A Conversation with Maurice Sendak The giant of children's literature talks with Jennifer Ludden about his craft and his early influences. His latest book is a re-illustration of a 1948 work by his mentor, Ruth Krauss, called Bears.

A Conversation with Maurice Sendak

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

On a recent rainy day we traveled deep into the New England woods, somewhere near Ridgefield, Connecticut, to meet Maurice Sendak. We waited for him in the barn. It's a lovely guest house and library, actually, with a loft. Scattered about are memorabilia from Sendak's most famous work, "Where the Wild Things Are." But what dominates is his Mickey Mouse collection--a vintage Mickey rocking horse, glass-covered trays of Mickey medallions and pins, in the bathroom a standing Mickey figure.

The door opens and in runs Herman, Sendak's boisterous German Shepherd, named for Herman Melville. A moment later follows the gray-haired, small-framed giant of children's literature. Maurice Sendak is 76. He ambles to an enormous wooden table, sits down, props his cane between his legs. From the mike check, it's clear getting him to talk is not going to be a problem.

Mr. MAURICE SENDAK (Author): Is that right?

LUDDEN: So did we interrupt you working?

Mr. SENDAK: I don't work in the morning, because I work till, like, 3 in the morning. I love late afternoon. I love nighttime. I love it.


Mr. SENDAK: Because it's nighttime and the phone stops ringing and all the clamoring of the business world and the jibberings and jabberings of New York fade, fade, fade, and I can listen to music. I could watch tawdry TV. See, when I'm drawing the kind of project that I'm on now, I don't need my brain to draw. It's like automatic driving. You don't know how you got there and suddenly you're there.

LUDDEN: Now see, I've read that you draw to Mozart.

Mr. SENDAK: Yeah.

LUDDEN: And now that I find out it's not just Mozart, it's...

Mr. SENDAK: No, no. I write to (technical difficulties).


Mr. SENDAK: You see, there are so many differentials here. There's writing, which I can't do anything but concentrate on the writing. Any noise is a distraction, even having Herman is a distraction.

LUDDEN: Herman, your dog.

Mr. SENDAK: Yeah. And then there is illustrating, which is concentrating, not as difficult for me as writing. Like a Polaroid in my head. I'll just see a picture. But then the organization of it and the composition of it demands attention. Mozart, Schubert, Haydn, Beethoven--it fits in with the control of getting the picture composed well. So you have no music, no TV, then music. Then when the book is at a stretch where I am with this book now, where it's just finishing up, which is like hemming and stitching, TV.

LUDDEN: I see. So you're watching a lot of TV these days.

Mr. SENDAK: I'm watching a lot of TV. There's nothing much to watch.

LUDDEN: Tell me what you're working on now.

Mr. SENDAK: I am working on a pop-up book. I'm...

LUDDEN: And the story line?

Mr. SENDAK: The story line is scaring children, my favorite subject.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Somehow in that laugh, you suddenly realize Maurice Sendak looks kind of like a wild thing--curly hair and a balding head, a glint in the eye, yet a softening smile around the mouth.

His pop-up book is still a year away, but Sendak has a new work just out, "Bears," and it hearkens back to "Where the Wild Things Are." No grinning monsters, but the star is Max, that little boy in the white wolf suit. The new book is a tribute to Sendak's mentor, the late Ruth Krauss. Her best-known work is "The Carrot Seed," and her husband, Crockett Johnson, known as Dave, wrote "Harold and the Purple Crayon." Krauss and Johnson took Maurice Sendak under their wings at their home in Rowayton, Connecticut. When Ruth Krauss first met Sendak in 1950, he was 22, painting window displays at FAO Schwarz in New York. He'd already faced years of rejection from publishers.

Mr. SENDAK: The commonest criticism was `They're too foreign-looking.' And the advice always was, `Go look at a typical American children's book. These don't look like'--and of course, the question is, why would you want another typical American children's book? You already have so many. But by that they meant generic, blond, tip-nosed children, where I had Jewish immigrant children, which was all I knew, who had way too-big heads and odd little features and dumpy bodies.

LUDDEN: But children do have big heads and dumpy bodies.

Mr. SENDAK: I know, but not in the '50s, and not in publishing in the '50s. Now they're in. You can't get uglier than what the kids look like now. But that was not right then, and I was clearly a European and I brought a European style, and it was not what was hot. And so Ruth came up, she had "A Hole is to Dig." A number of very famous illustrators had been shown "A Hole is to Dig." They all had rejected it because it wasn't a book, just words, just words, definitions. This was a weird book.

LUDDEN: Sweet little children's definitions.

Mr. SENDAK: Yes.

LUDDEN: `A hole is to dig.'

Mr. SENDAK: And they're also rude, and, you know, `The world is for us to stand on,' and `Mashed potatoes is to give me enough to eat.' I mean, everything is them, them, them. And that was just at the point when Freud and children and Bank Street School, postwar, hot, fresh postwar interest in not letting another generation down, renewed interest, which we'd never had in children--children's language, children's thinking, children's emotions, children's physical and mental development. And Ruth was a Bank Street graduate, and so all her books had to do with the mightiness of the child and his colossal ego, vanity and suffocating--What's the word?--selfishness. The whole world was him or her. That's what "A Hole is to Dig" wa--"A Hole is to Dig." And Ruth saw my funny little drawings of the big-headed children from Brooklyn, and she liked them. I was a complete unknown, complete unknown. I'd only done one book, and that was for the United Seminary of America, called "Good Shabbos, Everybody." I dare say that was not a well-known book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SENDAK: Oh, God, was that a book. And Ruth said, `Give it to them.' But that's what she did, you see. She nourished young people. That was her delight.

LUDDEN: So then you got to know her personally.

Mr. SENDAK: Then I got to know her personally. Once you fall in love with Ruth--she was immensely hot, and I don't mean that in the crude sense. I mean it in the overall sense of mind and body. Never heard a woman at that point in my life who could talk about sex so freely it was shocking.

LUDDEN: And she was married to Crockett Johnson.

Mr. SENDAK: And she was married, yeah. I mean--but you just felt the--it was such a refreshing thing to find a person like this and a woman like this.

LUDDEN: She also seems to have been an early feminist. Didn't she kind of chastise you for...

Mr. SENDAK: Violence and--oh...

LUDDEN: ...drawing boys, doing boys things and girls doing girls.

Mr. SENDAK: Yeah. Oh, you know all this. Why do you--you know all this. `Why is that little girl playing jacks in the picture, and this little girl jumping rope? Don't boys play jacks and jump rope?' I said, `Of course not.' `Well, they are now, tootsie.' And I would have to redraw everything that was boring and prosaic like that. So you have a lot of hermaphroditic-looking kids, especially in "A Hole is to Dig," because I had to do it hastily, like draw a line up where the pants were and get rid of the skirt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Is this also why you have--the girl is climbing the mountain.

Mr. SENDAK: Yes, the girl (technical difficulties) of course. But that had a profound effect on me. It really did have a prof--I was just this hopeless, naive kid. But I had a lucky life because I had met them very early in my career, in my very early 20s, and they adopted me, Ruth and Dave, that is.

LUDDEN: Now while you were visiting them on weekends in Connecticut, you were working on "Where the Wild Things Are."

Mr. SENDAK: I was working on "Where the Wild Things Are" starting in 1960.

LUDDEN: So how would you say these two people--how would you say they affected the work that you turned out?

Mr. SENDAK: That's where the truthfulness came from. If there's anything I'm proud of in my work--it's not that I draw better; there's so many better graphic artists than me--or that I write better, no. It's--and I'm not saying I know the truth, because what the hell is that? But what I got from Ruth and Dave, a kind of fierce honesty, to not let the kid down, to not let the kid get punished, to not suffer the child to be dealt with in a boring, simpering, crushing-of-the-spirit kind of way.

LUDDEN: For example--I know this is a long time ago, but can you remember an example of a line that you wrote...

Mr. SENDAK: Oh...

LUDDEN: ...or something you drew that...

Mr. SENDAK: I'm thinking of "A Very Special House," which was an insane book of a child's demolition of a house and just the fun of destruction, just the strength and spirit and ego of destruction, and having fun and sticking your nose out--your tongue out, and nobody's going to punish you for that, because they're all going to say, `Well, that's what kids do.' Well, that's what healthy kids do. Don't you see how opposed this was to the previous generation in children's literature, where little girls had big bows and they knew that the best things would happen to their brothers, and their brothers would go to college and they'd be lucky to be a librarian? So the books became my outlet, my rebirth, as to what kind of kid I wished I could have been, and I wasn't going to lie to the readers. I wasn't going to lie, and I was going to risk a lot of outrage from librarians, which I did.

LUDDEN: Which you got.

Mr. SENDAK: And that creep--oh, that creep, that psychiatrist, Bruno Bettelheim...

LUDDEN: Who...

Mr. SENDAK: ...otherwise known by me personally as `Beno Brutalheim,' because he wrote a long article on "Wild Things" which completely destroyed the book.

LUDDEN: Bruno Bettelheim, when "Wild Things" came out, said that it might frighten children.

Mr. SENDAK: (Adopts foreign accent) `Don't leave the book in a room without a light, because the kid might die of a heart attack.'

No, he didn't say that, but you've got it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SENDAK: Mr. Brutalheim, may he rest in peace.

LUDDEN: What do you think has drawn you to children's literature? Why there?

Mr. SENDAK: I don't know. I think my own childhood. If I had a unhappy life, and most of us do, actually, and if you have an immigrant life and if you come to this country--I was born here--but then you grow up and everybody in your family who's not here is dead in a concentration camp, and all you hear is your father or mother weeping and tearing hair out, and knowing that pleasure was a sin. Playing ball in the street or laughing was a sin because they can't play ball and they can't laugh. How dare you have pleasure in life when they can't have anything? So I hated them. For a long time, I hated them, and my childhood was completely misshapen by what was going on in the world.

So I had my brother and my sister and my father telling us horrendous stories. He didn't know what was appropriate. He just knew how to tell a story, and it was great, which maybe gave me insomnia, maybe not. But they were really terrifying of shtetl life in Europe and his experiences and stories where--and there were children dying. `I remember Eli and oh, he died in such a terrible way.' `Papa, tell us. Tell us how Eli died,' you know, like that was the best thing we could possibly hear. And then he wouldn't spare us the details. He'd tell us the whole horrible details of Eli's death, and they stayed with me for the rest of my life.

LUDDEN: You have no children, is that right?

Mr. SENDAK: No, I have no children.

LUDDEN: Writing for children, do you draw on your own childhood, or do you really do this for yourself and somehow it resonates?

Mr. SENDAK: I don't do it for children. I don't know how to write for children. This is what I do that delights me, but I don't do it--I don't ever stop and think, `Will this be good for children, or should I put that in?'

LUDDEN: You have some students who come up here from Colombia.

Mr. SENDAK: Yes, right at this table.

LUDDEN: So do you see yourself...

Mr. SENDAK: I want to be a mentor. I want to be Ruth and Dave. That's my goal in life. I'll be 77 in a few weeks. I don't know how long I'm going to live, and so one of the things I want to do is, this big gorilla head that's stuffed full of experience, I want to give it away before I'm gone. I want to give it away to young artists who are as vehement and passionate about their lives and work as I was and am.

LUDDEN: You've just said you can't really write for children.


LUDDEN: So what do you tell young people?

Mr. SENDAK: I teach them how not to write for children, although they come here to learn how to write for children. But I'm freeing them of that incubus of don't think about that. Don't think about that.

LUDDEN: Can I ask about your apparent fascination here with Mickey Mouse? I'm looking at the tray of memorabilia.

Mr. SENDAK: Well, he and Mozart. He and Mozart.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SENDAK: When he reveals himself to humankind--Mozart--he's God. He came to Brooklyn and revealed himself as Mickey Mouse to me, because he knew I wasn't ready for his full majesty, right? And so I fell in love Mickey, because I went to the movies almost every day with my sister and brother, and you had a double feature and a cartoon in the middle, so you were there for hours out of the hands of your parents. And there's the cartoon, and when I saw that cartoon, I went into a frenzy. I remember by sister saying, `We knew it was coming, and Jackie would grab you by one arm and I would grab you by the other arm and you would have a seizure.' First the big head would appear with radiant lights coming out of it. Remember that? And I adored him and I still do. I adore him from then. I don't adore him now because he's a fat whore, you know? He--Disney sold him into slavery, and he's nothing. He's nothing.

LUDDEN: So Mickey Mouse turned you on to drawing.

Mr. SENDAK: Yes, to cartoons. I wanted to be a cartoonist. I wanted to work for Disney. I wanted to be an animator. Everything I drew had big shoes with shines on them, like Mickey, and every time they ran, there was a little trail of smoke puffing right behind their feet. That was my dream, to be an animator. I wrote him a letter, asking him to adopt me and bring me to California and let me work in his studio. I would prove that I was worth the trouble. He never wrote back.

LUDDEN: Walt Disney may have ignored him, but that left Ruth Krauss to give Maurice Sendak his first break, which brings us back, finally, to Sendak's latest work. It's surprisingly sweet compared to his dark tales of homeless children and a kidnapped baby. This one, called "Bears," is a re-illustration of a simple little book Ruth Krauss wrote in 1948, two years before she met Sendak. The original drawings were by Phyllis Rowand, but the publisher decided those are now out of date.

Mr. SENDAK: The difference between what I did and what Phyllis did is a generational thing. What she did was literally take what Ruth said, `Bears on the stairs,' and drew them on the stairs. Then I come in a generation later, and I have to make a story on top of a story on top of a story. It's not enough that it just be what she did. I need something more. Like so much of "Wild Things" is not in the language, the story continues in the pictures. It's like an accompaniment to the text. You're not just--I don't like the word `illustrating.' I like the word `picture-making,' because if you're just illustrating, it means you're like an echo of the text. Who needs it?

LUDDEN: Max is your best-known little boy.

Mr. SENDAK: I guess he is, yeah.

LUDDEN: And he's back.

Mr. SENDAK: Yep.

LUDDEN: This is the first time since "Where the Wild Things," yes?

Mr. SENDAK: Yep.

LUDDEN: Why bring him back now?

Mr. SENDAK: I never thought to bring him back, never, never, although with his success, everybody wanted to have him back, you know. Max two, Max three, Max four. Never interest--once he's out of the house, he's out of the house for me.

LUDDEN: You were asked to do follow-ups and you said no.

Mr. SENDAK: Oh, of course. But this happened simply because it was Ruth Krauss' book.

LUDDEN: In this story, Max becomes cozy with a little teddy bear and kicks his dog out of bed, and then the dog steals the teddy bear and you spend the whole book...

Mr. SENDAK: Chasing.

LUDDEN: ...as the dog is running away and Max is chasing him trying to get the teddy bear back.

Mr. SENDAK: Max comes in because a lot of the work I did on "Wild Things" was up at Rowayton, and I was having a problem with the book. It was a very difficult book. It was my first picture book. So I feel as though Max was born in Rowayton and that he was the love child of me, Ruth and Dave. And so when I got to do this one, I'm thinking, what is the story? What is the other story? And it had to be Max. There was no question that it had to be Max. This is the last time this will ever happen in my life, that this kind of experience will occur, where I can be back with them.

LUDDEN: Maurice Sendak, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SENDAK: Well, I enjoyed it. A rather cheerless interview, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SENDAK: ..the best I can do on a cheerless day.

(Soundbite of music)

LUDDEN: To see some of Sendak's work and hear him reflecting on the meaning of legacy, you can go to our Web site, npr.org.

And for tonight, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

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