In October of 2007, I had the true pleasure of attending a Q&A with Maurice Sendak at Scholastic. I had written about that experience then, and am reposting/updating today in honor of his incredible life, career, and contribution to the world of literature. Note that the various links to Sendak throughout this post will take you to websites and articles about him throughout the web-o-sphere.
On Tuesday afternoon, Maurice Sendak visited Scholastic as part of its Design Forum series. The auditorium was full of eager art and design and word people (aka editors and writer), including me.
“Are you ready to jump right in?” asked David Saylor, VP and Creative Director of Scholastic Trade Books.
Maurice Sendak (with whom I am proud to share a birthday!) leaned forward in his arm chair. “Jump,” he said in a a matter-of-fact yet mischievous tone. “I want to jump!”
That was the beginning of a thrilling, funny, inspiring Q&A with the much-loved children’s book illustrator and writer, author of Where the Wild Things Are and many, many more picture books, including his most recent, the fabulous pop-up book Mommy (of whose cover he joked, “Clearly the mummy is me, the falling apart old man who is hugging the world, you. Now that we know who’s who, we can get started!)”
Sendak, who lived till the age of 83 and made his home in Connecticut, was casual and unassuming, wearing a sweatshirt, cotton pants, and Nike sneakers. He has an impeccable sense of timing in his storytelling and a meandering narrative style that I absolutely fell in love with. No matter where his answers took him, he always came back to the point–and what points he made!
During the 90 minute talk, Sendak talked about his early career in children’s book publishing. He started out at Harper Collins doing “sweet books” that were not truly his passion. He was fortunate enough to have an editor Ursula Nordstrom who fed him various book projects though while supporting and mentoring him to start doing the books he wanted to do.
When he began working on Where the Wild Things Are, the book that is synonymous with his name, he never thought of it as his masterpiece. “I just thought that it was my next book,” he said during his talk. “Plus, it was my way of getting back at all my old Jewish relatives–especially Uncle Joe–who used to visit us on Sundays in Brooklyn. One day they would look a lot like this! It was my way of getting even at them for their pinching and poking and their irrational physical treatment of kids.”
I told you he was funny! But, he’s also so unafraid to talk about the irrational and real fears that accost us as children (and let’s be honest about it, as adults too.) Actually, he told us about how the Lindbergh Kidnapping left him feeling real afraid. He thought that since he was a kid, he would also get kidnapped. During this time, he asked his father to sleep at the foot of his bed with a stick, just in case someone came to get him at night. One day, his Uncle Joe said to his father, “But why would anyone want to kidnap this kid?” Sendak paused as he told this story, then looked at the audience and said, “The ugliest character in Where the Wild Things Are - that’s my Uncle Joe! I hated him from that moment until the day that he died.”
Through all his answers, Sendak repeatedly came back to the theme of childhood. To him, this is a state of mind that should never be lost. I don’t think he tries to imagine what a child thinks or feels when he writes his books. He has held those feelings inside of himself.
“To my books I brought some of the bitterness of childhood, some of the awfulness of childhood, some of the stupidity of parents–and that’s how I made my career!,” he said.
And, that’s what makes his work so authentic, isn’t it? My friend Cari called him the “Kurt Vonnegut of children’s literature” – a title I love because yes, he is skeptical, cynical, and ironic and still, hopeful and … a dreamer.
After Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak’s success gave him more or less a green light to go in directions heretofore uncharted in the world of children’s book publishing. That doesn’t mean his work wasn’t without controversy. His books In the Night Kitchen and Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present were both challenged as being “too sexual.”
Sendak has never been one to be pushed into a corner by conservative reviewers, educators, or librarians. “That the naked rabbit leading the little girl down a forest path was deemed too sexual was infuriating. It was infuriating that the children’s publishing world reviewers would read such unwholesomeness into such an innocent book. I wasn’t going to write books for people who buy books – grandmas and librarians. Kiddos don’t buy books. But, those are the kids I write for– kids who are moved, touched, angry, really angry sometimes.”
“Children’s books often have had this thing that they’re only for kids, which underrates them,” he said. And, that’s the thing about him that really blew me away. He completely throws out the notion that children’s books should be about perfect little worlds. The world is not that, and depicting it in this way would be lying, something one gets the impression that Maurice Sendak is incapable of doing. If it’s the truth, he has to say it. That was so refreshing, in this world of tiptoeing conversations that we all live in.
Sendak also talked about the major influences on his art: number one, Randolph Caldecott and number two, Beatrix Potter.
About Caldecott, he said, “He gave you the rhyme and he slid a story under the verse. That was brilliant.”
About Beatrix Potter, he said, “There is a cruelty to her, which is marvelous. She and her brother spent hours boiling and then dissecting animals (including cats) to see what their bones looked like so that she could draw them. There’s nothing sentimental about her work, which is what’s wonderful about her. Yet her books show how deeply touched she was by the fate of her characters.”
Yeah, so, obviously I could go on and on, trying to recount the anecdotes Sendak told about letters from his readers; about what makes him afraid (“everything”); about a recent interaction with a publisher who wanted to reprint an excerpt from WTWTA but who gave him a day to review the proofs (shame shame); about the state of publishing (it’s not what it used to be,” he says). But, I don’t think I have the time to do that, and so I will end with a few quotes that stayed with me (Mr. Sendak is a very quotable man):
On required reading in high school:
My English teacher asked us to read Hamlet and I told her that I wouldn’t do it. I detested school. She said, Why don’t you do what you like? Why don’t you draw pictures?” And, of course, I had to read it!
On his relationship with books:
When I was a child, I loved to read, but I also licked my books. A book should be edible. You want to lie with it. It’s a precious, precious thing. Do you smell paper when you’re reading? Sometimes I have to crush my book on my face. There, I’ve aid enough about the foreplay of reading. Really, sex looms everywhere in paper, in glue, occasionally in people!
I tried to record the talk, but my microphone was not powerful enough. So, the next best thing I can do is suggest you listen to some audio interviews with Mr. Sendak. That’ll give you a true sense of how exhilarating it was to be in the Scholastic auditorium listening to him talk that day.
- NPR interview on his favorite things with Jennifer Ludden.
- NPR interview with Steven Inskeep (Why Maurice Sendak Puts Kids in Danger)
- Bill Moyers PBS interview (video, part of PBS NOW with Bill Moyers, Art and Culture)
- Video Lecture at MIT where Sendak provides a retrospective on his early career as an artist (Descent into Limbo)