|Maurice Sendak, Kenny's Window, 1956.|
The news of Maurice Sendak's death yesterday, at the age of 83 caught me off-guard.
Last week I received a copy of Dear Genius, a selection from the intensely personal, perceptive and generous professional letters of one of the most influential figures in children's literature in the 20th century, the children's book editor Ursula Nordstrom. She was directly or indirectly responsible for discovering, spotting or encouraging authors and helping them produce such classics as Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen (Maurice Sendak), Goodnight Moon, The Runaway Rabbit (Margaret Wise Brown), Harold and the Purple Crayon (Crocket Johnson), Stuart Little (E. B. White) and The Giving Tree (Shel Silverstein), to name only a few.
I have really enjoyed reading this and witnessing her extraordinary relationship with the authors. I found myself paying special attention to her letters to Sendak.
In her letter to Sendak of Feburary 21, 1955, we get a glimpse of the thoroughness of her procedures and her belief in her authors:
'your new ideas for the ending of Kenny's Window seem wonderful to me [...]. Keep working on it and when you have all the chapters together, you and I can go over it word for word. [...] But the main thing is: Thanks for everything I'm sure you're doing to the book.In the same letter, we feel her (genuine) enthusiasm:
As for the colors for the Krauss book -words are no good whatsoever. There are a few peaks in an editor's life and seeing those pictures of yours has been a peak of mine.'
I enjoyed her sense of humour and her expression of friendship.
June 10, 1955
Dear Maurice, I mean Marlon: [...]Hope you have a good birthday. [...] As I have said to you other years, I am very glad you got born.
I enjoyed their discussion on genius and what kind of genius Sendak might be:
August 21, 1961
[...] 'Yes, Tolstoy is wonderful, but you can express as much emotion and "cohesion and purpose" in some of your drawings as there is in War and Peace. I mean that. You write and draw from the inside out, which is why I said poet.
[...] You wrote "my world is furniture-less. It is all feeling". Well, feeling (emotion) combined with an artist's discipline is the rarest thing in the world. You love and admire the work of some other contemporary artists and writers today but really, think how few of them have any vigorous emotional vitality? What you have is RARE.'And of course, her expression of excitement and awe at the results of Sendak's work:
'September 23, 1963
[...] When you were much younger; and had done only a couple of books, I remember I used to write you letters when the books were finished and thank you for "another beautiful" job - or some such dopiness. Now you're rich and famous and need no words of wonder from me. But I must send them, anyhow, when I look through Where the Wild Things Are. I think it is utterly magnificent, and the words are beautiful and meaningful, and it does just what you wanted to do. And you did what you wanted to do.'I was still in the middle of reading the letters when, last Sunday I read a post on the blog of another favourite author and illustrator of mine, Sergio Ruzzier (see Amandina), about his experience on The Sendak Fellowship, a residency program set up in 2010 'to give artists the time and space to explore their craft outside the increasing constraints of the publishing world'. I quote Ruzzier:
'He is a very warm, sweet and witty person, but also very honest. He told me what he liked in my books and what he didn't like. His main concern was that some of my choices were too safe and tame. "You need to be brave" he said to me. I tried to blame the publishers, and he did acknowledge that today's industry, at least in the United States, is not as favorable and nurturing as it was forty or fifty years ago. But that, he told me, should not be an excuse. He is completely right and I already knew that. But talking with him, while walking in the woods with his dog Herman, made me remember why I draw and tell stories.'And it struck me how beautifully circular it all was. And how generous for an old man who is tired and needs to prove no more to anyone, to decide to spend the last years of his life nurturing younger illustrators and injecting life, braveness and a sense of urgency to be honest in their work. And I thought to myself that I couldn't think of many more beautiful ways of ending your life.
And then yesterday, two days after reading Ruzzier's post and one day after finishing Nordstrom's letters, he died. Sendak has been unusually present in my mind over the last few days and perhaps that is why the news has shaken me more than I would have expected.
I was going to try and sum up what Sendak did and why he was so good at it, but I'll let him do so himself:
'I think what I’ve offered was different, but not because I drew better than anybody or wrote better than anybody, but because I was more honest than anybody. In the discussion of children and the lives of children and the fantasies of children and the language of children I said anything I wanted. Because I don’t believe in children, I don’t believe in childhood. I don’t believe there is this demarcation. Like, ‘You mustn’t tell them that, You mustn’t tell them that.’ You can tell them anything you want. Just tell them if it’s true. If it’s true, you tell them.'
From Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak, a documentary by Spike Jonze and Lance Bangs, 2009. Here's a short extract of it:
I would like to finish this post with three of Sendak's incredibly meaningful and complex opening lines:
Where the Wild Things
The night Max wore his wolf suit and did mischief of one kind and another, his mother called him 'Wild thing' and Max said 'I’ll eat you up' and he was sent to bed without eating anything.
In the Night Kitchen
Did you ever hear of Mickey, how he heard a racket in the night and shouted ‘Quiet down there!’ and fell through the dark, out of his clothes, past the moon and his Mama and Papa sleeping tight, into the light of the night kitchen?
Outside Over There
When Papa was away at sea, and Mama in the arbor, Ida played her wonder horn to rock the baby still – but never watched.Hard to imagine more "cohesion and purpose" than in these three openings, Mr. Sendak.
(c) of the illustration, Maurice Sendak, 1956.
(c) of the text, Ellen Duthie. By all means copy it or reproduce it, but please cite your source (author and blog).
Reviews and readings of books by Maurice Sendak on We Read it Like This: