Looking Back On 'Wild Things' With Maurice Sendak The author of Where The Wild Things Are talks about his childhood and the funny-looking older relatives upon whom he based the creatures in the book.
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Looking Back On 'Wild Things' With Maurice Sendak

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Looking Back On 'Wild Things' With Maurice Sendak

Looking Back On 'Wild Things' With Maurice Sendak

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Now that Maurice Sendak's 1963 children's book, "Where the Wild Things Are," has been adapted into a film, we're going to listen back to excerpts of interviews I recorded with Sendak. We'll start with our first conversation, back in 1986.

"Where the Wild Things Are" is part of a trilogy, with "In the Night Kitchen" and "Outside Over There." Sendak's heroes and heroines are frequently disobedient and have to contend with the demons that haunt childhood. That made some of Sendak's books controversial when they were published. For instance, some authorities on children's literature advised parents against exposing their children to "Where the Wild Things Are" because his illustrations of big, horned, fanged, clawed creatures could terrify children.

Sendak told me that when he was young, adults looked like big and grotesque creatures to him. He couldn't imagine ever becoming one.

Mr. MAURICE SENDAK (Author, "Where the Wild Things Are"): It was inconceivable to me as a child that I would be an adult. I mean, one assumed that would happen, but obviously it didn't happen, or if it did, it happened when your back was turned, and then suddenly you were there. So I couldn't have thought about it much.

GROSS: Because adults seemed really big and different, you couldn't imagine becoming one?

Mr. SENDAK: They were awful. Yeah, I mean, they were mostly dreadful, and if the option were to become an adult was to become another dreadful creature, then best not, although I think there had to be a kind of normal anticipation of that moment happening because being a child was even worse.

I mean, being a child was being a child, was being a creature without power, without pocket money, without escape routes of any kind. So I didn't want to be a child.

I remember how much - when I was a small boy I was taken to see a version of "Peter Pan." I detested it. I mean, the sentimental idea that anybody would want to remain a boy. I don't - I couldn't have thought it out then, but I did later, certainly, that this was a conceit that could only occur in the mind of a very sentimental writer, that any child would want to remain in childhood. It's not possible. The wish is to get out.

GROSS: Are there any memories that typify your childhood to you now, looking back?

Mr. SENDAK: Well, it's typically '30s in many ways in that I had a series of long illnesses, but then there were no drugs, and there was no penicillin, so kids all ended up having diphtheria, scarlet fever, pneumonia, blah, blah, and I spent a lot of time being sick, as I recollect, and there is the happy memory, actually, of being indoors and watching - the window became my movie camera, my television set.

One of the happiest memories I have is when my grandmother would come to stay with us on those occasions and she would put me on her lap, and then she used the window shade like a magic lantern. She'd pull it down, then I'd hold my breath and she'd pull it up and the same thing would be there: a car, or my brother and sister making a snowman or whatever.

So happy memories of being indoors looking out of windows, and I think it's no accident that windows, or children looking out of windows or going through windows or whatever, becomes an obsession in most of the books I've written.

GROSS: A lot of your books deal with the children trying to overcome certain fears, trying to get control of them. What were the things that frightened you when you were a child yourself?

Mr. SENDAK: Well, odd things. I don't know if my books are about that, by the way. I mean, they are probably partly that, but I don't set out to write a book that's going to conquer fear or do anything but amuse or entertain or distract a child. But my own fears were very peculiar. I was terrified of the vacuum cleaner, you know, untraditionally.

I mean, people sit around saying, well, don't let kids do that, and don't let kids do that, it'll be too frightening, but who would have ever imagined anybody saying don't let a kid in the room with a vacuum cleaner.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SENDAK: But when my mother plugged the vacuum cleaner in, and it was those old-fashioned Hoovers, you know, the thing blew up visibly, and the sight of that bag swelling used to just drive me right up the wall, literally. I had to get out of the house, and I was sent to the neighbors until she was all done.

"The Invisible Man" was one of the most terrifying of my nightmares and I think definitely led me to being an insomniac for the rest of my life.

GROSS: The movie "The Invisible Man"?

Mr. SENDAK: The movie with Claude Rains. We were taken to see it, and I remember coming home and being in shock, and it was from that moment on that my sister had to stay with me until I fell asleep, because he could be anywhere in the room.

I mean, there was no way you could say, well, you see, he's not there, you see here's not there. My answer was: Well, you can't see him, so what's the big deal?

GROSS: You have three books which you consider your trilogy: "Where the Wild Things Are," "The Night Kitchen" and "Outside Over There." Are there any themes that you think of holding these three books together as a trilogy?

Mr. SENDAK: I think so. One of them - there are any number of them, but one of them, which is most obvious, is that they all have to do with a brief, inadvertent moment in a child's life. What happens? Kids are safe indoors, and mama turns her back for a minute, or papa turns his back for a minute. Nothing big, no great shriek, no accident. It's more a mental state. It's more an emotional moment which goes by unheard.

These are loving parents. These are not weird parents, but they're parents who have to turn their backs for a second. Life does take them up too occasionally, and in that second the kid has to make a decision, all by him or herself without the experience which we have as adults or the logic that tells them what to do. So they have to figure it out very quick, and often they come up with very ludicrous and illogical conclusions to a situation.

And all three of the children in these three books do, in fact, face such a moment by themselves and have to decide what to do.

GROSS: In "Where the Wild Things Are" a young boy is sent up to his room without supper, and he's really angry at his mother. So he decides to leave home and go to where the wild things are, and he becomes king of the wild things, and the wild things are these wonderful monsters or beasts that you've created. What inspired the shape and the faces, the bodies of the monsters?

Mr. SENDAK: Well, there was a lot of work on that, and I didn't want them to be traditional monsters, like griffins and gorillas. Just like, I wanted them to be very, very personal, and they had to come out of my own particular life. And I remember it took a very long time until that gestation occurred and when they began to appear on drawing paper and they began to be what I liked, and it was only when I had them all that I realized they were all my Jewish relatives.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SENDAK: They were all the adults who treated us in such silly fashions when we were kids, and they were the real monsters of my childhood. You know, people come on Sunday and wait to get fed, uncles and aunts, and you used to get all dressed up, and you'd have to sit and listen to their tedious conversation when you want to be with your brother and sister and listening to the radio or whatever, and they all say the same dumb thing while you're beating time until food gets put on the table: how big you are and you fat you got, and you look so good we can eat you up. In fact, we knew they would because my mother was the slowest cooker in Brooklyn, so if she didn't hurry up, they would eat us up.

So the only entertainment was watching how - watching their bloodshot eyes and how bad their teeth were. You know, children are monstrously cruel about physical defects.

So my entertainment was to examine them closely, you know, the huge nose, and the hair curling out of the nose and the weird mole on the side of the head, and so you would glue in on that and then you'd talk about it with your brother or sister later, and they became the wild things.

GROSS: One of the things I love about the monsters in the book is that they're really goofy. I mean, to me they're not really frightening. Okay, granted, I'm an adult, but still, there's something really kind of goofy and playful and big and sloppy about them.

Mr. SENDAK: That's true, but at the same time they are threatening. I mean, if Max were not in control of them, they could indeed be in control of him, and when they say oh, please don't go, we'll eat you up, we love you so, they mean just that, and he knows that, and I think children know that too, that the fun of that book is a perilous tightrope between him being a little boy and very vulnerable to these huge creatures and the absurdity of his having control over them by staring into their yellow eyes. It's what every child would like, to have control over such things.

Kids are not afraid of them because Max is not afraid of them, and see, the kids glue in onto Max right away, and they follow him, and if he's okay, they're okay.

GROSS: "In the Night Kitchen," which is the second book of your trilogy, when the book came out, Mickey, who is the main character in it, is nude during part of it, and I understand that there were librarians who actually blocked up the little infant penis so that children wouldn't be exposed to it.

Mr. SENDAK: Yeah, he had to wear little diteys or diapers or shorts before they'd let the book into the library. We live in a very strange society. I mean, I was outraged when that book came out, and there was a such a hullabaloo over his genitals.

I mean, I assumed everybody knew little boys had that and that this wasn't a breakthrough. The fact that people considered that outrageous -incredible. I mean, you go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you go to the Frick, you go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and there's a Christ child with his penis. It's accepted in fine art, but somehow in books for children, there's a taboo.

Well, the hell with that. I mean, I didn't set out to cause a scandal. I set out to do a very particular work where he had to be naked in order to confront a particular dream he was in. You don't go into a dream wearing Fruit of the Loom underwear or PJs. You go tuto. You go yourself, your being, and that's why he was naked, and it was idiocy. It was incredible idiocy what went on over that book for many, many years about Mickey being naked.

GROSS: The third book in your trilogy, "Outside Over There," is about an infant who's kidnapped by goblins and is rescued by his big sister.

Mr. SENDAK: Her big sister. That's okay.

GROSS: Her big sister, yeah. When I was a kid, we were always warned that certain people would kidnap you, and I think that that fear has escalated a lot more since I was young. Did you grow in the Lindbergh kidnapping period?

Mr. SENDAK: Yes, I did, and that book is a kind of, as you can say it, homage to the Lindberg kidnapping and the anxiety that that provoked in me as a child, but more than that, it's a primal anxiety that children have. Whether they lived through the Lindberg kidnapping or any real kidnapping in the real world, the true anxiety is, will I be taken away? Will my parents be taken away? When papa goes to work, does he really come back at night? If mama leaves, how do I know she's going to come back into the room?

These are of intense concern to children, and that's what it's about. It's not about the Lindbergh kidnapping. It's about the terrible feeling of being abandoned.

Now, that book has had the most controversy of all the three, and it is the book that's having the most troubled course in its life. I suspect that that anxiety is so much of human nature, is so part of our lives, that some people just simply don't want to consider it at all, and again, they think best to protect their children from such visions when, if my theories hold up, and I think they do after 30 years, children have these visions whether you protect them from it or not.

And in "Outside Over There," at least unlike real life, I give it a happy ending. I mean, I revive Charlie Lindbergh, Jr. and bring him back in the form of a little girl baby at the end of that book.

But it was a very important book to - not simply because of the abandonment idea but the complex feeling of an older child in relation to taking care of a younger child.

I lived with one. My nine-year-old sister had to take care of me, and she loved me, but there were moments when she didn't love me at all and wished me dead, and I think that is another normal and has to be accepted as a normal attitude of children. It's not something to be frightened of. It's just something they must get used to and live with.

GROSS: Can I ask you what books made the most impression on you when you were growing up?

Mr. SENDAK: "Mickey Mouse in Pygmyland" was the first book. I adored it. I didn't know it was a rip-off of "Gulliver's Travels." It's Mickey being in a place where they tie him up and walk all over him. It was a great book.

I remember I drove my father crazy until he bought me a copy of "Robin Hood," which I saw in the stationery shop in Brooklyn, in Bensonhurst, and the reason I wanted it, it had a beautiful, shiny white cover with Errol Flynn on the cover in his Robin Hood uniform, because the movie had just come out, and I saw that, and I had seen the movie, and I just had to have that book. And it was 50 cents. I remember it.

And I literally drove him mad. I didn't care how mad he got, I just besieged and I battered him down until I got - I still have that copy. It meant so much to me to have that book and that jacket, and then when I read it, or it was read to me, I was allowed to sniff the paper, because the paper, the smell of cheap paper just - that was my fix. And I've always thought when I smell books that have that smell, I think that's Sherwood Forest.

GROSS: That interview with Maurice Sendak was recorded in 1986. The film adaptation of his classic children's book, "Where the Wild Things Are," opened last week. We'll hear a more recent interview with Sendak after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're listening back to conversations I've had over the years with illustrator and author Maurice Sendak. His work for children, like "Where the Wild Things Are," has a dark edge, but nothing quite as dark as his book "Brundibar," a collaboration with writer Tony Kushner, who's best known for his play "Angels in America."

"Brundibar" is an adaptation of a children's opera that was originally performed by children in the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt. The opera is a parable about evil that was written in 1938 by a composer who was killed in the gas chambers.

A Sendak-Kushner adaptation of the opera was staged in 2003 by the Chicago Opera Theater. Sendak was the director and designer. Here's the opening scene from an earlier recording of "Brundibar," recorded in Prague.

(Soundbite of opera, "Brundibar")

GROSS: When I spoke with Maurice Sendak in 2003, he told me about the origins of "Brundibar" and why children in the Nazi concentration camp performed it.

Mr. SENDAK: This opera was written by Hans Krasa, a very young Czech composer, and it was written for children, Jewish children, in an orphan asylum in Prague to amuse them. It was a contest, who could write the prettiest opera for the children. And at that very same point, the Nazis entered the country and the orphanage was emptied and the children but into Theresienstadt, the camp, and he was too, as was the librettist, and it became a show camp. It became known as Hitler's favorite camp. He set up in such a way and made a film of how well the Jews were being treated, and the gypsies and the homosexuals.

And so he set this up to prove to the Red Cross and diplomats who were traveling the world to come by, see a show, and see how happy everybody was, and it's in the film. You see the children singing in the last portion of the opera.

So they all sat there. It was performed 55 times, a huge success, this little opera, which is about 45 minutes in length. That's the story. Hans Frasa was murdered too, as was the librettist, as was, well, mostly everybody in the camp.

It was an elitist camp. You had Bauhaus workers there. You had artists, people teaching the children there, intellects. It was a special camp, but it ended the same way for all of them.

GROSS: So the performances were for visiting diplomats to show off the camp?

Mr. SENDAK: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Do you know if they fell for it?

Mr. SENDAK: Oh yeah. Oh, absolutely they fell for it. The streets were cleaned. Trees were planted. All the children were given clean clothes. Everything was swept up, and they went, and you had a pass to get in to see "Brundibar."

GROSS: Tell us the story that's told in the opera that you tell in the book.

Mr. SENDAK: This was directly written for children and the limitations of children. (Unintelligible) singing voices. Mostly, it's sort of like a singspiel(ph), which is like a Mozart opera, the singspiel, where you talk over the music rather than actually sing, and those who could sing sang, and the music is astonishing.

He was in his 30s. So you hear Janacek, and you hear Weill, and you hear Gershwin, and you hear Ravel, and just like all of young artists steal like crazy until we make ourselves up as artists, you hear all these wonderful sounds.

And the story is ultra-simple so the children could follow it and produce the tale, which has to do with a little brother and sister whose mother is ill, and the doctor says unless they get milk for her, she won't last.

So they go out into the world, which is in my case Prague, into the city proper. Please, somebody give us money to buy milk for mommy. And nobody will, and in the streets of Prague, on a specific corner is Brundibar, who is an organ grinder, mean, mean, and they stay all night in the street by themselves. A cat and a bird and a dog come to their assistance and say, look, let's pull this together. The two of you can't do this by yourselves. Let's get all the kids in town, and the animals convince them to come and help these kids.

So they all come to the town square, 300 of them, and they say to Brundibar, we want to sing, and we don't care about money. We just want to sing. And Brundibar says, no, no, get the hell out of here, and the townspeople say, let the kids do it. And they sing a lullaby, which is, like, extraordinary to hear it.

And people are captivated, and they fill the milk can with coins. They've made it. They have enough money now, but Brundibar sneaks in and grabs the can, rushes off and steals their money, and the whole town chases Brundibar, and they catch him, and they beat him up, and the kids get their money back and buy the milk, come home triumphant and save their mama, and that's the story.

GROSS: But there's an epilogue to the story. There's a little poem at the end. Could you read that for us?

Mr. SENDAK: Sure, sure.

GROSS: And just, you know, reminder, this is written while Hitler is coming to power.

Mr. SENDAK: Exactly, and the fact that it is impossible for me to doubt that the children knew what their fate was. Imagine standing up on the stage and singing about brotherhood, and if we all hang together we're going to succeed and the bully will not - and knowing that as soon as this audience left, kaput, their lives are finished. I can't even grasp that now. I've been studying and working on this for over three years.

Okay, so we just turn the page on the big happy ending where everything is wonderful and safe, and mommy is alive, and then there's a little coda at the end, which was written by Tony, basically. It's not in the opera. And it says - this is Brundibar talking: They believe they've won the fight. They believe I'm gone, not quite. Nothing ever works out neatly. Bullies don't give up completely. One departs, the next appears, and we shall meet again, my dears. Though I go, I won't go far. I'll be back, love Brundibar.

GROSS: Yeah, that's kind of chilling.

Mr. SENDAK: Yeah.

GROSS: Maurice Sendak, talking about his book and opera "Brundibar" in 2003. The movie adaptation of his 1963 book "Where the Wild Things Are" is in theaters now. We'll hear more from Sendak in the second half of FRESH AIR. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The movie adaptation of Maurice Sendak's children's book "Where the Wild Things Are" opened last week. Sendak's writing and illustrations depict childhood as a place where there is often sadness and fear, and sometimes even monsters. "Where the Wild Things Are" is part of a trilogy with "In the Night Kitchen" and "Outside Over There."

When I spoke with Sendak in 1993, he just completed his first book that wasn't about middle class kids. That book, "We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy" is set in an urban landscape and deals with homelessness, sickness and hunger. It's based on two English nursery rhymes. I asked him to recite them.

Mr. SENDAK: We are all in the dumps. For diamonds are trumps. The kittens have gone to St. Paul's. The babies are bit. The moon's in a fit. And the houses are built without walls. First one.

Second one. Jack and Guy went out in the rye and they found a little boy with one black eye. Come says Jack. Let's knock him on the head. No says Guy. Let's buy him some bread. You buy one loaf and I'll buy two and we'll bring him up as other folk do.

GROSS: The first rhyme that you recited...

Mr. SENDAK: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: I wouldn't have known what to make of that. I'd have to say...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...it wouldn't have made any sense to me.

Mr. SENDAK: Well...

GROSS: Do you want to recite it one more time?

Mr. SENDAK: Sure.

(Soundbite of clears throat)

Mr. SENDAK: Well, see there are clues in it for an illustrator. We are all in the dumps.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SENDAK: For diamonds are trumps. The kittens are gone to St. Paul's. The babies are bit. The moon's in a fit. And the houses are built without walls.

Now, I think it's extraordinarily beautiful poetry. But if I haiku what does it mean, well I'm faced with a bridge games - diamonds are trumps. That means somewhere in this book somebody's playing bridge.

Not being a card player, that doesn't turn me on. So I had to learn how to play bridge. The moon's in a fit. You have to figure out why the moon is in a fit. What does it mean the kittens are gone to St. Paul's? I mean what is St. Paul's mean to American children, primarily? And the astonishing extraordinary line, the houses are built without walls. I mean that's what moved me all these years to make this work for me.

GROSS: So what did that come to mean to you, the houses are built without walls?

Mr. SENDAK: Well, it meant, finally, kids who have no place to live. This really started back in Los Angeles or at least one detail and a significant one began in Los Angeles years ago. I was working on an opera - the LA opera, and we came home late from a rehearsal and I was driven back to my hotel and we passed down some very, very posh streets in Beverly Hills. Maybe it was Rodeo Drive but I couldn't swear to it. And there past midnight, on the street, in this posh section of town was a just a dilapidated ruined cardboard box with two dirty naked kids feet sticking out.

The juxtaposition was astonishing. It's as though when everybody stopped shopping and gone home, then these kids came out - or people came out. But it astonished me to see that juxtaposition. I got interested and I got a book on Rio - Rio de Janeiro - and discovered that there is a ringed round(ph) well known shanty town, kid's town, around the city, and kids are abandoned.

They have little girls sold into prostitution. Little boys run away from abuse - from being abused at home and they make their own cities. And they're as cruel to each other as any adults can be and their lives are very, very brief. And they live in tin cans and cardboard houses and rag huts, and I suddenly began to see what dumps is - we are all in the dumps.

Back in the 60s that, of course, meant you know, if you're in therapy dumps means you're in depression, which is probably why I couldn't make anything sound out of it back then. Now dumps literally means the world.

GROSS: Your new book deals with some real world fears like, homelessness...

Mr. SENDAK: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And just being scared by what could happen to you as a kid now. What were the real big events in your life that you found really frightening when you were young?

Mr. SENDAK: When I was young, the big events were being sick and being expected to die, and knowing that at a very early age, I might. And this was spoken. My parents were very indiscrete. My parents came from a foreign country. They were immigrants. They didn't know about Freud. They didn't know about what to say or not to say in front of children.

So - and they loved us - me, my brother and my sister, but that I suffered a good deal from very severe illnesses, not untypical of '30s children when there were no sulfa drugs and there wasn't penicillin and you went through all the dire illnesses and sometimes you just croaked.

So it was the awareness at a very early age of mortality which pervaded my soul apparently and I think provided me with the basic ingredients of being an artist. That was critical and knowing that I was vulnerable and that other children were vulnerable.

GROSS: What did you have? What it was that...

Mr. SENDAK: Oh, you know, scarlet fever and pneumonia twice and whooping cough and chicken pox. It was the pneumonia and the scarlet fever that really nearly did me in.

GROSS: Were you carefully watched over by your parents when you were sick?

Mr. SENDAK: I was so carefully watched I practically - they practically killed me with watching over me, so I was delicate. I was very delicate. And was not allowed to participate in street games and so then a lot of my early child was immediately spent in inventing and imagining.

GROSS: In those days when you were sick and everybody was worried about you dying, did you have any sense of what death was?

Mr. SENDAK: I don't remember that. But I do remember I was a very close companion to death. And I remember a game my father played with me -which you would not exactly call a death game but did move in that direction. Which was that if I lay in bed, which I spent a lot of time doing, and remember in one particular place we lived in Brooklyn. We moved quite frequently because of financial problems. And just opposite the foot of my bed was a window looking out in the backyard facing a just very boring brick wall.

And he said if you - to me - if you looked and didn't blink, if you saw an angel, you'd be a very, very lucky child. And so I did that frequently. Of course, I would always blink because it hurt not to blink. And then you didn't see it and he'd say well, you blinked didn't you? And I'd say yes. And I remember once I didn't blink and saw it - or I imagined I saw it. But it's the memory of it is so vivid I could even describe it to you.

GROSS: Would you?

Mr. SENDAK: Well, I was lying in the bed obviously, starring out the window. My eyelids aching. My eyes aching, staring, staring, staring. And something very large like - almost like a dirigible but it wasn't a dirigible because it was right past my window. It was a slow-moving angel. She - he - whatever, moved very gracefully and slowly coming from left, going across to right, not turning to observe me at all. I don't have memory of the face but I remember a memory of the hair, the body and the wings. I was - it took my breath away. It just moved so slowly that I could examine it quite minutely. And then I shrieked and hollered and my father came in and I said I saw it. And he said I was a very lucky kid.

You will have noticed angels in "We Are All In The Dumps." I love angels. About to say obsessed, that's a hyperbole. I'm not obsessed with angels but I do adore angels. I've never drawn them in a book and they do appear in the new book - primarily because so many people have died recently that I have populated my book with their spirits floating around and they're all reading The New York Times because I can...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SENDAK: Even up there you got to figure out what's going on every day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So when you saw the angel, did you think that that was a sign that you were going to live or that something wonderful was going to happen?

Mr. SENDAK: Well, I think it put me in alliance with death things, with important things. I can't really describe it. I really can't tell you what it meant. Very internal feeling. But it came out of such a complex awareness as a child of the fragility of life.

There is a story which I can't prove, but I was told, that at a very early age my parents dressed me. It's a religious custom or superstition from the old country. They dressed me all in white, from top to toe, so that if God is watching he would've thought me already an angel and he would not pluck me - and I wouldn't die, in other words. I would be a fraudulent angel.

This is a superstition and it does occur in old villages in the old country. I don't know that it happened to me. But it's significant that it was a family story, so that it told me how forcefully they were concerned about me.

GROSS: We're listening to a 1993 interview with Maurice Sendak. The movie adaptation of Sendak's book "Where The Wild Things Are" opened last week. We'll hear more of the Sendak interview after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our 1993 interview with Maurice Sendak. Earlier, we were talking about how he was often sick as a child; some of his illnesses were life threatening.

Did you see your parents as being really capable parents who could help fend off death or fend off what other problems they had?

Mr. SENDAK: No. No, because they were so vulnerable to problems. They caved in on problems all the time. So I did not see them. And this is not a criticism of them. Their lives were extremely hard. But no. No. I did not see them that way.

GROSS: Now, they were from Poland?

Mr. SENDAK: They were from Poland. Yeah.

GROSS: And they fled before World War I?

Mr. SENDAK: Yes they did. Just before World War I. They didn't flee. My father left on a lark.

GROSS: Oh. Well, what was that?

Mr. SENDAK: He had no cause to come here. My grandfather was a rabbi, and he was the youngest son and he was obviously the spoiled younger son of my grandmother. And he actually fell in love with a young woman and it became a little bit scandalous and she was put on a boat and shipped off to America. And he sulked and pouted and got money out of his siblings and got on another boat to follow her here. And his family was appalled at his behavior.

Because of that trivial behavior, he was the only survivor of his entire family. I mean all of my uncles and aunts and all of the children were destroyed in concentration camps. My father's grief - his entire life -was that his survival was based on such a trivial impulse. It really did cause him a lot of grief, especially when he became older.

GROSS: You grew up before the holocaust. Was he still really regretful about...

Mr. SENDAK: Oh, he was terribly regretful and guilty and he had survivor guilt and did my mother, who had much less cause because she was shipped off when she was about 17 to come to America. She was uneducated, untrained in anything. She was a girl. My grandfather on her side, also a rabbi, had died a very early age of a coronary and there was no money to take care of everybody - so she was sent here to do it, to work hard, earn money and then bring them over. It's typical.

She met my father, they married and all the first income was spent on bringing one aunt, then an uncle, then another uncle, then another aunt, then my grandmother, until finally all but one brother on her side were all here. And then they were going to turn to my father side, and then it was too late. That was in the '30s. There was no getting Jews out of Europe at that point. And so growing up during the war, that was tough -having to live through that and all its complexity. It colors your life forever.

GROSS: Did your parents talk to you much about the old country?

Mr. SENDAK: Oh yeah. Thank goodness. And when my father was - the last year of his life - paradoxically we had a wonderful time. I took his biography down, which was wonderful. A lot of it was fantasy and a lot of it was reality, but I was...

GROSS: His biography?

Mr. SENDAK: Yeah. His...

GROSS: He wrote a biography?

Mr. SENDAK: He wrote a biography, which is not published. He did write a fairytale, which I translated with the help of somebody else and illustrated and that was published just before his death.

GROSS: Right. I - right.

Mr. SENDAK: It's called "In Grandpa's House." But his biography is not published and I don't intend to have it published. It's a private family chronicle. We didn't get much of my mother's life. My mother was silent about that period of her life.

GROSS: I think there's a lot of people from Eastern Europe who came to America were. Did they seem like aliens to you because, I don't know, they probably - did they speak more Yiddish…

Mr. SENDAK: Yes, the spoke more Yiddish. I spoke Yiddish as a child. My parents spoke English very, very late and very poorly. And we lived in a part of Brooklyn, which was teeming with immigrants, either people from Eastern Europe, Jews or Sicilians and I couldn't tell the difference. I mean, we lived next to the Sicilians and I had a real - it sounds like coy conceit, but it's a fact. I had a real confusion because right across the hall from us was my best friend at one place we lived, Carmine(ph), and his sisters and brothers and his huge mother and huge father just across the hall. And I used to run across the hall because they had un-Kosher food.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SENDAK: It was much better, much better than Kosher food because it was - it was pasta. It was great Italian cooking. And they laughed and they drank wine, and they grabbed me, and I sat on their laps and they had a hell of a good time. And then you come back to my house and you have this sober cuisine and not so rambunctious family life. And I really did have a confusion that Italians were happy Jews, that they were a sect.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh, that's (unintelligible).

Mr. SENDAK: And that I would have a choice - that I would have a choice…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SENDAK: …after my bar mitzvah to belong to either the sober sect or the happy sect.

GROSS: And there must be different synagogue where they had pasta.

Mr. SENDAK: Yeah. I was a dumb kid, let me tell you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SENDAK: I mean, all the parents were looked alike. They all wore the same dull, black dresses and you couldn't tell the difference, not to me.

GROSS: I remember I interviewed you - oh, I don't know - eight years ago or something. Something that you said really stuck with me. You were talking about the monsters in "Where The Wild Things Are," and you were saying that when you were young, the monsters were just adults. They were people with like moles on their faces and hairs growing out of their noses and…

Mr. SENDAK: Yeah, old relatives.

GROSS: Yeah, old relatives, exactly, exactly, and that, that really struck a chord.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And then I started thinking well, I'm one of those people now. I mean, I don't know if I actually have hair growing out of my nose but, you know, I have some of those things that I'm sure kind of like scare kids.

Mr. SENDAK: Oh sure.

GROSS: And do you have a sense of yourself as that, too…

Mr. SENDAK: Of course.

GROSS: of like, you know, a monster to some kids?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SENDAK: Of course, I am. I see it in their eyes. When I'm autographing books, which I don't like to do much anymore and children are shoved at me.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SENDAK: They have no idea why they're on the line. They'd much rather be in the bathroom.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SENDAK: And they're standing on line and they're being told something which is so frightening and confusing, which is being told by mom or dad. This is a man you'd like so much, honey. This is a man who did your favorite book. And they clutch their book even closer, that really means he's going to take it away. Because if this is the man's favorite book then he's going to take your book…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SENDAK: And a look of alarm and the tears and they stare at me -like pure hatred. Who is this elderly, short man sitting behind the desk who's going to take their book away? Then on top of that the parents are like, give them your book, honey. He wants to write something in it. Although they've been told don't write in a book. Okay. Why then is it all right for a perfect stranger to write in their book. It's horrible for them. And I become horrible unwittingly. I make children cry.

GROSS: They cry when…

Mr. SENDAK: They cry when they meet me because they don't know what I'm doing. And only when their - it's quicker with girls because girls are smarter than boys. We all know that. They grow up faster. And girls, by the time they're seven or eight, already know the business of autographing and what it means. Boys don't till they're about 40 I think. And so, they'll pull it away. There's only one child who ever had the courage and his father was urging him forward, urging him forward. I can see the hesitation. I just felt so bad for the kid and I put my hand on the book to help draw it away from him. And he literally screamed and said - don't crap up my book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SENDAK: It was the bravest, the bravest cry I have ever heard. I nearly wept.

GROSS: What did you do?

Mr. SENDAK: I took the father aside because I think, I think the father was going to kill the kid because he'd embarrassed him and made everybody laughed. And I had to sit down and say, how great I thought his kid was and not to be angry with him because the child just didn't understand what this whole nonsense, this social nonsense of autographing was all about. And it would be criminal to punish him for this.

GROSS: This is great every time you do a book signing it's kind of like dysfunctional family America.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SENDAK: That's right - becomes into psychiatric sessions.

GROSS: You must feel awful though, you know, because you're being misunderstood by the kids who love your book.

Mr. SENDAK: Well, frankly that's why I do not visit children in classrooms. That's why I stopped autographing, for the most part, for that very, very reason. It's such a paradox, that I, who adore them and I'm interested in their welfare, should become their enemy. It's only because it's set up that way. If I'm to visit a school they're all warned, threatened and brow-beaten for three days before I get there. Now I want all of you to be nice…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SENDAK: …and you must raise your hand and I want everyone to go to the bathroom before Mr. Sendak comes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SENDAK: I mean, their lives are ruined. So, why should I be the person who does that to them?

GROSS: Maurice Sendak recorded in 1993. The movie adaptation of his book "Where the Wild Things Are," opened last week. This is FRESH AIR.

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