Archive for Maurice Sendak

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)

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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 (1943) 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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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.

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Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: a mix

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)Here is a mix to celebrate the publication of my new biography, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (2012).  Its official publication date is today (Sept. 1st), though it’s actually been available for a few weeks now. Given my own interest in music, it’s curious that I know relatively little about the musical tastes of Johnson and Krauss. So, while this mix does include some music they liked, it’s organized more by themes — each of which can be explored more fully in my book.

1)     Take the “A” Train  Duke Ellington (1941)      2:56

Crockett Johnson listened to Duke Ellington, and so did Mr. O’Malley. In response to a strip in which Barnaby’s Fairy Godfather enjoys an Ellington record, the composer himself wrote to PM (the newspaper where Barnaby first appeared) to express his admiration for the strip. Johnson owned the LP set The Duke.

2)     The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)  Simon & Garfunkel (1966)            1:43

Johnson was born in 1906 at 444 East 58th Street, a block south of where the 59th Street Bridge was under construction. Though this song (like many on this mix) was released long after his childhood, Simon’s lyric makes me think of the imaginative, dreaming boy who became Crockett Johnson.

3)     Baltimore Fire  Charlie Poole (1929)      3:12

In February 1904, the Great Baltimore Fire destroyed more than 1500 buildings in the city’s downtown business district. Ruth (who turned 3 that year) and her family were far enough north to escape the flames, but memories of the blaze stayed with her. She had a life-long fear of house fires, and kept her manuscripts in the freezer (as a precaution).

4)     Violin  They Might Be Giants (2002)      2:27

When she was growing up, Krauss played the violin. She was a creative player, but not exactly an accomplished one. Her avant-garde poetry (from later in her career) makes me think that she might have enjoyed this song’s Dadaist sense of humor.

5)     If I Had a Boat  Lyle Lovett (1987)      3:09

The sense of humor and associative logic of “If I Had a Boat” might also appeal to Krauss; the other reason for its inclusion is Johnson’s love of sailing.

6)     I Sing I Swim  Seabear (2007)      3:40

Krauss enjoyed swimming. Johnson sometimes joined her. The bio. includes a photo of the two of them, in bathing suits, on a beach — perhaps just before a swim?

7)     Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?  Buddy Johnson (1952)      2:18

Both Ruth and Dave (Johnson’s given name, and the one his friends used) supported civil rights for African-Americans. Johnson, a sports fan, joined the End Jim Crow in Baseball Committee in 1945. In 1947, Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first black player in the American Major Leagues.

8)     A Cup of Coffee and a Cigarette  Jerry Irby (1947); intro. by Bob Dylan (2006)            3:26

Both Ruth and Dave drank coffee, and he smoked.

9)     Coffee in the Morning (Kisses in the Night)  The Boswell Sisters (1933)            2:57

He probably needed the coffee a bit more than she did: he was nocturnal, often working until sunrise, going to bed, and then getting up for breakfast at lunchtime.

“The Midnight Special” and other Southern Prison Songs, performed by Leadbelly and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet10)  The Midnight Special  Leadbelly and The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet (1940)      3:08

Johnson and Krauss had the LP set, “The Midnight Special” and other Southern Prison Songs, performed by Leadbelly and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet.

11)  Talking Union  The Almanac Singers (1941)      3:06

An active supporter of labor unions, Johnson would likely have known this song.

12)  The House I Live In  The Ravens (1949)      3:04

An anthem of the Popular Front (and a hit single for Frank Sinatra in 1945), “The House I Live In” was certainly known by Johnson and Krauss. It was written by Earl Robinson and Lewis Allan (pseudonym of Abel Meeropol) — Meeropol/Allen was a leftist better remembered today for writing the anti-lynching song, “Strange Fruit,” which Billie Holiday began performing (and first recorded) in 1939. Though I have found no evidence of it, I would not be surprised if Johnson knew Meeropol: they shared a political outlook, and moved in some of the same New York circles.

13)  Homegrown Tomatoes  Guy Clark (1983)      2:59

Barnaby isn’t the only one who had a Victory Garden. Johnson did, too. After moving to Connecticut in the early 1940s, he enjoyed gardening. By the 1950s he began to favor other pursuits.

14)  Mr. O’Malley and Barnaby  Frank Morgan & Norma Jean Nilsson (1945)            0:07

This, the first of several adaptations of Barnaby, appeared on the 12 June 1945 Frank Morgan Show.

The Carrot Seed (art by Crockett Johnson)15)  The Carrot Seed  Norman Rose (1950)      5:36

The classic adaptation of Ruth Krauss’s 1945 picture book (with art and design by Crockett Johnson).

16)  You Be You and I’ll Be Me  The Free Design (1969)      2:42

The Free Design’s song title seems too close to Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak’s I’ll Be You and You Be Me (1954) to be a coincidence, but it of course may well be just that.

17)  What a Dog / He’s a Tramp  Peggy Lee & Oliver Wallace (1955)      2:25

Johnson loved his dogs, and was quite content to let them be their doggy selves.

18) Dog  Bob Dorough (1966)      3:27

19) Onomatopoeia  Todd Rundgren (1978)      1:35

Krauss had a great ear for the sound of words, something you see (and hear) both in her books based on the spontaneous utterances of children and in her later verse.

Crockett Johnson, Merry Go Round (1958)20)  Carousel (La valse à mille temps)  Elly Stone, Wolfgang Knittel (1968)            3:30

Johnson and Krauss owned the LP Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, on which this song appears. I expect it was more her choice than his. I’ve also included the song in tribute to Johnson’s least-known (and most experimental) book, Merry Go Round.

21)  Get Happy  Art Tatum (1940)      2:46

Mr. O’Malley wasn’t the only one who enjoyed boogie-woogie piano. Johnson liked it, too. He owned the LP Decca Presents Art Tatum, which includes this song.  ”Happy” also has a nice resonance with The Happy Day (1949), Krauss’s collaboration with Marc Simont.

22)  Comic Strip  Serge Gainsbourg (1968)      2:12

I don’t have a recording of “Mr. O’Malley’s March,” and so instead here is a playful tribute to the comic strip medium.

23)  Pies for the Public  Zoë Lewis (1998)      4:57

“So he laid out a nice simple picnic lunch. There was nothing but pie. But there were all nine kinds of pie that Harold liked best.”

24)  The Books I Like to Read  Frances England (2006)      2:13

This tribute to picture books begins with Where the Wild Things Are (written by Johnson and Krauss’s friend) and name-checks Harold and the Purple Crayon.

Carole King, Really Rosie (art by Maurice Sendak)25)  Alligators All Around  Carole King (1975)      1:54

In recognition of how important Maurice Sendak is to the biography, here is a song based on his book of the same name.

26)  Wake Up (Where The Wild Things Are version)  Arcade Fire (2009)      1:39

It’s impossible to stress enough Maurice’s role in this — both in their lives, and in mine. I wish I could thank him once more.

27)  Neverending Math Equation  Sun Kil Moon (2005)      2:53

During the last decade of his life, Johnson painted tributes to great mathematical theorems and even worked out a couple theorems of his own.

28)  Garden of Your Mind  melodysheep feat. Mr. Rogers (2011)      3:07

The works of Johnson and Krauss inspire us to think and to imagine.

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Tributes to Maurice Sendak: Visual Artists Respond

Fitting that the passing of an artist should inspire so much art.  Here are a few tributes to Maurice Sendak that I’ve enjoyed. (I’ve assembled links to prose tributes at the bottom of my reminiscence of Maurice; The Comics Journal has its own page of mostly prose tributes, too.)


Pat Bagley

Pat Bagley, tribute to Maurice Sendak

This is easily my favorite, and the one that I think Sendak himself would most have enjoyed. Pat Bagley dos a great job in representing Sendak’s un-sentimental approach to death. Sendak often spoke of his own mortality, and accepted the inevitable with a dark sense of humor.


Hanna Freiderichs (a.k.a. AgarthanGuide)

Avengers on Parade (RIP Maurice Sendak) by AgarthanGuide
Under her Deviant Art pseudonym ArgathanGuide, Hanna Friederichs has created Avengers in a Sendakian parade.  You can find it on her Deviant Art page and Tumblr.  The image calls to mind Sendak’s many parades — in Ruth Krauss’s A Hole Is to Dig (1952), and his own Where the Wild Things Are (1963). The above image derives from a less well-known source: his 1961 mural for Larry and Nina Chertoff that now resides in the Rosenbach Museum.

Maurice Sendak, Chertoff Mural (1961)
The photo of Sendak’s mural, above, comes from The History Blog‘s great story about it, which I recommend.

Update, 13 May, 9:30 am: Thanks to Roger Sutton’s post, added Hanna Friederichs’ full name.


Harry Bliss

Harry Bliss, Sendak

Harry Bliss‘s graveside portrait of Babar, Madeline, Curious George, and the Man with the Yellow Hat evokes how everyone in the children’s literature community has felt — artists, scholars, writers, librarians, teachers, editors, agents, all of us.  Losing Maurice Sendak has felt like a death in the family.  As Kenneth Kidd put it, “Could be the select company I keep, but my Facebook newsfeed is a virtual wake.”


Debbie Milbrath

Deb Milbrath, RIP Mr. Sendak

Most artists invoke Where the Wild Things Are (presumably because it’s Sendak’s most recognizable work), but Debbie Milbrath references a more thematically appropriate work: Outside Over There (1981), in which Sendak filters the kidnapping (and accidental murder of) the Lindbergh baby through Mozart’s Magic Flute,  and ends up with a work that offers glimmers of hope through its darkness.


Andy Marlette

Andy Marlette, Where the Wild Things Are

Andy Marlette imagines wild things paying tribute to Maurice Sendak.  There were many such cartoons — I’ve only included a few here.


Jeff Koterba

Jeff Koterba color cartoon for 5/9/2012 "Sendak"

Jeff Koterba makes Sendak into Max, apt since — as Sendak has admitted — Max is a version of Maurice himself.  I suspect Sendak intended an allusion to Wilhelm Busch’s Max und Moritz (1865).


Nate Beeler

Nate Beeler, [RIP Maurice Sendak]

Nate Beeler imagines roaring terrible roars and gnashing terrible teeth — a first response to Maurice Sendak’s passing.  The first stage of grief.


Bob Englehart

Bob Englehart, [Max and wild thing]

 In Bob Englehart‘s image, a wild thing comforts Max.

Sarah McIntyre

Sarah McIntyre, [Max and wild thing]

I like that Sarah McIntyre has drawn the wild thing seeking comfort from Max. The kid is handling it better than the monstrous, giant, wild thing. Sendak always said that children understood much more than adults give them credit for.


Chris Eliopoulos

Chris Eliopoulos, [Max alone]

Understated, lovely.  The creator of Misery Loves Sherman, Chris Eliopoulos has many different websites to visit.


Mark Streeter

Mark Streeter, And the Wild Things Cried

Mark Streeter‘s comic says what Chris Eliopoulos’s implies — but Eliopoulos assumes a knowing reader, and Streeter does not. Strange though it may seem to those of us in children’s literature, there are people who do not know Maurice Sendak’s work.


Stuart Carlson

Stuart Carlson, RIP

Stuart Carlson‘s tribute seems an apt one to end on. First, mourn. Next, hang your teddy bear, threaten the dog, shout at your mother, and board a boat (… to where the wild things are).

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

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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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Children’s Literature + Music = Great Album Covers

Many children’s writers and illustrators have created covers for albums.  Below, we’ll look at a dozen or so of these artists.  As is ever the case with any art posted on this website, the artwork belongs to the artists.  Visit their websites!  Buy prints!  Buy their books!  (I’ve included websites for each artist.)  Enjoy!


Saul Bass

Recently republished, Bass‘s Henri’s Walk to Paris (1962, words by Leonore Klein) is fantastic. If he did other children’s books, I’m unaware of them. He did, however, do many famous album covers.  Here are his covers for Elmer Bernstein’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1956), Duke Ellington’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story (soundtrack, 1961).

The Man with the Golden Arm soundtrack (art by Saul Bass)

Anatomy of a Murder (art by Saul Bass)

West Side Story soundtrack (art by Saul Bass)


Guy Billout

The author-illustrator of The Frog Who Wanted to See the Sea (2007) and Something’s Not Quite Right (2002), Billout has also done album covers. I’m reproducing one below — Crack the Sky’s Animal Notes (1976).  I know I’ve seen other covers, but just cant put my finger on where I’ve seen them.

Crack the Sky, Animal Notes (art by Guy Billout)


R. Gregory Christie

Christie has won Coretta Scott King Honor Awards for his children’s books Palm of My Heart: Poetry by African-American Children (1996), Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth (2000), and Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan (2006). Here are his covers for Justice System’s Rooftop Soundcheck (1994) and John Coltrane’s Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (1997).

Justice System, Rooftop Soundcheck (art by R. Gregory Christie)

John Coltrane, Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (art by R. Gregory Christie)
Hat tip to Jules Walker Danielson for this one! And check out her interview with Christie at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.


Marcel Dzama

As far as I know, Dzama has illustrated only one children’s book — They Might Be Giants’ Bed Bed Bed (2003). Admittedly, that makes him a less likely candidate than most of the other artists included here.  Here are his covers for the Weakerthans’ Reconstruction Site (2003), Beck’s Guero (2005), and They Might Be Giants’ The Else (2007)

The Weakerthans, Reconstruction Site (art by Marcel Dzama)

Beck, Guero (art by Marcel Dzama)

They Might Be Giants, The Else (art by Marcel Dzama)


Carson Ellis

Ellis (married to the Decemberists’ front man, Colin Meloy) has created many Decemberists album covers, as well as a few for other artists.  More recently, she’s worked on some cool children’s books, illustrating the late Florence Parry Heide’s Dilweed’s Revenge (2010), Lemony Snicket’s The Composer Is Dead (2009), and Meloy’s Wildwood (2011), among others.

Here are three covers she’s done for the Decemberists.

Her Majesty The Decemberists (art by Carson Ellis)

The Decemberists, Hazards of Love (art by Carson Ellis)

The Decemberists, The King Is Dead (art by Carson Ellis)

And here’s the cover she did for Laura Viers’ July Flame (2010).

Laura Viers, July Flame (art by Carson Ellis)

Much, much more on Ellis’s website!  Also: Jules Walker Danielson did a great (and lavishly illustrated) interview with Ellis over on Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.  Indeed, if you care about children’s picture books, you must read Danielson’s blog — preferably, as frequently as you can.


Jim Flora

Flora had a long career designing album covers before the record industry’s preference for photographic covers (in the 1950s, at any rate) reduced demand for his work. At that point, he turned to children’s books, writing such loopy classics as The Fabulous Firework Family (1955), The Day the Cow Sneezed (1957) and many others.  Irwin Chusid has written (and co-written) some super books on Flora, and maintains a great Flora website, from which I’ve taken the following covers: Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer’s Bix and Tram (1947), Gene Krupa and His Orchestra (1947), and Mambo for Cats (1955).

Bix and Tram (art by James Flora)

Gene Krupa and His Orchestra (art by James Flora)

Mambo for Cats (art by James Flora)

You can buy prints of Flora’s album covers (and other artwork) from the website.


Crockett Johnson

I’m mostly avoiding children’s records, but Johnson‘s art for the adaptation of Ruth Krauss’s The Carrot Seed (1950) differs from the cover he did for the book (1945, which he also illustrated).  So, I thought I’d bend my rule a little and include it here.  The recording was performed by baritone-voiced Broadway actor Norman Rose, and was released by Young People’s Records and the Children’s Record Guild.

The Carrot Seed (art by Crockett Johnson)


Richard McGuire

McGuire is a renaissance man.  He wrote and (with his band, Liquid Liquid) performed “Cavern,” the song that became the music for the classic hip-hop track “White Lines,” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.  He’s created one of the most innovative experiments in comics, “Here” (1989).  He’s created four picture books, including The Orange Book (1993) and What Goes Around Comes Around (1995).  And that’s not to mention his work in film or his New Yorker covers.  Here’s his cover for Liquid Liquid’s compilation Slip in & Out of Phenomenon (2008).

Liquid Liquid, Slip in & Out of the Phenomenon (art by Richard McGuire)


Dave McKean

The prolific Dave McKean is best known for his many collaborations with Neil Gaiman.  But he’s done lots more, including album covers.  Here are his covers for Counting Crows’ This Desert Life (1999), and the UK release of Tori Amos’s single, “God” (1994).

Counting Crows, This Desert Life (art by Dave McKean)

Tori Amos, "God" (art by Dave McKean)

Hat tip, again, to Jules Walker Danielson, whose interview with McKean you should check out — it has lots of art, and even more album covers.  Indeed, the album covers you see here were lifted from her interview.


Maurice Sendak

The greatest living author-artist of children’s books has done a few album covers — many in the early 1950s, but a few later in his career, too. Here’s his art for Cynthia Gooding Sings Turkish and Spanish Folk Songs (1953), Carole King’s Really Rosie (1975, lyrics by Sendak), and Shawn Colvin’s Holiday Songs and Lullabies (1988).

Cynthia Gooding Sings Turkish and Spanish Folk Songs (art by Maurice Sendak)

Carole King, Really Rosie (art by Maurice Sendak)

Shawn Colvin, Holiday Songs and Lullabies (art by Maurice Sendak)


Shel Silverstein

People remember Silverstein primarily for his many children’s books, but he was also a Playboy cartoonist, and songwriter — Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” and Dr. Hook’s “On the Cover of Rolling Stone” were both Silverstein songs.  He recorded several albums of his songs for adults, including Drain My Brain (1967), for which he also created the cover below.

Shel Silverstein, Drain My Brain (art by Shel Silverstein)


Lane Smith

In 1983, Smith created album covers for the Dickies’ Stukas Over Disneyland and Oingo Bongo’s Good for Your Soul.

The Dickies, Stukas Over Disneyland (art by Lane Smith) Oingo Boingo, Good for Your Soul (art by Lane Smith)

He’s posted both of these and one other on his abandoned blog, Lane Smith’s Closet: Illustrations from My Drawers.  His other abandoned blogs are also great, but Curious Pages (co-curated with Bob Shea) is fantastic.


Art Spiegelman

Best known for his Pulitzer-Prize-winning Maus, Spiegelman has also worked on a few children’s books, including Open Me… I’m a Dog! (1997), and Jack in the Box (2008).  Here’s his art for Spiked! The Music of Spike Jones, which includes liner notes from Thomas Pynchon (!).

Spiked! The Music of Spike Jones (artwork by Art Spiegelman)


Mark Alan Stamaty

Better known for his cartoons, Stamaty has created a few children’s books, including: Who Needs Donuts? (1973), Minnie Maloney & Macaroni (1976), and Where’s My Hippopotamus? (1985). He also created the artwork for They Might Be Giants’ first album (1986).

They Might Be Giants (art by Mark Alan Stamaty)


Chris Ware

Sure, Mr. Ware is primarily known for his comics & graphic novels, but he did contribute “Fairy Tale Road Rage” to the first volume of Art Spiegelman and François Mouly’s Little Lit, he writes eloquently about childhood, and… well, I like his work.  In addition to other book covers, New Yorker covers (and covers for other magazines), brilliant design work for Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly, he’s done a fair few album covers.  Here is his art for the Beau Hunks’ Manhattan Minuet (1996) and Reginald R. Robinson’s Euphonic Sounds (1998).

The Beau Hunks Sextette, Manhattan Minuet (art by Chris Ware)

Reginald R. Robinson, Euphonic Sounds (art by Chris Ware)

The Hammer Gallery’s Ware site has art for sale.


I assembled this page when I should have been doing other work.  Have I missed some artists of children’s books who also worked on album covers?  Yes, certainly.  Will people point this out in the comments section, below?  I certainly hope so!  Isn’t that what comments sections are for?

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