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interviews with or documentaries on Sendak, and (2) nine quotations from interviews with Sendak (including one from an unpublished conversation with me).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


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



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


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


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


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


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


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.”


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


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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Going Back to High School — 90 Years Back

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: coverWhat was high school like 90 years ago?  This Newtown High School Handbook provides some sense of what it was like in Newtown, Queens in 1921, when Crockett Johnson (a.k.a. David Leisk) was a student there.  No yearbooks from the Newtown class of 1924 (Johnson’s graduating class) survive, but plenty of things do: The Queens Public Library’s Long Island History Division has a class of ’24 photo, and one issue of the Newtown H.S. Lantern from the period. Via eBay, I obtained other copies of the Lantern — in which you can find Crockett Johnson’s earliest cartoons (see this earlier blog post on the subject).  Reading through copies of the Daily Star (the local paper) also helped.

I had to do a lot more of this sort of work for Crockett Johnson than I did for Ruth Krauss. She wrote about herself, and attended private schools that kept records. He did not write about himself and attended public schools. The children of the wealthy leave more traces than the children of the working class.  Anyway, this little book only yielded a couple of paragraphs in The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (forthcoming 2012 from the University Press of Mississippi), but it’s a fascinating document.

At 5 ½ in. (14.5 cm.) tall x 3 3/8 in. (8.5 cm.) wide x ¼ in. (7 mm.) thick, the book fits easily into a pocket — which perhaps contributed to the rounded and slightly frayed edges of my copy.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 2-3

Note that the aims include “Training for American citizenship” (patriotic), “Training for a life career” (vocational), and “Training for service” (civic).  I’m not sure whether Newtown High School still publishes a handbook, but the school’s website now describes it as “a school that consists of ambitious and intellectual students who are willing to do the best they can in order to accomplish their goals in life.”  That strikes me as roughly parallel to the “aims” section of the handbook.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 4-5

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 8-9

Then, the school day began at 8:55 a.m. and ended at 2:57 p.m.  Now, the day begins at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 3:51 p.m. – about 1 hour and 20 minutes longer than it used to be.  So, whether education now is less rigorous than it once was (as some contend), students at Newtown do receive it for a greater period of time than they once did.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 12-13

I find this inter-period exercise drill fascinating:

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 16-17

Also: though regimented nature of the “two-minute drill” has an oddly military flavor, a little calisthenics between periods strikes me as a promising idea.  It would help wake students up a bit.  I know that, as a student, I often needed a bit of waking up.  (Since adolescence, I’ve been chronically short of sleep.)

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 18-19

Note the expectations conveyed by “Home Study” and “Employment,” above.  The handbook recommends 2-3 hours (no more, no less) of study each day.  Students seeking remunerative employment “after school or on Saturdays” need to be at least 16 years old.  If they are not, then they require “working certificates.”  And check out the strict prohibition against cheating (below): “Any pupil detected in cheating will receive ZERO FOR ALL HIS TESTS THIS SESSION.”  They don’t mess around at Newtown.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 20-21

The current Newtown High School’s rules has a prohibition against cell phones.  In 1921, “The office telephone may not be used for any other than official business.  Pupil will not be summoned to answer any telephone  calls whatever; nor will telephone messages be delivered to pupils except in cases of extreme emergency, and then only through the principal.”

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 22-23

And the curriculum! Unlike today’s Newtown High School, there’s Biology, Chemistry,…

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 24-25

… and Freehand Drawing. Given his work for the school literary magazine and his later success as “Crockett Johnson,” I imagine that young Dave Leisk took these classes.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 26-27

More curricula: Mechanical Drawing, General Science,…

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 28-29

… History and Civics, and Household Arts — which, you’ll note, “may be elected by girls in all courses, as a substitute for an academic subject, and counts toward graduation.”  Just by girls, mind you.  Boys have to take the “academic subjects.”

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 30-31

The “Cookery and nursing” course in Household Arts “aims to make the girl a good homemaker and enthusiastic expert in home administration, who will put new life and interest into the old story of ‘Cooking’ and ‘Housekeeping.”  Ah, socialization — and, very likely, one reason that you’ve heard of Crockett Johnson, but not of his sister Else.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 32-33

On to English!  As a professor of English, I’m most intrigued by the one I don’t understand: “U — Unity.  Rewrite the sentence.”  Although I’ve certainly encountered sentences that lack unity, this directive doesn’t convey why the sentence lacks unity.  And I get a big kick out of “MS — Manuscript Slovenly.”  Sure, we’ve all seen these, but I expect that few of us have used this particular locution to describe their substandard condition.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 34-35

Following these rules, a “Spelling List” extends for eight pages, with groups of words in sub-lists identified by different types of common errors … all of which are (sadly) common at the college level today.  You can see the first two types above (“Possessives,” “Apostrophe for Omission”).  Below, “Capitals,” “Groups,” “EI and IE,” “Compounds,” and “Homonyms”:

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 36-37

That Newtown High School was racially integrated makes particularly interesting the inclusion (in the 7th item of “Groups”) of “mulattoes, negroes.”  Such words would have been viewed as “neutral” to the faculty who assembled the handbook — “mulatto” indicated someone of “mixed race,” and “negro” described someone “black” or “African-American.”  I’m placing all of these racial terms in inverted commas because they’re social constructs: When it comes to human beings, “race” is purely imaginary (we’re all part of the human race).  However, as this handbook suggests, people deploy such imaginary categories in very real ways.  That two of fourteen examples are racial classifications suggest that these racial designations were in common use.

In addition to serving as a grammar textbook, the Newtown High School Handbook was a literary anthology.  Its “Memory Selections” offer a sense of what were considered “canonical” literary works for high school students in 1921:

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 42-43

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 44-45

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 44-45

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 48-49

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 50-51

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 52-53

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 54-55

Here’s a breakdown of canonical works by author:

  • 3 from William Wordsworth.
  • 2 from Robert Louis Stevenson, William Shakespeare.
  • 1 from Samuel Francis Smith, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, James Russell Lowell, John McCrae, Robert Browning, Francis Scott Key, Henry Van Dyke, Edmund Vance Cooke, George Eliot, Thomas Gray, Abraham Lincoln, John Masefield, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Edward Rowland Sill, John Milton, Daniel Webster, Josiah Gilbert Holland, Winifred Mary Letts.

By gender:

  • Works by men: 24.
  • Works by women: 2

By nationality:

  • Works by English authors: 15
  • Works by American authors: 10
  • Work by Canadian author: 1

By date:

  • The most recent works are Letts’ “The Spires of Oxford” (1916) and McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” (1915), both patriotic poems in support of the Allied effort in World War I.
  • The earliest works are the excerpts from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (c. 1603-1606) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1594-1596)

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 56-57

An on it goes, up to page 128 — the final six pages are advertisements.  Had we but world enough and time (a poem not included here), I’d take you through the second half.  But we do not.  Indeed, I would be surprised if anyone is reading these final few sentences.  This is, I know, a rather long post.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: back cover

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My Book About Me

These days, I don’t talk much about my first book.  I wrote it when I was 7 years old, in collaboration with Dr. Seuss and Roy McKie.  As you can see, I improved upon their artwork with the aid of stickers from the United Fruit Company (of whose bananas I was then an avid consumer) and the Kellogg Corporation (whose Raisin Bran I ate for breakfast).

My Book About Me by Dr. Seuss, Roy McKie, and Philip Nel, age 7.

As you will soon discover from the interior pages, the handwriting on the latter sticker is not my own (it is my mother’s).  The inflatable bunny and the safari suit (my parents are South Africans) dates the photograph to my sixth Easter.  At the book’s end, I claim to have finished the book on my seventh birthday.

Here, McKie, Seuss, and I take a look at my culinary preferences:

from My Book About Me, by Dr. Seuss, Roy McKie, and one 7-year-old Philip Nel

For those unable to decipher my distinctive crayonmanship, favorite foods then included: hamburgers, candy, fruit salad, swiss cheese, and that rare variety of pickle spelled without the “k.”  I could not stand olives.  This latter claim still holds true, although my favorites have altered.  I’m now more partial to pickles with a “k,” and have grown more discerning in my candy consumption: today, I would replace “candy” with “dark chocolate.”  I still eat swiss cheese, and plenty of fruit, and, though I enjoy a good hamburger, I would no longer rank it at the top of my list.

Interestingly, my choice of profession proved to be a remarkably accurate predictor of my current employment:

page from My Book About Me, by Roy McKie, Dr. Seuss, and a 7-year-old wunderkind known as Philip Nel

After all, the job of English Professor combines the fame of the paleontologist with the modesty of the television star.  In crossing out “TV star” and writing in “paleontologist,” I was not replacing one with the other, but rather suggesting a hybrid that is the job I now hold.  Yes, I was a prescient lad.

Though many books of this vintage (McKie and Seuss’s portions of this book were written in 1969) have been updated, I’m interested to report that this has not been.  Current editions do not replace “Airplane Stewardess” with “Flight Attendant”; nor do they subtract the now rare job of “Milkman” and replace it with, say, “Computer Programmer.”  The list of professions remains exactly as it was 41 years ago.

Finally, a sample of my developing storytelling skills, rendered in letters of varying height and legibility:

from My Book About Me, by Dr. Seuss, Roy McKie, and young storyteller Philip Nel, age 7

Indicative of the paleontology lobby’s influence on my 7-year-old imagination, the story stars a dinosaur.  For those struggling to decode my strikingly original penmanship, here is a transcription:

The Dinosaur

The Dinosaur was walking in the woods one day.  And then he saw a hunter!  And the hunters [sic] gun was ponted [sic] right at him!  And the dinosaur was! frightened.  But…………… then he walked up to the hunter and was very very very brave.  So [he] picked the hunter up by the pants and dropped him.

The end.

With the unique spellings and unusual grammar characteristic of a gifted author, the story swiftly introduces the rising action in the second sentence.  After prolonging the suspense via its deft use of ellipses, the tale concludes with a clever narrative twist that lets readers know they’re reading the work of a master storyteller.  The Dinosaur dispatches the hunter through the rarely used picking-up-by-the-pants-and-dropping technique.  Gasping in delight at this surprising but satisfying conclusion, we salute this 7-year-old wunderkind, who, fortunately, did not grow up to be a writer of fiction.

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