somewhat ruefully, that Where the Wild Things Are would be in the first line of his obituary. He was proud of the book, but he did so much more, and hoped people would recognize his larger body of work. As if to aid in that recognition, Sendak leaves his original works in libraries where others can study them. He gives his “designs of sets and costumes for operas, plays and ballets” to the Pierpont Morgan Library (2). To the Maurice Sendak Foundation, he bequeaths “All the works of art created by me for my books and all materials related thereto, including, without limitation, manuscripts, dummies, sketches of and for my books, changes to and proof sheets for my books, and all related ephemera” (5). Indicating that Sendak wants scholars to have access, he asks that the Maurice Sendak Foundation “make arrangements with the Rosenbach Museum and Library for the display” of these items. Indeed, he specifically asks the Maurice Sendak Foundation to use his house “as a museum or similar facility, to be used by scholars, students, artists, illustrators and writers, and to be opened to the general public” (4-5).

Rolling Stone, 30. Dec. 1976: cover by Maurice SendakAs you probably already know, the question of which materials go where is the subject of a lawsuit. (The Rosenbach Museum is suing the Sendak Foundation.) I won’t speculate on that dispute here, but I will say that authors’ and artists’ legal legacies are intriguing. Since wills and lawsuits are a matter of public record, they’re also available for our consideration. Indeed, though I don’t have the time to pursue this, someone should edit an essay collection titled In the Event of My Death: The Legal and Literary Afterlives of the Great Children’s Writers. In addition to authors’ and artists’ wills, there are other notable legal battles, such as those between A.A. Milne’s heirs and the Walt Disney Company, or Dr. Seuss Enterprises vs. Penguin Books (1997).

Posthumous lawsuits tell us as much about the artist’s friends and advisors as they do about the artist. But the will displays what and who was most important to the late artist. In this brief, speculative essay, I’ve focused more on the what than the who, but — as you’ll see, if you read the will — the who for Maurice Sendak is clear. It’s Lynn Caponera, Sendak’s caretaker and friend and, today, one of the executors of his estate. What’s so wonderful about Sendak’s will is that he remembers not just the friends and family who were dear to him, but all of us who care about art. So, on his birthday, I’ll add my thanks to a great artist not just for leaving a rich legacy, but for envisioning a future in which his own legacy can be appreciated and studied.

Further reading on Maurice Sendak (mostly on this blog):

Image credits: Maurice Sendak, “Northeast cover” (Hartford Courant Sunday Magazine, 19 Dec. 1993) from Sendak in Asia: Exhibition and Sale of Original Artwork (1996); Sendak, cover and four illustrations from Herman Melville’s Pierre or the Ambiguities (The Kraken Edition, 1995); Sendak’s earliest extant drawing (Mickey Mouse, 1934) from Selma G. Lanes, The Art of Maurice Sendak (1980); Sendak Sendak, detail from Mickey Oven, In the Night Kitchen (1970); James Marshall and Maurice Sendak, Swine Lake (1999); first page of Maurice Sendak’s will (2011), courtesy of probate court in Bethel, Connecticut; Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963); Sendak, cover for Rolling Stone (30. Dec. 1976).

Thanks to Sara & David Austin for sending the will, and of course to the probate court in Bethel, Connecticut, for providing access to it.

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Sidewalk Flowers; or, the Poet and the Picture Book

JonArno Lawson & Sydney Smith, Sidewalk Flowers (2015)

This picture book is a wordless poem, written by a poet yet rendered by an artist. If that description sounds like one of the philosophical questions posed by JonArno Lawson’s poems (“can you remember / how you thought / before you / learned to talk?”), it should. Lawson conceived the book, and Sydney Smith drew it. Or perhaps I should say: Lawson had the vision, and Smith put it on the page.

Sidewalk Flowers’ protagonist, her red hoodie calling to mind Ezra Jack Keats’ Peter, is the book’s poet, open to the experience of the world, able to see her surroundings more fully than her preoccupied father. Her openness to her environs also recalls the protagonist of The Snowy Day (1962): both children walk through their respective neighborhoods, finding beauty in the everyday, moments of connection, and quiet insights that their busy elders tend to miss. She is the poet because of her capacity — if I may borrow Lawson’s description of his own poetic process — “to make unexpected discoveries” (Inside Out 29).

two-page spread from JonArno Lawson & Sidney Smith, Sidewalk Flowers (2015)

She discovers the flowers that most grown-ups would dismiss as weeds. She gathers them from between the gaps in the paving stones, the slim circle round the base of the signpost, anywhere that a persistent plant has found those “chinks in the dark” (to quote Roethke) and burst into bloom. Her ability (in the book’s first half) to perceive the radiance of these neglected flowers yields (in the second half) to an even greater capacity to share that beauty with others. Instead of hoarding her bouquet, she gives flowers to people (a man sleeping on a park bench) and animals (a small dead bird) until, upon arriving home, she has a just enough flowers to give some to her mother and two siblings.

It’s a poetic picture book, in its attentiveness to what us non-poets overlook, and to the deeper meaning of small gestures. Sidewalk Flowers is also a perfect example of why a poem is a perfect analogue for a great picture book. As Maurice Sendak once observed, the picture book is “a complicated poetic form that requires absolute concentration and control” (Caldecott & Co. 186). It does. As works like Sidewalk Flowers demonstrate, the picture book can also convey — to quote another poem of Lawson’s — the idea that “The truth may be simple / But its impact is complicated” (Think Again 21).


 Works Cited

Keats, Ezra Jack. The Snowy Day. New York: Viking, 1962.

Lawson, JonArno. “Tickle Tackle Botticelli.” Black Stars in a Night Sky. Toronto: Peldar Press, 2006. 116.

Lawson, JonArno. “What I Saw.” Think Again. Illus. by Julie Morstad. Toronto: Kids Can Press, 2010.

Lawson, JonArno, ed. Inside Out: Children’s Poets Discuss Their Work. London: Walker Books, 2008.

Lawson, JonArno and Sydney Smith. Sidewalk Flowers. Toronto and Berkeley: Groundwood Books, 2015.

Roethke, Theodore. “Root Cellar.” The Lost Son and Other Poems. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1948.

Sendak, Maurice. Caldecott & Co.: Notes on Books & Pictures. 1988. Noonday Press, 1990.


More about Sidewalk Flowers and its creators

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Legend, Gentleman, Friend: George Nicholson (1937-2015)

George Nicholson

George Nicholson died yesterday. He was 77 years old.

He was a legend in children’s publishing. George was in the children’s literature business for over 50 years. In the 1960s, he introduced paperbacks to the children’s book industry. That’s something we take for granted now, but we owe it to George. As an agent (at Sterling Lord since 1995), he represented Betsy ByarsPatricia Reilly Giff, Sergio Ruzzier, Leonard Marcus, and several literary estates — including those of Don Freeman, Hardie Gramatky, and Lois Lenski.

Since 2006, he also represented me.

Initially, I couldn’t quite believe that the great George Nicholson was my agent. I’m an academic. Scholarly books about children’s literature don’t make much money. (And that’s an understatement.) I worried that — as George’s client — I wasn’t really helping his bottom line. I mentioned this to him one or twice, and each time he brushed it off. So, I stopped bringing it up.

It took me a year or two to figure this out, but George was my agent because he believed in me, not because he thought I’d write a bestseller. To put this another way, George was my agent because he was my friend.

George Nicholson

Harold LloydHe was a giant in the business, but never acted like one. Silver-haired and with glasses like Harold Lloyd’s (see photo at left), he was soft-spoken and kind. George was a gentleman, in the best, old-fashioned sense. He was courteous, but did not stand on ceremony. He was polite, but also let you knew what he thought. George had class, but was no snob. While we’re on the subject, his look was also classic. No matter the weather, he invariably dressed in a jacket, tie, oxford shirt, blazer, and slacks.

I was shocked to see Sterling Lord’s announcement today.

I gasped, and sat down. George is gone? It was — and is — too much to take in.

Yes, George Nicholson was 77. And he’d had some health issues, as everyone who makes it into their 70s does. But he was still actively involved, always returned my calls and emails promptly, ready to offer his advice. Whenever I went to New York, I would meet him for lunch or dinner — whether or not we had any business.

A Little Night Music (2010): Elaine Stritch, Bernadette PetersIn December 2010, George, my mother, Karin, and I went to dinner, and to A Little Night Music (starring Bernadette Peters and the late Elaine Stritch!). On a couple of occasions, he and Susan Hirschman and I went out to dinner. When last I saw him, the fall of 2013, he had to postpone our dinner engagement because he wasn’t feeling well. But the postponement was brief — we went out to lunch two days later.

George knew everyone connected to children’s books. Maurice Sendak, Edward Gorey, Ursula Nordstrom, Lloyd Alexander, Richard Peck, Margaret McElderry, Robert McCloskey. Everyone.  And he had lots of stories.

Maurice Sendak in his 20s, New York CityHere’s one he told me about Ted (as Edward Gorey was known to his friends) and Maurice. When they were both young artists, in their 20s or maybe early 30s, Gorey and Sendak were friends, and often saw each other in New York. One day, Maurice saw Ted on walking along the street — dressed, as Gorey tended to, in a fur coat and tennis shoes. Maurice strolled up to greet him: “Hi, Ted—”  Gorey started shouting, “RAPE! RAPE!” Terrified, Maurice turned and fled.

A few days later, Ted phoned Maurice to say hello, and to ask why he ran off. As it turned out, shouting “RAPE!” was Gorey’s way of making a joke.

So many stories. I wish I’d taken notes.

I spoke with George just a few months ago, in the fall of 2014. I had flown to Connecticut to give a couple of talks and to help my mother move. I’d hoped to catch MetroNorth into New York to see him, but mom’s move — as these things inevitably do — took longer than expected. Well, I figured, I’ll see him in 2015.

I last saw George for that slightly postponed lunch, in October of 2013. We met at his office, and then strolled to a nearby restaurant. We talked about my ideas for future projects, he shared stories, and we enjoyed each other’s company.  It was a happy lunch. When we parted, he — as he always did — first made sure I knew how to get where I was headed. (I did.) Then, he turned to walk back to his Bleecker Street office.

As he walked away, the autumn sunlight on his silver hair and blazer, I paused and thought: I wonder when I’ll see George again? Indeed, it’s because I had that melancholy thought that I remember our parting so vividly: George, walking across the street, into the early afternoon light.

Farewell, old friend. And Godspeed.

More on George Nicholson:

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A Very Special House

74 Rowayton Ave. (house number)This past Friday, I spent the afternoon at Crockett Johnson’s house — 74 Rowayton Avenue (Rowayton, Connecticut), where he and Ruth Krauss lived from 1945 to 1973. Though I wrote their biography and had seen (and photographed) the house from the outside, I’d never been inside. I’ve seen all of their homes from the outside, but — hesitant to intrude on residents’ privacy — not actually been into the homes themselves. Since I was in town to give a talk that evening, Gil and Kim Kernan (the current owners) kindly invited me to spend some time in their home. My visit was one of the happiest events occasioned by my Johnson-Krauss biography.

Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, 74 Rowayton Ave., 1959 74 Rowayton Ave., 2014

The experience put me in mind of Richard McGuire’s innovative six-page comic, “Here” (1989, and forthcoming in a new book-length version later this year), in that I was aware of multiple moments in time. Building upon comics’ ability to spatialize time, “Here” presents many moments simultaneously — all of which take place in the space occupied by a single room. McGuire displays scenes from 1957, and from later and earlier years; across the course of the comic, you piece together some of the lives of those who passed through the place. (Click on pictures for a larger image.)

Richard McGuire, "Here" (1989), p. 1 Richard McGuire, "Here" (1989), p. 2

Nina Stagakis, floor plan of 74 Rowayton Ave. in 1950s (drawn from memory in 2001)Upstairs at 74 Rowayton Ave., standing in the front bedroom, I thought: this is where Maurice Sendak stayed, when he came up from New York City on the weekends, to work on Ruth’s books. Downstairs, I sat out on the front porch where, in 1951 and 1952, he and Ruth worked on A Hole Is to Dig — and Dave (a.k.a. Crockett Johnson) refereed. Thanks to Nina Stagakis’ sketch (drawn from memory) of the first-floor layout, I could see exactly where, in the front room, sixty years ago, Dave sat while he created dummies for Harold and the Purple Crayon, and noticed that he could easily have looked over his shoulder and seen eight-year-old Nina, at her desk, drawing. When she was eight, her father died. She and her mother Phyllis Rowand — who were already friends and neighbors — grew even closer to Dave and Ruth. Dave built her a Nina-sized desk, and put it in his office, allowing her to draw at her desk while he drew at his. Shortly after, Dave began working on Harold and the Purple Crayon.

front room, 74 Rowayton Ave., 2014: Crockett Johnson's desk was here, 1945-1973

Crockett Johnson’s desk was here, 1945-1973.

front room, 74 Rowayton Ave., 2014: view of where Nina Rowand Wallace's desk was, from Crockett Johnson's vantage point, 1954

Desk of Nina Rowand Wallace (now Stagakis) was here; from vantage point of Crockett Johnson’s desk.

front room, 74 Rowayton Ave., 2014: Nina Rowand Wallace's desk was here in 1954

Nina Rowand Wallace’s desk was here in 1954.

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)While drawing Harold and the Purple Crayon, if Dave looked up from his desk and out the front window, he faced not only water (a key plot element in the book), but boats (another key element). I don’t know how much of Harold he created during daylight hours (like Harold himself, Dave often worked at night), but the windows of his office looked out onto the Five Mile River, where he docked his own boat. Today, construction partially obscures the view, but in 1954 he had a clear sight line.

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): "After he had sailed long enough, Harold made land without much trouble."

The house is and is not as it was. The kitchen is now open to the adjacent room. What was Dave’s office is now the dining room, and what was dining room is now the living room. The third floor is now finished, and would be an ideal studio for Dave. Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, A Very Special House (1953)The basement — where he painted — still floods in a storm, although perhaps less than it once did (the walls have been painted with sealant). When it does flood, Gil told me, water shoots out from the front wall. The basement ceiling is also a little low for a man who was nearly six feet tall. (Dave’s head would have cleared the ceiling by about six inches.)  I see why, in 1973, Dave and Ruth moved to their Westport home, where he could paint in a studio above the garage.

I also see why Ruth and Dave chose 74 Rowayton Ave. It’s cozy. Not unlike the house in which I currently live, you can stand in the living room, and look out windows on all four sides of the house. Its many windows bring in lots of light. Sitting on the porch or one of the front rooms, you can look out at the Five Mile River. Jackie Curtis — a photographer and friend of Dave and Ruth’s, who was also there on Friday — mentioned that Dave enjoyed sitting out on the porch, drinking a martini.

 Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss on the front porch of 74 Rowayton Ave., 1959 Gil and Kim Kernan on the front porch of 74 Rowayton Ave., 2014
Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, 1959; Gil and Kim Kernan, 2014.
Nel_mimics_CJ1959_web Front porch of 74 Rowayton Ave., 2014
Yours truly, 2014; absence, 2014 (with 1959 photo on table).

74 Rowayton Ave is a private home. So, don’t go knocking on the door expecting Gil and Kim to let you in. Do, however, swing by the Rowayton Historical Society (177 Rowayton Ave., just down the street from the Johnson-Krauss house) and check out Rowayton and the Purple Crayon, an exhibit devoted to the “Creative Culture of 1950s Rowayton” — Johnson, Krauss, Sendak, Jim and Jane Flora.  It runs through the end of November.

Rowayton and the Purple Crayon, Rowayton Historical Society, 2014

Jane Flora: "Non-Consenting Adults," "Family Jewels," "Pet Hen" (all c. 1974)

It’s lovingly curated, child-friendly, and it taught me a few things I didn’t know. According to Jim Flora, Alexander Kerensky lived in Rowayton in the 1940s. I knew that several left-leaning folks moved to Norwalk (Rowayton is South Norwalk) during that time — including Johnson, Krauss, and George Seldes. But I’d never heard about Kerensky (Prime Minister of Russia’s provisional government, in 1917).

Also, I saw this great photo, taken at a 1958 Rowayton Public Library event celebrating National Library Week.

National Library Week, Rowayton Public Library, 18 Mar. 1958 (courtesy of Rowayton Historical Society)

Back row, top left, is Fred Schwed Jr. (author of Where Are the Customers’ Yachts?). Third from left is John Sharnick (journalist, TV producer). Third from right is Crockett Johnson, and far right is Jim Flora (creator of children’s books and album covers).  Front row, left to right: Phyllis Rowand (artist, illustrated some of Ruth Krauss’s books), Carl Rose (cartoonist for New Yorker & others), Ruth Krauss.  I’m not sure who the other people are, but one is probably Leonard Gross, whose God and Freud had just been published and was at the event.  If you have any guesses as to who the others might be, please let me know.

Crockett Johnson, Ruth Krauss, Jim and Jane Flora, Maurice Sendak, Phyllis Rowand, Fred Schwed, Carl Rose, and all the rest are gone. But the library and 74 Rowayton Ave. are still here. The town is more developed than it was. But it’s still here. Time changes much, but traces of the past linger on.

Related posts:

Credits: first two black-and-white photos from The New Haven Register, 1959; third black-and-white photo courtesy of the Rowayton Historical Society; all color photos taken by Philip Nel. Richard McGuire’s “Here” appeared in RAW 2.1 (1989) and is © Richard McGuire. Nina Stagakis’ sketch of the 74 Rowayton Ave. floor plan — published here for the first time — is © Nina Stagakis.

Thanks to Gil and Kim Kernan for their hospitality, and to Wendell Livingston and Chris Penberthy (of the Rowayton Historical Society) for inviting me. Finally, special thanks to the University of Connecticut (especially Terri Goldich and Kate Capshaw) for underwriting both the Rowayton Historical Society talk and my University of Connecticut talk, earlier last week.

Update, 8:45 pm: Thanks to Wendell Livingston, I’ve replaced my photo of a photo with a scan of the original photo (of the 1958 National Library Week event).

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Wild Things, I Think I Love You: Maurice Sendak, Ruth Krauss, and Childhood

Like his mentor Ruth Krauss’s fictive children, Maurice Sendak’s are emotionally liberated people.

Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, A Hole Is to Dig (1952): "Mud is to jump in and slide in..."

That’s one of the points I make in my brief (5-page!) essay “Wild Things, I Think I Love You: Maurice Sendak, Ruth Krauss, and Childhood,” which appeared in PMLA 129.1 (January 2014).  In a belated recognition of the second anniversary of Maurice Sendak’s passing (May 8, 2012), I’m posting a pdf of the essay here and on Academia.edu.

Because I didn’t pay attention to the word limit, I wrote around twice as much as PMLA had space to print.  So, I repurposed what I’d cut for “It’s a Wild World: Maurice Sendak, Wild Things, and Childhood,” which appeared on this blog in October 2013. Someday, I would like to publish the essay as it was originally intended — with the cut sections integrated into the published (PMLA) version. Maybe, one day, there’ll be a Sendak essay collection where this might appear in full?

Anyway, do check out the Sendak section of the January 2014 PMLA.  There are lots of other good pieces there — U.C. Knoepflmacher, Maria Tatar, Amy Sonheim, Jan Susina, many others! Bonus: In the process of writing this post, I discovered that the full contents of all issues of PMLA since 2002 are available for free (no paywall), at the MLA’s website! Unfortunately, the journal is behind a paywall: I belatedly realized that I was accessing it via my university’s institutional subscription. If anyone wants the Sendak section, then email me and I’ll send you the pdf.

Image above is from Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak’s A Hole Is to Dig (1952).

More on Sendak (mostly on this blog)

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It’s a Wild World: Maurice Sendak, Wild Things, and Childhood

My fellow Niblings (Betsy Bird, Julie Walker DanielsonTravis Jonker) and I decided a few months ago that it’d be fun to coordinate some blog posts today in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Where the Wild Things Are. It’s 50 years old, having been originally released in Fall 1963. After some research, we figured out that its release was in October of that year. Here’s my contribution.


Maurice Sendak’s work makes adults uncomfortable, and these adults then consequently worry about how children will feel. Will a Sendak book make children uncomfortable, too? they wonder. Or What sort of child does the Sendak book expect as its reader?  Or, even, What is a child? The Sendak book that got us adults asking these questions is Where the Wild Things Are, published 50 years ago, in October 1963.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963)

In his infamous 1969 Ladies Home Journal piece, Bruno Bettelheim — who had not then read Where the Wild Things Are (1963) — worried about the book’s effect on “the child.” As he said, “The basic anxiety of the child is desertion. To be sent to bed alone is one desertion, and without food is the second desertion. The combination is the worst desertion that can threaten a child” (48). Yet, as Maria Tatar points out, Bettelheim shares Sendak’s view that reading stories about childhood anxieties can be potentially therapeutic, a way for children to (in Sendak’s words) tame wild things through fantasy. One of our foremost scholars of fairy tales (the darkest genre within children’s literature, and a genre originally not for children at all), Tatar herself wonders whether Dear Mili (1988) — Sendak’s version of a Wilhelm Grimm tale — is suitable for children. “There are good reasons why we do not start out stories with descriptions of widows who have lost all their children but one or end them with images of mother and daughter lying down and dying,” she writes, and then partially disavows this criticism in her next sentence: “This is not to say that children should be shielded from descriptions of material hardships and death, only that they are not necessarily better off when entertained with stories that reflect or take as their point of departure the social and cultural realities of an age other than their own” (220). Kenneth Kidd, Freud in Oz: At the Intersections of Psychoanalysis and Children's Literature (2011)In an essay on allegory in Sendak, Geraldine DeLuca considers In the Night Kitchen (1970) “true to a child’s experience” but Outside Over There (1981) unsuitable for children because “we — particularly children — are left at the end of this work with too much pain” (14, 22).  Kenneth Kidd, whose chapter from Freud in Oz (2011) is one of the sharpest analyses of Sendak, also codifies his notion of childhood in contrast with his assessment of Sendak’s. As he writes, “While Sendak neither romanticizes the child nor minimizes the child’s experiences with trauma, his makeover of monstrosity amounts to a kind of gentling of the child rather than a celebration of childhood’s radical alterity” (131). In other words, for Kidd, childhood is a state of radical alterity, but Sendak minimizes that, offering instead (as Kidd says later) “the domestication of wildness” (135).

While a good deal of literary criticism reveals as much about the critic as it does about the work, Maurice Sendak’s work is especially adept at calling forth our emotional responses. Or, to put this another way, the effect of Sendak’s art is affect. His books are good at making us feel. So, while appeals to emotion or to vaguely defined ideas of “the child” can mar scholarship of children’s literature, Maurice Sendak’s work actually requires us to venture into these potentially risky areas.

As I argue in an essay forthcoming in the January 2014 issue of PMLA, Sendak’s affective aesthetic derives from several sources. (What you are reading now includes only what I had to cut from that essay, plus a few new ideas.)

Part I. A Book is to Feel: Ruth Krauss’s Influence

A major source is Ruth Krauss. Sendak illustrated eight of her books between 1952 and 1960, often spending his weekends at the home of Krauss and her husband Crockett Johnson — a period of time Sendak has referred to as his apprenticeship into the world of children’s books. One thing he learned from her is to embrace the wildness of children. As Sendak told me in a 2001 interview, “Max has his roots in Ruth Krauss. You know, her phrase that kids were allowed to be as cruel and maniacal as she knew they were.  Studying them at Bank Street, she knew what monstrosities children are.”

advertisement for Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, New York Times, 1 Dec 1963

Indeed, Ruth Krauss’s A Very Special House (1953) — the second of her books illustrated by Sendak — might be read as the first version of Where the Wild Things Are. As George Bodmer puts it, each book has “a solitary child who falls into fantastic adventures that spring up from his thoughts” (181). The unnamed child of A Very Special House climbs the chairs, jumps on the bed, and draws on the walls, allowing him (through his art) to bring home “a turtle / and a rabbit and a giant / and a little dead mouse / — I take it everywheres — / and some monkeys and some skunkeys / and a very old lion.” Though the boy wears overalls throughout, in one scene he dons a white smock and a “Valkyries” style horned helmet, a costume that echoes the horns on Max’s white wolf suit. In Where the Wild Things Are, Max is comparably transgressive. He hangs his teddy bear, hammers a nail into the wall, chases the dog with a fork, imagines his room into a forest, and sails off to the land of the wild things — who, like the giant and old lion in A Very Special House, are both much larger than he is and willing to be ruled by him.

Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, A Very Special House (1953)

Contemporary reviews also noted both books’ celebration of rule-breaking. The Atlantic Monthly’s reviewer praised A Very Special House’s “unorthodox” qualities and suggested that, while it is “no handbook for deportment,” “in the blowing-off-steam department, it deserves an award” (qtd in Nel 137). Wild Things’ reception was more mixed, but, writing of Max’s “fantasy of rage,” the New York Times noted that the book “projects, releases, and masters a universal experience for the child” (qtd. in Lanes 107). Though neither child faces punishment for his unruliness, there’s more conflict in Wild Things than in the earlier book: in A Very Special House, “NOBODY ever says stop stop stop”; in Wild Things, Max’s mother sends him to bed without supper, though ultimately relents — Max finds “his supper waiting for him” at the end.

Ruth Krauss: Harper advertisement, 1954

One reason that people respond to Max as if he and his adventures were real is that Sendak also learned from Krauss to “keep it real.” As he said, Krauss’s “The Carrot Seed, with not a word or a picture out of place, is dramatic, vivid, precise, concise in every detail. It springs fresh from the real world of children, the Bank Street world of listening to children and recording and re-creating their startling speech patterns and curious, pragmatic thinking processes” (“Ruth Krauss and Me” 286). He’s wrong about the book’s composition: The Carrot Seed (1945) derived from Krauss’s imagined conversation with a 5-year-old neighbor. But he’s right about Krauss’s compositional methods during the period she worked with him. Beginning with A Hole Is to Dig (the first book of hers that he illustrated), Krauss used children’s spontaneous utterances in her books.

As Kenneth Kidd has pointed out, Sendak’s own experience in psychoanalysis (which he entered at roughly the same time he began working on Krauss’s books) also played a role in his art’s realism, as it helped him both access his childhood emotions and use them in his work: “His books also resemble the child-adult playwork practiced by child analysts, which is hardly surprising since Sendak imitates some of their techniques. Sendak, in short, is the consummate picturebook psychologist” (105).

Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, A Hole Is to Dig (1952): "Mud is to jump in and slide in..."

Krauss, who also saw a psychologist, also taught Sendak not to repress his emotions. As he told me in that same 2001 interview, she taught him how to curse. Most interviews with Sendak excise the cursing, but his use of profanity was fluent, even exuberant. His and Krauss’s child characters don’t say “fuck” (as Sendak did), but they do shout at us.  In A Hole Is to Dig, a two-page spread of sixteen muddy children inform us: “Mud is to jump in and slide in and yell doodleedoodleedoo!”  In the Krauss-Sendak collaboration I’ll Be You and You Be Me (1954), an older child stands between two warring smaller children, and asks one “Is there something you want to say to Dickie?” With his fist raised and an angry eyebrow slanted downward, Dickie answers, “Yes! I want to put him in the garbage can.”  In his own work, Sendak also conveys the understanding that using a large, loud voice can be a small person’s main source of power. Where the Wild Things Are alleges that Max tames the wild things “with the magic trick of staring into their yellow eyes without blinking once,” but that “trick” begins with Max’s voice.  He shouts, “BE STILL!”  And they obey.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963): til Max Said "BE STILL!" and tamed them with the magic trick

The impulse to draw from real children also grants Sendak access to a wide range of childhood experiences. Though Max has come to symbolize the Sendakian child, there is no single Sendakian child, no unified field theory of “childhood” that emerges in his work. Nor is there any unified style — in part because Ursula Nordstrom (his editor) and Krauss insisted that he try different approaches. As he told me, “I had to keep changing styles, and this is something Ruth did too.  Beating me over the back not to become a stylist.” I replied, “Don’t fall into a rut.” He said, “Yeah. Don’t get a style where you’re always recognizable.” So, as Leonard Marcus notes, for Sendak, “the visual manner and medium of a book mattered far less than the emotional truth it had to tell” (19).

Part II. The Emotional Landscape of Childhood

Though drawing on his own early childhood, Sendak managed to create books that resonated (and continue to resonate) with readers’ sense of their own childhoods. He understood that, as Mo Willems observed just after Sendak’s death, “However life changes for children, and how childhood is defined over generations, there’s still an inner life. Everything that you do as a child is for the first time. So, when you fail — even by walking and tripping — that’s your first failure.  And it’s massive” (Andersen). Amplifying parts of his own particular experience, Sendak was able to convey something from this shared “inner life,” something that felt universal. This feeling is one reason why critics tend to read his work as saying something definitive about “the child” or childhood. We recognize experiences from our childhoods in the art inspired by Sendak’s.

Maurice Sendak, We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993)Granting us access to that “inner life,” the faces of Sendak’s characters telegraph their emotions. In Where the Wild Things Are, Max’s face conveys a full range of emotions — anger (at his mother), joy (as he sets sail on the boat), imperiousness (as he becomes king of the wild things), and melancholy (when he longs for home). When he gets home, his light smile and half-closed eye conveys contentment. But many of Sendak’s later books do not end quite so happily.  As the rat tries to carry him off stage right, the “poor little kid” in We’re All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993) has a black eye, and his mouth open to cry out — likely the word “help,” the sole thing he utters in the book (five times in all). To the left of him, “THE MOON’S IN A FIT”: an angry-faced moon has lifted Jack and Guy up by their newspaper robes; their feet dangling over the ground and their mouths downturned, the boys’ eyes look out at the reader, uncertainly. Just left of them, the other homeless children flee off to the left of the page, defying the typical left-to-right movement across the page.  It’s an unsettling scene in a book that ends with children only temporarily safer, sleeping in a sidewalk shantytown. The ending of Outside Over There is ambivalent at best. Armed only with a “wonder horn,” Ida travels into “outside over there,” defeats the goblins with her music, rescues her younger sister and brings her home to mother. However, as playwright Tony Kushner observes, “The reunion of Ida and her sister with their mother at the end of Outside is reassuring, though … Sendak has taken pains to limit that comfort”: the baby is tearful, and Ida and her mother “look resigned rather than joyful at the news that their absent husband/father will return ‘one day,’ which is not, of course, especially reassuring news — when, exactly?” (The Art of Maurice Sendak Since 1980 22).

Of course, as Sendak observed, “Children know about death and sorrow and sadness” (Zarin).  And attempts to protect them from books that address dark subjects may underestimate them.  Sendak again: “We should let children choose their own books. What they don’t like they will toss aside. What disturbs them too much they will not look at. And if they look at the wrong book, it isn’t going to do them that much damage. We treat children in a peculiar way, I think. We don’t treat them like the strong creatures they really are” (Lanes 106).

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963): That very night in Max's room a forest grewSendak was wise to defend the right to tell stories that may upset us and Bettelheim was unwise to criticize a book he had never read. (Sendak never forgave him for that, either. In conversation, he referred to him derisively as “Benno Brutal-heim.”) However, Bettelheim is also not wrong to suggest that Where the Wild Things Are may upset young readers. I was one of those children who found the book terrifying, though not for the reasons Bettelheim mentioned. The book frightened me because I knew it was true: The boundary between real and imagined worlds was perilously fragile. When the lights went out, my bedroom could very easily turn into a jungle, bringing me far too close to the land of the wild things, who “gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.” As an adult, I realize that the wild things’ googly eyes make them look more goofy than threatening. As a child, I focused only on their size, their talon-like claws, and their sharp teeth. As a result, I read Where the Wild Things Are once. After that, I kept my distance. Mine may be a minority opinion. During his childhood, Mo Willems thought it “an empowering book” (Andersen). The vast majority of my students recall enjoying the book during their childhoods. But the book does have the power to frighten.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963): the wild rumpus

However, that power is what makes Where the Wild Things Are such a great book. That power is what has made it endure, and is what helped to establish Sendak not just as one of the great artists but as one of the great interpreters of childhood. Sendak understood the sometimes scary complexities of being a child. He had the courage to convey those truths both in his work, and in his role as spokesperson for both children’s literature and children themselves. As Kidd points out, by the middle of the twentieth century, the picture book author-illustrator began to assume the role of “something like an expert on childhood, even a lay child analyst,” whose expertise “came from proximity to childhood” (123).  For example, those who do not study, read or write children’s literature were a little scandalized by Sendak’s appearance on the Colbert Report, during which the author suggested that the mouse of You Give a Mouse a Cookie “should be exterminated,” claimed that “Most books for children are very bad,” and conceded that it was “a miracle that I have lived this long without having destroyed a person.”  But those of us who do study, read, or write children’s literature laughed and applauded Sendak’s grumpy wisdom. We thought: That “Mouse” book is so relentlessly average — good riddance! And: Children’s literature is art! And: He speaks for us!

Whether we knew him personally or not, he was a giant. He had come to define the field of children’s literature.  So, when Sendak passed away in May last year, we all gathered on the web to mourn his passing and celebrate his work.  As Daniel Handler (best known by his pseudonym Lemony Snicket) said, “It’s almost impossible to overstate his importance. He’s a North Star in the firmament of anyone who makes children’s books, in particular for his dark and clear-eyed view of the world that was kindred to me when I was in kindergarten and kindred to me now. He gives neither the comfort nor the horror of sentimentality” (Italie). Novelist Gregory Maguire, graphic novelist Art Spiegelman, picture-book legend Tomi Ungerer, scholar Maria Tatar and dozens of others all wrote or drew tributes. Neil Gaiman wrote two. As Kenneth Kidd noted at the time, “my Facebook newsfeed is a virtual wake” (“Goodbye, Maurice”).

Sendak has sailed off on the journey from which none return, but his books continue to provide safe passage for us to explore the land of the wild things. The creatures of his imagination speak to the realities of our world — a world in which children shout at adults, get lonely, and dance the wild rumpus. A world in which they are misunderstood, frightened, and (we hope) loved by their caregivers.  It’s a wild world, and it’s getting wilder every day.


Works Cited

Andersen, Kurt. “Mo Willems remembers author Maurice Sendak” Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen 13 May 2012 <http://www.pri.org/stories/arts-entertainment/books/mo-willems-remembers-author-maurice-sendak-9853.html>.

Bettelheim, Bruno. “The Care and Feeding of Monsters.”  Ladies Home Journal Mar 1969: 48.

Bodmer, George. “Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak’s Early Illustration.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 11.4 (Winter 1986-87): 180-183

DeLuca, Geraldine. “Exploring the Levels of Childhood: The Allegorical Sensibility of Maurice Sendak.” Children’s Literature 12 (1984): 3-24.

“Grim Colberty Tales, Part 1.” The Colbert Report 24 Jan. 2012. <http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/406796/january-24-2012/grim-colberty-tales-with-maurice-sendak-pt–1>.

“Grim Colberty Tales, Part 2.” The Colbert Report. Comedy Central. 25 Jan. 2012. <http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/406902/january-25-2012/grim-colberty-tales-with-maurice-sendak-pt–2>.

Grimm, Wilhelm. Dear Mili.  Translated by Ralph Manheim with pictures by Maurice Sendak.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Michael di Capua Books), 1988.

Italie, Halel. “Writers Remember Maurice Sendak.” Chicago Sun-Times 10 May 2012: <http://www.suntimes.com/entertainment/books/12430172-421/writers-remember-maurice-sendak.html>.

Kidd, Kenneth B. Freud in Oz: At the Intersections of Psychoanalysis and Children’s Literature.  Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

—. “Goodbye, Maurice. And Thank You.” University of Minnesota Press Blog. 10 May 2012: <http://www.uminnpressblog.com/2012/05/kenneth-b-kidd-goodbye-maurice-and.html>.

Krauss, Ruth. A Hole Is to Dig. Pictures by Maurice Sendak. 1952. New York: HarperTrophy (HarperCollins), 1989.

—. A Very Special House. Pictures by Maurice Sendak. 1953. New York: HarperCollins, 1981.

—. I’ll Be You And You Be Me.  Pictures by Maurice Sendak.  1954.  HarperCollins, 1982.

—. The Carrot Seed.  Illustrated by Crockett Johnson. 1945.  New York: HarperFestival, 1993.

Kushner, Tony. The Art of Maurice Sendak: 1980 to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003.

Lanes, Selma G. The Art of Maurice Sendak. 1980. New York: Abradale Press/Harry N. Abrams, 1993.

Marcus, Leonard S., editor. Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work. New York: Abrams, 2013.

Nel, Philip. Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, September 2012.

—. Telephone interview with Maurice Sendak. 22 June 2001.

Numeroff, Laura Joffe.  If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.  Illustrated by Felicia Bond.  New York: HarperCollins, 1985.

Sendak, Maurice.  In the Night Kitchen. 1970. HarperCollins, 1995.

—. Outside Over There. New York: HarperCollins, 1981.

—. “Ruth Krauss and Me: A Very Special Partnership.” The Horn Book Magazine 70.3 (May-June 1994): 286-90.

—. We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

—. Where the Wild Things Are. 1963. HarperCollins, 1988.

Tatar, Maria.  “Wilhelm Grimm/Maurice Sendak: Dear Mili and the Literary Culture of Childhood.” The Reception of Grimms’ Fairy Tales: Responses, Reactions, Revisions. Ed. Donald Haase. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993. 207-229.

“Uncensored — Maurice Sendak Tribute & ‘I Am a Pole (And So Can You!)’ Release.” The Colbert Report 8 May 2012. <http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/413972/may-08-2012/uncensored—maurice-sendak-tribute—-i-am-a-pole–and-so-can-you—-release>.

Zarin, Cynthia. “Not Nice.” New Yorker 17 Apr. 2006. Literary Reference Center. Web. 2 July 2013.


A different variation on the argument presented above will appear as “Wild Things, I Think I Love You: Maurice Sendak, Ruth Krauss, and Childhood” in PMLA 129.1 (Jan. 2014).


The Niblings on Where the Wild Things Are at 50


More on Sendak (mostly on this blog)

Comments (1)

“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.

More about Marc Simont:

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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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One year later: Maurice Sendak (June 10, 1928 – May 8, 2012)

Maurice Sendak, Chertoff Mural (1961)

On the first anniversary of Maurice Sendak’s passing, I’ve gathered here some posts for those who want to consider what he has meant and continues to mean — as an artist, a writer, and (for those who knew him) a friend.  It’s strange to think that it’s been a full year since he passed away. It was odd, in my classes this semester, to call him “the late Maurice Sendak.” He had always seemed eternal, though no person can be. His work, of course, is eternal. And that’s a consolation.

Also consoling, even joyous, is the imminent publication (next month) of Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and his Work (edited by Leonard Marcus). Earlier this year brought us Sendak’s last completed work, My Brother’s Book, a tribute to William Blake and Sendak’s brother Jack. I expect that, at some point, we may see the publication of his truly last (and not-quite-finished) work, No-Nose, which Catherine Keener read at his memorial service last July.  (Sendak finished the text, but not all of the art.)  Until then, we have his rich and powerful body of work to read and re-read, taking us to the land of the wild things and back again. And again.

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Annotating My Brother’s Book: Some initial thoughts on Sendak’s use of Blake’s pictorial language. A guest post by Mark Crosby

In his foreword to My Brother’s Book (2012), Stephen Greenblatt suggests that Shakespeare is the major influence on Maurice Sendak’s final competed work.  But Blake loomed much larger in Sendak’s visual imagination.  He collected rare Blake manuscripts, drawings, watercolors, illuminated books, and prints, read biographies of Blake, and studied his art and poetry.  In this series of annotations (below), Blake scholar Mark Crosby shows us how Blake illuminates Sendak’s My Brother’s Book.


In terms of the visual narrative trajectory, Sendak reconfigures aspects of Blake’s visual language to chart the transition from the realm of innocence to the harsh world of experience (a transition that is, for Blake, always marked by some form of loss).

Front Cover:

Sendak juxtaposes the beautiful, a woodland scene possibly atop a hill, with the sublime of a subterranean cavern or hollow beneath that looks out on a field of stars surrounding a red sphere. The vignette not only invokes Blake’s frequent juxtaposition of pastoral landscapes with the (subterranean) sublime, such as the title page of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, but also introduces the key visual motifs of stars and red sphere (sun?) that recur throughout Sendak’s book. Both motifs are conspicuous in Blake’s pictorial language.

William Blake, Title-page, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, copy H (1790-3)
Maurice Sendak, My Brother's Book (2012): cover
William Blake, Title-page, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, copy H (1790-3)
Maurice Sendak, My Brother’s Book (2012): cover

Blake deploys spheres of differing sizes throughout his pictorial work. In illuminated books such as The (First) Book of Urizen, they often represent the primordial (material) state of the titular Urizen, watched over by Los — the fallen form of Urthona, who in Blake’s mythopoetic system represents the imagination. (Many critics interpret Los as Blake’s poetic/pictorial avatar).

Plate 8, Song of Los, copy A (1795)
William Blake, Plate 11, The Book of Urizen, copy A (1794)
Blake, Plate 8, Song of Los, copy A (1795)
Blake, Plate 11, The Book of Urizen, copy A (1794)

In these instances, the spheres have a negative charge as they are objects of containment. In Blake’s longest illuminated book, Jerusalem, Blake uses spheres more positively as sources of light.

William Blake, Plate1, Song of Los (1795)
William Blake, Plate 97, Jerusalem (c. 1820)
Blake, Plate1, Song of Los, (1795)
Blake, Plate 97, Jerusalem (c. 1820)

Frontispiece:

Sendak’s depiction of two slumbering, clothed males in a pastoral setting under a radiating sun calls to mind Blake’s positive use of sphere imagery. The sleeping brothers, Jack and Guy, have a number of visual referents in Blake. When depicted in a pastoral setting, Blake’s sleeping figures are sometimes associated with animals (sheep, lions) such as Songs of Innocence, America A Prophecy and The Song of Los. In Blake’s visual language, these images represent the realm of innocence, where the ideals of play, spontaneity, and intimacy with nature haven’t yet been corrupted.  Sendak’s use of these Blakean motifs in the frontispiece similarly suggests that the slumbering brothers inhabit a pre-lapsarian realm, although they are clothed unlike many of Blake’s pre-lapsarian figures.

William Blake, America A Prophecy
Maurice Sendak, My Brother's Book (2012): frontispiece
Blake, America A Prophecy
Sendak, My Brother’s Book (2012): frontispiece
William Blake, The Song of Los
William Blake, Songs of Innocence
Blake, The Song of Los
Blake, Songs of Innocence

Sendak visually signals the end of innocence and the transition to experience in the next illustration, which compositionally draws on Blake’s depiction of himself in Milton (c. 1804-1811).  By modeling Jack’s pose after the figure of ‘William’, leaning backwards at the waist with his arms in a cruciform pose (a pose that Blake uses to denote sacrifice), Sendak is not only drawing parallels between ‘Jack’ and ‘William’ but also invoking what is a transformative moment in this particular illuminated book. In Milton, this illustration depicts a revelatory experience for the narrator that marks a transition from one perceptionary state to another, a complex and more visionary state involving the amelioration of the titular Milton into the poetic consciousness of Blake’s narrator.

William Blake, Plate 29, Milton copy B (1811)
Maurice Sendak, My Brother's Book (2012): "On a bleak midwinter's night" William Blake, Plate 33, Milton copy B (1811)
Blake, Plate 29, Milton copy B (1811)
Sendak, My Brother’s Book (2012), p. 9: “On a bleak midwinter’s night”
Blake, Plate 33, Milton copy B (1811)

Like Blake, Sendak also provides a counterpart to Jack’s cruciform pose with Guy’s mirrored pose on p. 15. On plate of 33 Milton, Blake provides a counterpart to the illustration of ‘William’, depicting ‘Robert,’ Blake’s brother, in a mirror pose. In both designs, stars are falling into their right feet. Compositionally, Sendak’s illustration on p. 15 seems also indebted to Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Children (1819-22/3).

Goya, Saturn Devouring His Children (1819-22)
Maurice Sendak, My Brother's Book (2012): "Into the lair of a bear"
Goya, Saturn Devouring His Children (1819-22)
Sendak, My Brother’s Book (2012), p. 15: “Into the lair of a bear”

Sendak’s use of these particular poses suggests similarities between Jack and Guy’s fraternal relationship and William and Robert’s. While Robert Blake died at 24, he became a source of creative inspiration for Blake. In 1788, a year after Robert’s death, Blake claimed that his brother visited him in a dream and gave him instructions for illuminated printing: the method he used to create his illuminated books. Sendak’s use of these specific poses hints at a similar creatively productive relationship between Sendak and his brother.

Page 11: Sendak’s depiction of Jack and Guy separated by a sublime landscape (tempestuous ocean, mountains of ice) invokes particular aspects of the narrative trajectory of Blake’s mythopoetic system.  For Blake, the fall comes through division, the splintering of a unified entity into enclosed selfhoods.  Once separated these selfhoods, which Blake calls ‘Zoas’, typically remain closed off from each other, perceiving existence through limited, subjective vision. Sendak’s depiction of one brother in profile, hands covering his face, while the other brother is frozen behind a wall of ice, suggests the negative impact of subjective perception or, as Blake would call it, single vision. Sendak also gestures to way that Blake conceived of the transition from youth (innocence) to adulthood (experience) as fundamentally about loss. The two brothers have lost each other, their perceptions of each other as well as, by implication, their innocence.

William Blake, America A Prophecy, copy E
Maurice Sendak, My Brother's Book (2012): "While Guy wheeled round in the steep air"
Blake, America A Prophecy copy E
Sendak, My Brother’s Book (2012), p. 13: “While Guy wheeled round in the steep air”

p. 13: For the composition of the central figure, Sendak draws on Blake’s frequent use of clothed (skin tight, all-in-one suits) or nude figures with arms raised, typically in an elevated cruciform pose (the symbol of Christological sacrifice), and appearing to ascend.  In ‘Laughing Song’, from Songs of Innocence Blake depicts a young boy, facing away, with arms raised. The title page of Visions of the Daughters of Albion has a nude figure facing forward with arms raised, while we see variations of this figure on the title pages of America and plate 2 of VDA, and Moses Indignant at the Gold Calf. With the possible exception of America, these figures inhabit or represent the realm of innocence. Sendak suggests that this brother has yet to make the transition to experience by depicting Jack in a pastoral setting.

William Blake, Songs of Innocence
William Blake, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, copy A (1793)
Blake, Songs of Innocence
Blake, Visions of the Daughters of Albion copy A (1793)
William Blake, Visions of the Daughters of Albion
William Blake, Moses Indignant at the Gold Calf (1799-1800)
Blake, Visions of the Daughters of Albion
Blake, Moses Indignant at the Gold Calf (1799-1800)

William Blake, Plate 14, The Book of Urizen, copy A (1794)pp. 19/23/29:  Sendak’s depiction of Guy diving ‘through time so vast’ on page 23 draws on Blake’s depiction of a muscular nude (possibly Los) diving into an abyss. There are numerous cosmic journeys in Blake’s poetic oeuvre, such as the narrator’s journey from caverns to the far reaches of the universe in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Milton’s journey from eternity to Blake’s cottage in Milton. In Blake’s design, the figure is holding onto rocks, which denote material existence.  Sendak’s depiction of figures partially obscured by horizontal lines on pp. 19/29 recalls Blake’s use of this technique in The Book of Urizen to suggest containment.

Maurice Sendak, My Brother's Book (2012): "Guy slipped dutifully into the maw of the great bear"
William Blake, Plate 4, The Book of Urizen, copy A (1794)
Sendak, My Brother’s Book (2012), p. 23: “Guy slipped dutifully into the maw of the great bear”
Blake, Plates 14 and 4, The Book of Urizen, copy A (1794)

p. 31: Sendak returns to the pastoral in this design, with the slumbering brothers in poses that compositionally echo the frontispiece as well as Blake’s numerous slumbering figures. The brothers are clothed again, in what appear to be flowing semi-transparent robes that draw on Blake’s regular use of diaphanous or semi-transparent robes in his illuminated books and watercolour designs, including his illustrations to Milton.  While Sendak sets the brothers in a pastoral realm, this seems to be a different from that depicted in the frontispiece and may relate to Blake’s illustration on plate 19 of Jerusalem: a realm of soft delusions that numbs creative agency.

William Blake, Mirth (1816-1820)
Blake, Plate 19, Jerusalem, copy E (c. 1820)
Blake, Mirth (1816-1820)
Blake, Plate 19, Jerusalem, copy E (c. 1820)

All Blake images are from the William Blake Archive. All Sendak images are from his My Brother’s Book (Michael di Capua/HarperCollins, 2012).


Mark Crosby is co-author, with Robert N. Essick, of the first critical edition of William Blake’s Genesis manuscript (University of California Press, 2012) and is co-editor of Re-envisioning Blake (Palgrave, 2012). He is Assistant Professor of English at Kansas State University, and the bibliographer and associate editor for the William Blake Archive, the largest and most comprehensive free to access digital repository of Blake’s works on the web.

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