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Diane had the pleasure of speaking with famed author and illustrator Maurice Sendak in September of 1993. He wrote a number of children’s books, but “Where the Wild Things Are” which was first published in 1963 remains one of a best-selling children’s book, a book that’s been described as thrilling to children and controversial to adults. In this hour Maurice Sendak talks about the importance of being honest with children and why it was important for him to be honest about the difficulties he experienced in his own childhood. Please enjoy this rebroadcast of Maurice Sendak talking about his life and his work.
- Maurice Sendak acclaimed author and illustrator; best-selling books for children include "Where the Wild Things Are," published in 1963, and "In the Night Kitchen," published in 1970
MS. DIANE REHMGood morning and welcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." Back in 1951, Maurice Sendak illustrated Marcel Ayme's book "The Wonderful Farm." That was just the beginning. Since then, he's illustrated about 70 for other writers, plus written and illustrated a dozen of his own. A man who began life as a sickly, miserable child, Sendak's genius is to portray children as they are, struggling to cope with both the triumphs and terrors of childhood.
MS. DIANE REHMOne of the bestselling children's books of all time, "Where the Wild Things Are," generated a great deal of concern and controversy among adults who felt Sendak's "Wild Things" were too terrifying and ferocious for young children. In 1981, he designed the sets and costumes for the Pacific Northwest ballet's Christmas production of "Nutcracker." Then, in 1984, Harmony Books published ETA Hoffman's version of "Nutcracker" with interpretive illustrations by Maurice Sendak.
MS. DIANE REHMNow, it's out in paperback and Maurice Sendak is here with me. Can't tell you what a pleasure it is to have you here, Mr. Sendak.
MR. MAURICE SENDAKThank you, Diane.
REHMYou had done three operas and one off-Broadway musicals for children. I gather you weren't particularly enthusiastic about doing "Nutcracker" the ballet when it came out.
SENDAKNo, I wasn't originally because I was like so many people had to take children to the ballet in New York and it was so tiresome and not Tchaikovsky. It was extraordinary. But most often, you'd have to close your eyes and concentrate on Tchaikovsky and not what was going on on stage, which never had an dramatic harmony, which never had any intrinsic force to it. So, of course, when I was approached, I saw no reason to do it until the choreographer upped the ante and said we're going to change the whole thing. Very brave of him because he was sort of new there.
SENDAKThe idea of changing, for me, meant historical work and research, going back to the original German fairytale. I mean, Hoffman's a genius and neglected, actually, except for maybe a handful of short stories. So in rereading "Nutcracker," finding how wonderfully bizarre and ironical it was and that that sourness was totally missing from the production onstage and maybe intended because it was supposed to be, you know, a Christmas trifle. I couldn't deal with a Christmas trifle.
SENDAKAnd so we filled it up. We took as much of the story as we could and dramatized it on stage between me and Kent. He taking care of the choreography and me taking care of the dramatic action. We had something that I could enjoy, that I would take somebody to go see and more important, it's a ballet about a little girl and she stays front, center for the entire work.
REHMAnd then, of course, you were forced to change hats from designer to illustrator to create this latest book version of "Nutcracker."
SENDAKYeah, I normally would not have done that because that would've been repetitive. But in this particular case, there was so much from Hoffman that I could not get on stage, there was just so much yardage of Tchaikovsky, so that now, in illustrating the book, I could fill in all those marvelous, bizarre, dark little chapters and draw pictures. Like having your cake and eating it, to do the ballet and then the fact fulsome fairytale, it was terribly tempting and I had a marvelous time with the ballet and the fairytale, illustrating the book.
SENDAKAnd it's so beautifully manufactured. I must say that, because...
REHMIt is. It's gorgeous. Yeah.
SENDAK...Crown did the most gorgeous manufacturing job in a paper edition, which I held back on for a while, looked so beautiful.
REHMI am very impressed with it. However, I have to tell you that when hardback edition first came out, each person in my family and there are four of us, there were four of us at the time, we are now five, each person gave it to everybody else without anybody knowing it.
REHMSo we ended up with four copies of it and it is absolutely gorgeous in paperback as it is in hardback. I want to go back to "Where the Wild Things Are," copies of which are right here in front of me. We have it going back to 1963 when it first came out. The fact that it is still in print, nearly 30 years after publication, must give you a great deal of satisfaction.
SENDAKIt's marvelous. I did that book when I was 30. I'm 63 and I'm still enjoying it. When I'm autographing, I've been on a book tour, as you know, and some of it is autographing books, which is difficult and tedious work, but it's mitigated by the fact of people coming forward with kind of radiating faces and almost nonverbal reactions to that book, which had been such a private part of their childhood. It's very moving. It's very touching.
REHMWell, I must say, our children were born in 1960 and 1964 and it remains among their favorites. And as I said, it is one of the top ten bestselling children's books of all times. Now, some people have said that your characters are thrilling to children and controversial to adults.
SENDAKYes, that's perfectly accurate.
REHMNow, having you here, I want to hear your reaction to that.
SENDAKI think that's accurately put. Adults seem to have very faulty memories about their own childhood and maybe that's the way it has to be. And certainly when you become a parent, the first instinct is to protect your child from anything harmful. It's perfectly natural except that you can't, for the most part. And I think to be thoroughly honest with children and attach yourself to them or identify with their problems and recollect accurately what childhood was like, which is some nice things and some not such nice things. And that has to be.
SENDAKThat's the nature of living. So if "Wild Things" addressed both those issues, the kids were grateful because somebody was being honest with them about that moment when all is lost, it might just be a meager ten-second temper tantrum, but it's crucial in a child's life when his mother does not understand his need. He doesn’t have the logic that goes beyond that says everything will be all right in 20 minutes. It's that critical moment.
SENDAKAnd I've written about that critical moment in every book I have written. See, it's the moment that intrigues me dramatically as an artist. Adults only see the obvious things, the teeth and the claws and all those things that will frighten their kids, they think. And let me assure you there are some children who are frightened by this book, but then, we're all different in terms of taste and there's no reason a child should be subjected to a book that scares him or her.
REHMThe attack on you from Bruno Bettelheim, which goes way back, and he said you were creating anxiety-producing scenes of desertion in "Wild Things" and he scolded you there.
SENDAKSeverely and for a young man and a young career and his first major work, that was a very serious and traumatic moment for me. I didn't know how to deal with that at all. This was a major figure and he has been a major figure in our country for a long time. I met him, oddly enough, some brief years ago when I was given an honorary degree and he was, too, at the very same place and we could finally shake hands and he could -- we talked about the uses of enchantment and he how he'd come about to writing that book and how he felt maybe he'd been rather harsh on me in the old days.
SENDAKBut then, he pulled himself together and said, with his very heavy accent, I must tell you I still do not like your book at all. I rather admired his stiff-necked attitude. He wasn't going to shift ground.
REHMHow did you recover from that, internally. I mean, I would've felt like a terribly wounded child/adult if that had come from Bettelheim.
SENDAKWell, there were two things. One, I knew how good it was. I knew how good it was. Honestly, that would not have sufficed because I neither had the inner strength nor the outer clout to have survived that. I did have Ursula Nordstrom, who was my editor, who was one of the bravest, toughest, most marvelous human beings that every lived and she pulled me up short and she taught me a lesson about living and critics and surviving. She reminded me of what had happened during the book and the joy it had given me and her to work together on this thing and she was not going to have me backslide.
SENDAKShe was not. And the fact that "In The Night Kitchen" was the next book proves clearly that I was not frightened after a certain point.
REHMAnd, of course, I have copies here of "In The Night Kitchen," which I am so troubled to hear that librarians are covering up this little boy.
SENDAKYeah, yeah. They were covering up his genitalia in 1970 when it was a breakthrough that there was a naked kid. We had not intended, neither me nor Ursula, to have anything so asininely controversial. That seemed to be the least of the book. The fact that it became the most important aspect of the book was embarrassing because it's a work I love and it was a serious work. It took seven years to bring about after "Where the Wild Things Are" and then to have all the fuss over his penis was humiliating, quite frankly.
SENDAKNow, it continues, you see. Now it continues. The same atmosphere. This is a minority thing. It's not a majority thing. But it's enough to constantly irk you and depress you, that people will not see the size of the book and will diminish it. And, of course, if you -- a teacher or whoever does the magic markering over Mickey's privates, all you're doing is having little children hold the book up to the light to see what in hell has been covered up and then drawing their attention to exactly what they wish to detract them from.
SENDAKIf they just let it alone, since children are -- the rather enjoy their bodies until perhaps later we teach them not to, for some obscure reason. They just go right the book. They don't even notice it, except maybe a little girl will titter. That's about the worst you'll get. But they have such a clean comprehension and appreciation of their bodies. That is not their problem.
REHMI'm sure from time to time, you have been in situations where you could debate librarians about this issue?
SENDAKOh, yes. Yep, I certainly have and it's frightening sometimes, the mindsets on these people. On the obdurate idea that I did it for scandalous reasons, for self aggrandizement, to draw attention to myself and -- that's hard to take. But the book still goes.
REHMYou're listening to my 1993 interview with author and illustrator Maurice Sendak on "The Diane Rehm Show." We'll be right back.
REHMThis is a rebroadcast of my 1993 interview with author and illustrator, Maurice Sendak. I hope you enjoy.
REHMI said to you when you first came in the studio, you had been scheduled to come in here ten years ago.
REHMI've been doing this show now for 12 years. You were scheduled to come in here in 1981, after "Outside Over There" had been published. And at the end of your tour, you were supposed to come here and you fell ill...
REHM...and went back to New York early. I was so disappointed. It's the only time in my entire career that I have saved a script. And I went back to my files and pulled out that 1981 script and there it was.
SENDAKI'd like to see it though.
REHMI will show it to you.
SENDAKI would really appreciate seeing it.
REHMI will show it to you. "Outside Over There," I was looking at it again this morning. In that first scene, I am struck by the similarity, at least in my own mind, to John Fowles' "The French Lieutenant's Woman"...
SENDAKHmm. That's interesting.
REHM...with this young child standing on what looks like a promontory...
REHM...watching as her father's ship sails away.
REHMI mean, did that come into your own mind?
REHMIt never did.
SENDAKNo, it never did. But it's an interesting association on your part, and I can see the connection. It was really a romance I was involved with, with romantic painting -- early German romantic painting of the 19th century, falling quite in love with it. And I wanted to take from that as much as possible and bury my powerful theme from "Outside Over There" into a very lush and romantic setting -- not so different from that novel that you mentioned. And that's what I achieved in that book, or tried to achieve. That was the last of the trilogy. And it -- although there are some people who wonder why it's a trilogy -- true, it's not like "Rambo I, II, and III." Sylvester Stallone...
SENDAK...does not appear in each one. It's a trilogy in the sense of what I described to you earlier of a peculiar, exquisite moment in the child's life. It may take a half a second -- Momma and Papa may not even notice it even happened -- where that kid has to make a decision based on no logic, no experience, but only trust and love. He can count on that from his parents. And he has to take a dive and do something a little bit illogical. Max runs up against his mother, gets punished for it and has this inflammatory fantasy about the wild things. Mickey takes a dive literally, and trusts that he's going to land safe and accomplish something. Ida, she's the eldest, and her problem is much more complicated.
SENDAKThe trilogy really has to do with Max -- me, as a baby -- Mickey -- my brother, a tiny bit older -- and Ida -- Natalie, my sister, he eldest. So it's really the three of us basically. And how each book gets more complicated, because each child gets a little bit older. And Ida being the eldest, her complexity of -- I love that book so much because I could enter into my sister's spirit.
REHMThe reception for these three books was different.
REHMAnd most especially for "Outside Over There."
SENDAK"Outside" was the most puzzling and, without question, the least popular of any of the works I've done. But that is disappointing to me, but it has never relaxed my hold on that book in terms of what I know what I've accomplished in it as an artist.
REHMWhy do you feel the reception was diminished for that?
SENDAKBecause it's an ambiguous book. It does not have a clear, precise ending. It is not a happy book in the way people think children's books ought to be -- upbeat and happy. It tells a story that is rather somber, but to me very beautiful. But I was in a position of artistic control at this point, that I wasn't going to miss doing it. And since I didn't count on sales of books, that wasn't part of my career plan. You can only be disappointed not in the lack of sales but in the lack of appreciation for what you feel, as an artist, is the very best that you have to give.
REHMMaurice Sendak is with me. And I know most of you are familiar with his books, "Where the Wild Things Are, "In the Night Kitchen," "Outside Over There." Now, we are talking about a brand new paperback version of E.T.A. Hoffman's "Nutcracker" with the interpretive illustrations -- pictures, as he calls them...
REHM...by Maurice Sendak. You described your own childhood as, in places I've seen, as not a terribly happy one. Less outgoing than we would expect children to be, you were a sickly young fellow.
SENDAKYeah. Yeah. But I think it has to be put in perspective that I was a '30s baby. And there was no sulfa drugs or penicillin. So I wasn't so strangely sick. It was that most of us were. You know, we got the whooping cough and scarlet fever and pneumonia, dreadful diseases. And lots of us didn't make it. It left my heart permanently damaged. But as a matter of fact, it was fairly typical of the time. What was perhaps untypical was the awareness on my part, from a very early age, that I was so fragile I might not live. So I overheard my mother's prayers and tears and conversations about the loss -- the potential loss of me and how delicate.
SENDAKAnd I knew I could die. I knew I could die at too early an age when children might suspect that, or when children are more concerned about the loss of their mothers and fathers or their dogs and their cats or their grandmas, but not of themselves. That came too early. But I don't blame them for that, because they were very straightforward people. They didn't spare me anything. And it's somehow what I've done to my audience, too. I've been very clear and straight, in a way that has, you know...
SENDAKAbsolutely. You shouldn't be this clear to children. But, see, I've never set out to write books for children. I never set out to do -- this is my life's work. I'm going to write just for children. I didn't categorize myself. And I've never categorized them, because I was never categorized as a child. My father and mother told us everything they could tell us to prepare us for life. Okay? And that somehow went into the body of work that I did. So to be shoved into a little ghetto of kiddy book land is irritating and I refuse to be there.
REHMWhat does that mean, your mother and father told you everything you needed to know to be prepared for life?
SENDAKHow hard it was going to be. How difficult it was going to be to survive, simply to earn a living. Because they had found it so hard. My parents -- my father lost every member of his family to the Holocaust. They worked so hard to bring their families over and, of course, they began with my mother's family. And they got most of her people here except her brother, who died. And then when they were just to begin on my father's family, it was too late. So the death of families, the death of people on the other side, the death of children who were my age, but by the shear quixotic nature of it -- I was on one side of the ocean and they on the other -- really burned a hole in my brain. It was that kind of thing.
SENDAKIf I was bad, if I was spoiled, if I was spoiled, if I was stubborn, I was told in no uncertain terms the great good fortune I had at even being alive. And were I there, I would be in an oven. Those are hard things to take.
REHMYou spent a lot of time looking out the window, watching people.
SENDAKSpent a lot of time looking out the window. When you're not strong, that's what you do. And every book I've done has a window in it. "Kenny's Window" was the first book I wrote and illustrated. Ida plays a magic horn out her window. There are windows galore in all the books, because it was my companion, looking out in the street and watching life's parade was pretty much what I was going to have to do.
REHMYou finished high school, but you vowed never to go to college.
SENDAKVowed never to go to college.
SENDAKBecause I hated school so much. There is a regret now because I don't speak languages. I -- my education is full of holes. And now, in my advanced state, I could enjoy college. Because I don't have that paranoia about school. But it was terrible back then. And I was misunderstood, like a lot of kids. I was left-handed, which was considered deficient and stupid, made to sit in back of the room. You were made to feel, all the time, inadequate and constantly competing with the brighter, right-handed children. Impossible situation to grow up in. Impossible situation. And the only thing you could do is what I did, which was to totally retreat into myself, be belligerent, hostile.
SENDAKAnd then when the teachers became interesting and warm, I didn't trust them. I didn't think there could be such a thing.
SENDAKAnd they were. Some of them are still my friends. My English teacher in high school, who made every effort -- this woman -- to engage me. I wouldn't let her in. No way. It was too late.
REHMI didn't go to college either. And through doing this show, I feel as though I've had the benefit of private tutors every day. You could enjoy private tutors, perhaps.
SENDAKOh, yes. But also, probably like you, since I was so aware of not going to college, and I'm a great reader and devourer of literature, that I do more homework than any…
SENDAK...college student could do to improve myself. And I spent my entire life improving myself and enriching my appetite for reading.
REHMYou actually designed toys for a while.
REHMBecause after you left high school, you went to FAO Schwarz.
SENDAKYeah. I was going to be a toy designer with my brother. My brother Jack is five years older than I and my very best friend in the whole world.
SENDAKWe were going to be the little toymaker...
SENDAK...brothers. And he made the mechanical aspects of it, which were totally ingenious. Little Red Riding hood coming into grandma's room and she stands there and you pull a lever and the wolf comes rearing out of the bed as she collapses in a dead faint. Then you push the lever back and then you do the whole thing again.
SENDAKIt was impossible to reproduce and commercially make. They were just hand-crafted wooden toys. My brother has three and I keep three. They're moldering because my nephew and niece played with them. They're wrecks. But nevertheless, I got a proper job there at FAO Schwarz, when I couldn't sell my work as a young man. And I worked in the toy store.
REHMAnd then your first break as an illustrator came.
SENDAKIt was the book you mentioned...
SENDAK...Marcel Ayme, "The Wonderful Farm," that Ursula Nordstrom, it was the first thing she gave me. I had no experience. She was undaunted. She rather loved the challenge of an ignorant, rough kid, who she could train. That was her thing.
REHMBut what about the connection between toy making, FAO Schwarz, and illustrating? How did that count?
SENDAKWell, I worked in the window-display department, and I stuffed the windows full of drawings. I was luring somebody. And I lured Ursula into the store. She was curious about those pictures in the window and spoke to this wonderful, brave, marvelous woman named Frances Christie, who was then book buyer at the store. Frances was my mentor. That book department, in those days, was the best in the country, the best children's department. And Frances brought about the liaison between me and Ursula. And that friendship began. I've lost both these friends quite recently.
REHMOh. I'm sorry.
SENDAKAnd it's really hard. And it's really hard to do without them, because it's probably a part of my most personal history as an artist.
REHMMaurice Sendak is with me. And we'll open the phones now. There is a brand new paperback version of E.T.A. Hoffmann's "Nutcracker." And, of course, with the most glorious illustrations by Maurice Sendak. Good morning, Martha. You're on the air.
MARTHAHi. I'm just so thrilled to be able to talk to Mr. Sendak.
REHMI can appreciate that. I feel the same way.
MARTHAI was born in 1950 and I still remember being -- having "A Hole is to Dig" read to me. And now we're reading it to my -- to our four-year-old son. And actually, at the moment, we're reading, "What Do You Say, Dear?" the illustrations that you did for that.
MARTHAAnd he loves "Where the Wild Things Are," and actually, for baby presents, I only buy the Nutshell Library, which he knows completely by heart.
MARTHAAnd I just -- I just wanted to tell you, you've made just such a wonderful contribution to our family life. I just can't even begin to tell you. I only had one question.
MARTHAI read in a biography of you that "The Wild" -- that the faces of "The Wild Things" were, in fact, based on relatives in your home when you were growing up. And there was the long story about how you had to sit around and keep them company while your mother, who was a very slow cook, was off in the kitchen. Is that really true?
SENDAKThat's really true. While she was slow cooking, they were pinching my face and my brother's face and my sister's face and their crude, rough, fat, red hands and saying, you look so good, we could eat you up. And we knew they'd eat anything. So it was a problem.
SENDAKI've exorcized them in that book.
MARTHAWell, thank you so much for all your work. I just -- we just all love it and will continue to. We have a baby now and I'm sure -- and she has post -- a "Where the Wild Things Are" poster in her room.
REHMGood. Thanks a lot.
MARTHAThank you so much.
REHMChris, you're on the air.
CHRISHi. I feel as Martha did about his books. They're great.
REHMGood. I'm glad.
CHRISSo, the one that just moved me -- almost, I couldn't finish reading it, was "Dear Mili."
CHRISAnd my middle daughter is enthralled with that book. How did you come across this story?
SENDAKThe story was in letter Wilhelm Grimm wrote to a little girl in 1816. And it never ended up in any of the collections, because it was in a letter, so nobody knew the story existed. And we had the great good luck of finding out about the letter and having an American dealer purchase the letter, bringing it to America, and the United States being the first country to publish...
SENDAK...this manuscript. And it's just come out in Germany to very interesting reviews, three years after the American edition. And, of course, I fell in love with the story. It's one of the most moving fairy tales ever. And obviously it was written to console this little girl, whom Wilhelm had written to. And she probably lost a parent. And the way you were moved was the way I was moved when I was making pictures.
REHMGood morning, Eric. You're on the air.
ERICHi. Everything that the people have said so far goes the same for me. Mr. Sendak, it's been a pleasure to read you over the years. I had a question. I have a memory, sort of dim, about a book that I read when I was -- or had it read to me when I was a child. It was, I think, by Robert Graves, called "The Big Green Book."
ERICAnd I was wondering if my memory is right. Did you illustrate that?
SENDAKI certainly did.
ERICI was wondering, could you tell me anything about that book? Because that's really -- I remember that to this day. It really affected me a lot.
SENDAKThat is one of the most demonic books ever written. And I bet you liked it.
ERICOh, I did. Loved it.
SENDAKWell, because it's full of revenge.
SENDAKSmall kids having revenge on grownups.
ERICThe poker game to win his aunt and uncle's house away from them and so on.
SENDAKExactly. And he makes their nails grow right through their palms.
ERICYeah. Yeah, yeah.
SENDAKI mean, it's a wrathful book. And I was really lucky to get it, because it's a Robert Graves book. I believe it's one of the only children's books he wrote. And it is a very funny book. It's just come back into print, alas not as "The Big Green Book," as it was designed, which was a big, green book.
SENDAKIt's a bit smaller, but it's still alive.
ERICAnd it's still in -- it's -- you can get it now?
SENDAKYou can get it now.
REHMAll right, Eric. Thanks for calling.
ERICThank you very much.
REHMMargaret in Laurel, you're on the air.
MARGARETWell, I echo all of the wonderful comments that have been made so far.
MARGARETAnd I do make a habit of looking at Sendak books for guests. And I sent "Dear Mili" to my goddaughter a couple of years ago when it -- I guess it was first out at Christmastime...
MARGARET...it was introduced. But I really called to tell you that my two-and-a-half-year-old son really likes "Where the Wild Things Are." And the other day, my husband was playing with him and Peter looked him in the eye and said, you marvelous beast. Thank you for your work.
REHMThanks for calling. Lynn, you're on the air.
LYNNThank you. I'm another '30s baby and...
LYNN...apparently one of the few politically conservative women to call in to your program. But I just wanted to say that I love the anatomically correct "Night Kitchen." I loved reading it to my grandchildren. And I echo everything that everybody said. Thank you.
REHMI'm glad, Lynn.
REHMThanks so much for calling.
REHMYou're listening to my 1993 interview with author and illustrator Maurice Sendak on "The Diane Rehm Show." We'll be right back.
REHMThis is a rebroadcast of my 1993 interview with author and illustrator Maurice Sendak. I hope you enjoy.
REHMMaurice Sendak, you had a heart attack at age 38.
REHMThat probably had a pretty profound effect on your life.
SENDAKYeah, it did. It made me realize what life begins at 40 means, I mean if you make 39. It also traditionally, like it does with people, shapes up your life in some way and redefines things, and one was I was shocked because without even being aware of it, I thought I was going to be spared so that I could work, and here I was faced with the same anxiety I was as a very small child, the acute vulnerability. So life after that meant working very hard and making really crucial creative decisions as to what it was I was going to be doing and really carving up my life in such a way that it was almost entirely devoted, in a monastic sense, to working so that even now, we talked about my starting a children's theater, I had to plan this very carefully because I have to walk and out of bad health.
SENDAKAnd the only way to improve my health is to work. It's the best medicine. Doctors cannot provide that medicine, they simply can't. But creative labor can, and books and opera and my new theater all have come together to keep me going, and they have kept me going.
REHMHas the realization of the health problem freed you in any way?
SENDAKYes, well, it's freed me from a lot of mundane things, a lot of worrisome career things and whatcha-gonna-do-in-life type things. I read only Herman Melville and Henry James and Jane Austin and George Elliott.
REHMSounds like my husband, yeah.
SENDAKI read just the books I've got to read, and people say I'm a snob, and I am a snob, I suppose, but I don't have time for the trivialities. I just won't take the time for the trivialities. I don't know how long it's going to be. And that isn't a morbid thought, I don't walk around thinking about dying, I just walk around thinking about living and how precious it is, and then there are so m many wonderful books to read and wonderful bits of music to hear and just those few operas I really want to design and just those few books I really want to do and just this theater I really want to start, and I want to work with young people and teach them and be unto them what Ursula was to me.
SENDAKAnd when she died two years ago, I thought I -- life was insupportable. But now I figured out what to do because with my theater, I can become Ursula.
REHMThe national children's theater you're talking about is called The Night Kitchen.
SENDAKIt's called The Night Kitchen after..
REHMTell me how it operates.
SENDAKOkay, it is -- it started a couple years ago with me and Arthur Yorinks, who is an old student of mine and has developed a beautiful career as a children's book writer and a librettist, and Arthur and his wife Adrian live just 10 minutes from where I live in Connecticut, so it's wonderful. He is my partner in The Night Kitchen, and we work together on projects. It is a not-for-profit children's theater, a national theater, which we hope with success will travel around the country. We'll do projects out of various and complicated and interesting -- not just plays, but well, we have "Really Rosie," which I am bringing back, which I will redesign and which I will direct because I've been trying to direct, I've directed one opera already.
SENDAKThere is an opera, "Hansel and Gretel," which I'm designing right now for Toronto and New York and Night Kitchen, which is perfect for us as a theater. There is "Peter Pan." Arthur and I will collaborate on a whole new version, not a musical version but a play version, and I will design the "Peter Pan," and then there's Arthur's book, "Hey, Al." So we have a series of projects, which show the varieties of creative work that a child can enjoy, which it'll include books, I want to start a radio program because I grew up on radio, and I had the most passionate memories of hearing "Let's Pretend."
SENDAKWith Nila Mack.
SENDAKWith Nila Mack.
REHMExactly, my favorite program.
SENDAKAnd I want that back. I still listen to the radio. I love hearing people read me stories while I'm drawing on the radio. And so this sounds very ambitious, and perhaps it's too ambitious because raising money in America today is, as you know, very difficult, but I am impassioned about this thing. I mean, I have become so obsessed with doing this, and we have gotten some money from my publisher, we endow with a million dollars to begin, and so we can start.
SENDAKAnd "Rosie" and "Peter Pan" and "Hansel and Gretel" are now in production, and we have a contract with SUNY Purchase in New York to use one of their theaters as a workshop, because we didn't have a working space, and they're only a half-hour drive away. So my whole life is getting in circles. So my health isn't in jeopardy anymore. I can just be around. Arthur is there, and Adrian is there, and SUNY Purchase is there, and the occasional trip to New York, but people come to see me, and the theater has begun.
SENDAKAnd you know what I have in my mind, and it's a conceit, I admit, but I grew up on Orson Wells and the Mercury Theater on the radio.
REHMSo did I.
SENDAKAnd that passionate little group of people, those wonderful people who then appeared in "Citizen Kane" and creating something in The Depression, when there was no money, it can be done. And I just read a biography of Margaret Wise Brown, who was the mother of all children's books in America, and people don't even know that she wrote "Goodnight Moon" and "The Runaway Bunny." Her name is lost because children's books are condescended to and looked down as a minor art form. To have a biography of Margaret out is going to change that, but also it'll show that how books began in America in the '30s, how children's books exploded in the '30s. That was The Depression, too.
REHMJack, you're on the air.
JACKYes, good morning, Diane.
JACKAnd good morning to Maurice Sendak. This is Jack Reynolds from a million years ago in New York.
JACKAnd I remember fondly -- first of all, I'm delighted to hear that you have so many fans in Washington. And I remember a long, long time ago we did a program, a series in New York, called Children Explore Books. And you were kind enough to do the drawings, which we used for the titles of the show.
SENDAKI remember that.
JACKAnd I also was struck, our kids, who grew up in Hong Kong, devoured your books.
JACKJust like the kid with the postcard. You're very good for a high-fiber diet. But one of the things that struck me, Maurice, and I had not thought about this before, is that some of the static you're getting I think has to do with adults and nothing to do with children.
SENDAKOh, I agree with you.
JACKThey're -- you know, they're still terrified of -- and kids have the most macabre, wonderful senses of humor.
SENDAKAnd kids are so busy protecting their parents and other adults from knowing what they know because they're so polite and good-natured, and they don't want to frighten their parents.
JACKWell in our case, with two now teenagers, they're still doing the same thing. But I think that you've really gone to the core of something in everyone's psyche, and the kids obviously love it, and they're smarter than adults anyway.
SENDAKI'm afraid so.
JACKAnd adults just are frightened, at least the ones you've been dealing with like those silly librarians.
SENDAKYeah, and we're speaking very generally because there are marvelous adults who are on this wavelength.
REHMAll right, Jack, thanks so much for calling.
REHMChildren in your own life, you have so many through your books. Has there ever been any desire on your part to have your own children?
SENDAKOh sure, but I'm a selfish and egotistical artist, and I would not have made a good father, as so many of my artist friends have not. So it was better not to. Plus I had the privilege, a sad one in a way because my brother-in-law died reasonably young, and I helped my sister bring up my nephew and niece, which only proved what an ordinary and a bad parent I was. I love them. I love them, but I drove them crazy with demands. I did all the things that people do wrong. I have no pretensions to knowing more about doing it than most other people.
SENDAKI still love them, but we still have our problems, and then I'm in the fortunate position of being good uncle to all my friends' children. When they get totally fed up with their parents, they come to Maurice. So it -- and of course those parents are infuriated that I get the best of their children, but I've had a wonderful time bringing up other people's children, quite like bringing up your own.
REHMKathleen in McLean, you're on the air.
KATHLEENHi, I -- I'm glad to hear that "Peter Pan" is being reworked, but I do want to mention something. I don't know if you made the connection when you wrote "In the Night Kitchen," but in the late '50s, when I was about seven or eight, I had the fortune to go to a Catholic elementary school, and we were taught, which I think is a good analogy, that our souls are like a milk bottle, milk was delivered in those days in bottles.
SENDAKYes, of course.
KATHLEENThat when we did something wrong, sometimes our soul would get dark, but when we made things better, it would become pure white again like the milk bottle. And I thought you would want to know about that.
SENDAKThat's very beautiful. I've never, ever heard that. I love knowing that. I love knowing that because it just enriches everything about what's -- that milk bottle is a whole other thing to me, but it's lovely to hear that, it's a beautiful image.
KATHLEENWhat was it to you, then?
SENDAKMilk bottle to me was the clinking early in the morning of dawn because I was an insomniac as a child, and I could visualize the milkman coming, I could hear the horse pawing in the street, the tinkle coming up the steps, the clank of those beautiful bottles, the deposit in the front door and my rushing to the door to get that fresh smell. I just loved that. It also -- I must be honest with you, "In the Night Kitchen," it's the Empire State Building because my favorite movie was King Kong, and there it was. The giant milk bottle was the Empire State, and there's Mickey in his airplane going around the top like those airplanes that done in our beloved Kong.
REHMWhat a wonderful exchange between you and Kathleen. Thanks for calling. Karen in Bethesda, you're on the air.
KARENHello, I have a book of German Romantic painting, and I was looking through it one day and saw a painting of fat-cheeked children with sunflowers in the background, and it all clicked into place. I was just thrilled with the way that you took that and used it. And I wonder if I keep looking will I find other things like that, sources that you've used.
SENDAKOh, I'm a big thief. You will find much. But I bet you the picture you looked at was something called "The Hulsenbeck Kinder" by Philipp Otto Runge.
SENDAKYes, that's one of the greatest painting of all time for the animalistic passion of children, and I stole from him in "Dear Millie," and his name is entwined in the leaves, and as punishment I named my German shepherd Runge, so I have to repeat his name over and over and over again.
KARENThank you very much.
REHMAnd thanks for calling, Karen. Let's go to Kid Island, Sam, you're on the air.
SAMI wanted to ask in this -- he was going to write any other books about his characters in the -- like Max and Mickey.
SENDAKI hope I do. I don't know, I don't know, to tell you the truth, Sam, I don't know because you don't know when a book is going to happen. You know, it's a little bit like a quiet explosion in your head, and you always hope it's going to happen, but you don't know. So keep your fingers crossed for me that another Max or Mickey is on the way.
SAMAnd my brothers really like your books, and my parents own a toy store, (unintelligible) stores.
SENDAKYou sound like a lucky kid.
SAMCalled Bebeep, and once you came to one of them and autographed.
SAMStuffed animals that we have.
REHMSam, how old are you?
REHMWell I'm awfully glad you called in this morning.
REHMThanks a lot.
SENDAKThank you, Sam.
REHMAnd a caller in Fairfax, Helen, you're on the air.
HELENHi, good morning Mrs. Rehm and Maurice.
HELENI'd like to say that I was a student in Maurice Sendak's illustration class at Parsons in 1976, and I don't know if you remember me, my name is Helen Mullen. (sp?)
SENDAKI do now. I heard the last name.
HELENI just want to say that some of the things that you taught us as seniors in college I've used all through my professional life. I'm now teaching illustration down here in Fairfax.
SENDAKGood for you, good for you.
HELENAs well as working. And I've been encouraging my students to steal, too.
SENDAKI taught you all to be crooks, didn't I?
HELENAbsolutely, and they just are horrified when they first hear about it, but once they realize that we all learn from each other, and we artists need to borrow from each other, their work comes alive.
SENDAKIt's much more real, isn't it, to say that that's how it has to happen, and it's facetious to say thievery and stealing because it really is learning.
SENDAKAnd that's the only way to learn is to be honest and look and take and make it into your own work.
HELENYeah, yeah, absolutely.
REHMThank you, Helen.
SENDAKGood to hear from you.
REHMTalk about that teaching process for you and how you have been in relationship with your students as you teach.
SENDAKIt may seem paradoxical, Diane, because of how much I hated school that I would then end up a teacher.
SENDAKBut I knew what was missing. I knew what kids like me needed. And I gave a workshop, I gave a workshop at Yale for a year, I gave a workshop at Parsons in New York, and it was simply to be papa protective. You kind of -- you get students who are so gifted. I mean, it's there, it's in the wiring. You don't teach people to be gifted. There are that are, and there are those that never will be.
SENDAKBut the ones that are are tremendously high-strung, ready to go, and they need the kind of encouragement and affection that a teacher can give you. You don't teach talented people, you only support them. You spend a lot of time talking to their parents on the phone, and if they're female students, then there's a lot of discussion with parents about let this kid go, even though she's a girl, let her be an artist. You'd be amazed how nothing has changed when it comes to that.
SENDAKAnd so I was a support system and a helper so that the very gifted ones could get out in the world and begin to work with my help. That's really what I did, and that's what I wanted to, and I'd help them through a book. The only thing they had to do in class was to write and illustrate a book, or for those who only illustrated, pick a Mother Goose rhyme or a fairy tale and do the pictures. You didn't have to finish the book, there was no grading. I tried to talk all that hideous pressure out of it.
SENDAKStrangely it didn't work as well as I liked because it was attached to colleges where they were affronted and assaulted by other systems that zapped their energies. And I don't want to harp on my theater, I don't, but this is the way I'm going to teach, and as an artist in my theater, it's no college. They don't have to worry about other grades. They just have to come, work, and I'll put them right onstage, and I can do what I couldn't do as a teacher in a college, employ them and pay them. That's the big thing, to pay them.
REHMIt seems to me I read that you said somewhere that enjoying yourself or taking pleasure out of life was not something that came easily in your family.
SENDAKYeah, it was not. It was a very unhappy household. I was treated well, and I was loved, but we lived under the doom cloud of World War II, again typical of a generation. But I am happy now, I am happy to report. It began in my 50s, when I did "Outside Over There" and when I began -- "Outside Over There" was -- it was an exorcism. It was getting rid of so much that had burdened me in my life in a work of art. Maybe that's why I love it so much, because it carried away finally, like the waters in that book, all the sadness and all the troubles.
SENDAKAnd then after that it really got better, and I was one of those human beings that has to wait to be happy, and I'm grateful. I got to be happy in my 50s, and I'm now in my 60s, and with the prospect of the theater, with the prospect of illustrating Herman Melville's "Pierre," my first grown-up book, and doing homage to my greatest hero in American literature, I'm not only happy, I'm excited. Every prospect is before me.
SENDAKIt's funny and ironical that you have to wait to your 60s, but who are you going to complain to?
REHMWell, and some people never get there.
SENDAKAnd some people never, correct. I adore my sister, and she never will. My sister is 70, and she comes from the same cloudy family. And so I see that, you're right, you're right, I'm a very lucky man.
REHMWell, and I feel myself to be a very lucky woman to have had a chance to talk with you. Thank you so much for being here.
SENDAKThanks, Diane, I've enjoyed it.
REHMThe interview you've just heard with Maurice Sendak was originally broadcast on September 21, 1993. It's one of our farewell favorites.
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