From The Comics Journal #140 (February 1991)
Someone once said that Maurice Sendak, children’s book author and illustrator, drew “little old people worrying away their childhoods.” It’s true: Sendak’s work is remarkable for its lack of sentimentality and its depiction of childhood as it really is, a time of coming to grips with the sometimes unpleasant and frightening world around you — a reality that children’s literature often tries to ignore. What his work also contains is a genuine sensitivity to the complexity and intelligence of children.
Sendak was born in 1928 in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Jewish-Polish immigrants. He received little formal art training. One of his first professional illustration jobs was filling in the backgrounds for the Mutt and Jeff comic strip after classes in high school. Sendak’s best-known work is Where The Wild Things Are. With that book he perfected his own unique picture book format, characterized by the complete integration of a rhythmic poetic text with engaging and dynamic illustration, a relationship reminiscent of choreography.
In December of 1987, The Cartoon Art Museum of San Francisco held a symposium on children’s book illustration. The main attraction of the event was a question-and-answer session with Maurice Sendak, an abridged transcription of which follows. At that time Sendak was illustrating a book, based on a Wilhelm Grimm fairy tale newly discovered in 1983, which would come to be titled Dear Mili.
MAURICE SENDAK: In this article, which I saw the other day, which is really very funny, I am referred to as “Morose Sendak” [audience laughter]. Actually, the use of that as my first name has been frequent for people who think the books are over-serious, or that I treat children too seriously, or I’m not comical enough. That has been my name for a good part of my life, including childhood, when my sister used that on me, too.
I can talk about what I’m working on right now. I haven’t illustrated a picture book since 1980. My last picture book was something called Outside Over There, and then I began designing for the stage, sets and costumes for operas and ballets, which is my new profession at this point, with occasional dipping back into books. Only occasionally, because I feel as though I’ve done most of the books I want to do at this point in my life.
But then this Grimm came up. The Grimm is a fairy tale that’s never been published before, and it was found in a letter, seven years ago, that Wilhelm Grimm wrote to a little girl. Her mother had died and he was trying to console her and, like all adults who are trying to console children, he made a mess of it. He was using language and she was only feeling at this point; she couldn’t figure out his language. So right in the middle, he quit trying to explain this complicated business called death and said, “Just let me tell you a story.”
He told an original fairy tale, which has never seen the light of day because the family kept the letter through all those generations. The letter was sold, got to America, a dealer bought it, got it to a publisher, and I’m now illustrating it. The Germans are fuming. They were very anxious and upset in Europe because this will be the first Grimm tale that has not been published in Germany, or with the original stories back in the early 19th century. I work with the publisher, and so I will thus be the first illustrator to illustrate this story, and America will be the country that will publish it [audience applause].
I agree with you. We keep the story hidden in a vault because would a German passing through New York happen to see it, he could translate it instantly and it’ll get published in Munich before we know it. So there are only three copies. Mine is at my bedside, the other is in a vault in New York, and somebody else has it out in California. Anyway, it’s been three years since I’ve been working on it. I’ve done all the studies, did all the sketches, had problems with it because it’s a religious story, I’ve never illustrated a religious story. Frankly, I have difficulty with that kind of subject. Having spent a year researching it, I vacationed at a monastery in New York State, not because I’m religious, obviously, but because they breed German Shepherds and I’m a German Shepherd freak, so the idea of dogs and monks was terrific. They actually helped me with the story. The father up there is a very — now — excellent friend of mine. For the past year, starting last January, I started painting. I’ve just finished the book, a full year’s work. I have to go home after this trip and do the jacket and deliver the book by Christmas and it’ll be out next Christmas. So this will have been a long three-year job on this book. I’m very emotionally invested in this little girl and in her mother. Like all the people you work with, imaginatively speaking, in a book, I’m going to miss her very, very much.
The story about the Grimm tale I was telling you about is in many strange ways a continuation, at least in my own head, of Outside Over There, because Outside Over There had a mother, two daughters — the elder daughter trying desperately to get rid of the younger daughter, which is typical of households. My sister was nine years older than I, so she was my mother, basically, and both adored me and brutalized me at the same time. When I came to do the Grimm, I couldn’t get rid of the same image of the mother from Outside Over There, so she now comes into the Grimm fairy tale. It’s like Ida, the oldest girl from Outside Over There, has moved to a big town and the baby is now about five or six years old, and so the story takes up with the mother and the baby.
The reason I do this is because I didn’t write the Grimm story, and in illustrating someone else’s book, unless I can find some way of investing myself emotionally into the material, even pretending it’s my story, then I have a difficult time drawing pictures for it. But I have to be inside the book, tremendously. I have to really admire the text very much, the form of the writing, the subject, the emotional content, all of it. If I can get inside to that extent then I’m going to do something that I will enjoy doing. Otherwise I’m going to be just illustrating a book, which is of no interest to me at all whatever at this point in my life.
[Responding to a question about his commenting on how bad his work is.]
SENDAK: My pleasure comes when I officially begin the book. The excitation of starting. Getting the images in my head. That is absolutely the best part, in laying out the book, in designing it, in the characters appearing under your pencil. It’s absolutely true that whenever I finish it doesn’t look anything like what that first vivid impression was. I see all my faults. I see how badly I draw feet. I see how badly I do this. And those are faults which are inherent in my style, which maybe other people — I hope — do not see or dwell on as I do, but I really don’t like my pictures when I’m finished with them. I give them away to a foundation. I don’t have anything of mine hanging in the house [except for] a few favorite pictures from books. There’s one of my dog Jennie from Higglety Pigglety Pop. But that’s because it’s her, not because I drew it.
I don’t get pleasure from finished drawings. I get pleasure from finishing the book and the release from having finished it, and knowing that it’s the best I can do. I redraw everything that must be redrawn. I’m not lazy. But even in the end, the totality of it is disappointing to me.
QUESTION: So you see this picture in the mind’s eye and you draw it out, and it never comes out like that?
SENDAK: It doesn’t look like the picture I saw, no.
QUESTION: I have a similar question. When you do illustrated work that deals more with characters than animals or people, do you also see the backgrounds on the paintings?
SENDAK: That’s a curious question, I think, because both things happen. I sometimes see characters, I sometimes see only backgrounds. I don’t often see whole settings with characters and backgrounds. At other times, I don’t see anything at all. I just have a feeling, a very excited, happy feeling, but I have to explore that feeling on paper, and then my hand begins to do it.
If you saw that whole documentary [a film on Sendak from the PBS series American Masters], the best homework I can advise is sketching. It has certainly worked well with me as I sketch to music. Put the record player on, and you take a blank sheet of paper. You start at the top, and you have to finish that sheet of paper by the time that piece of music ends. Since it’s one sheet of paper, it’s best that you don’t work with the symphonies; it’s best that you work with a sonata or a quartet or a popular song, whatever music excites you. But the exercise is, start at the top, get to the bottom when the music is done, and it must be coherent. It must have a plot. But you must not think about the plot. It must simply flow out of your hands, almost like unconscious writing. I find music is such an incredible stimulus to the unconscious. Usually I’ll pick the composer, maybe Mozart or maybe Haydn, whoever. I’ll draw a picture, a little fantasy sketch of them, and then draw about something that happened in their lives. But I must come to the end.
Of course, you end up with dozens of horrendous drawings. But, in fact, you also occasionally end up with some very good drawings that are fresh-cooked right out of the head, and that tell you the direction that you’re going, or that tell you what you’re thinking about. It’s like forcing your dreams out on a drawing paper. That is the only exercise. It’s like playing the piano every day so that when you get to the concert you really play the piano. I think, when you’re illustrating a book, you have to be drawing all the time, and using the muscles in your imagination all the time, so when you get to it you are ready to work.
QUESTION: Have you ever thought about just printing your sketches?
SENDAK: Yes; the sketches always have a freshness, and they’re always vivid. They simply aren’t good enough. Maybe in an art book where you’re showing all the stages of your work, then it would be fun. People who saw the sketches I did for the Grimm said, “Publish it just that way.” Spontaneous. Then people who saw the work pencil drawings I did based on the sketches said, “Do it that way, publish the book this way.” What you have to do is, one, don’t show anybody anything, which was the mistake I made, and two, wait until you know that you have finished with what you’ve done.
I’ve never, ever, ever done sketches that I felt were adequate. They’re all lively, and there are qualities in the drawing which are unrepeatable, we all know that, but there’s something else that’s missing. There’s composition that’s missing, there’s emotional content that’s missing, and there’s something that’s appropriate to the text that’s missing. So in my case, I can’t do it. I keep them; I enjoy them. But I haven’t published them.
[An audience member asks about how Sendak broke into the publishing business]
SENDAK: OK. The question was about my apprenticeship to my editor, how did it begin, how did it work. Her name’s Ursula Nordstrom and she ran Harper and Brothers then. She was enamored of young people and of training young people. I came off the street in New York.
This was the early ’50s, when there was no such thing, really, as big-deal children’s books in America – I was very lucky to have gotten on the ground floor. It was a little pokey department, which they gave to the women in the office. The macho pigs decided, “We don’t want to be embarrassed by running kiddie-book departments, that’s a peculiar thing to do.” They gave it to these incredible women. And had the women been smarter, they wouldn’t have made such a great success of their departments because, eventually, the most ingenious, adventurous, exciting stuff was coming out of the juvenile departments in America, like her department at Harper’s. And we began gradually to make money, which was the beginning of the end, because then we came to the notice of the goons who ran the publishing houses and then these wonderful women were dumped, unceremoniously. Then you had these other people, who maybe were good bankers but not good children’s book editors, coming in. I speak not of the people we know, Barbara. I speak in general.
But in fact, it was an incredibly ingenious time between 1950 and 1965, where we were all trained. Me and Tomi Ungerer and Ezra Jack Keats, and all the people — kids who came off the street. I had no taste whatsoever. I didn’t know anything about bookmaking. I did not have any art training. I was really just an ignoramus. Ursula simply spoon-fed me the time she spent working with me on books. The first book I wrote, Kenny’s Window, in ’57, she was up there every weekend guiding me, and I was at her house working out the text.
The books she gave me to illustrate were all chosen by her, based on what she thought was proper for my development as a young illustrator. I didn’t know how to pick them. I would have done anything because my only interest was to get enough money to move out of my house in Brooklyn and have my own apartment, so I would have illustrated the walls of the subway or the urinals; it would have made no difference. So, without her guidance …
I can look back on my backlist now, and there is not a single dud. I may have done badly illustrated books, but the books I illustrated were all terrific books. I now know that. I didn’t then. I would just do as I was told. And that kind of guidance, which was not narcissistic, which was not egocentric on her part, which was really to bring me out as an artist, to find the things that develop my particular talent, was what she was doing. What maybe half a dozen women of that period were doing at various publishing houses in America.
It was an extraordinary apprenticeship. You got the full blast of these people’s attention and gradually you grew up.
You learned right from the beginning. I read manuscripts at Harper’s. She forced me to read manuscripts, to critique them. I ran errands. I hung around. It’s something I would like to think is true today, but I’m not sure is. I don’t think it is true, actually, because I have taught and I know how difficult it is to get into the business now. But back then it just wasn’t a business. It was an incredible privilege to be drawing pictures and hanging around.
QUESTION: A technical question. I noticed on the film that you were placing an overlay; it looked like an ink-drawing overlay over the painting. Is that the way you always work?
SENDAK: No. Actually, that book was done in four-color process. Meaning, you do the color separate from the line. It is a less expensive way of doing it. And also, to a certainty, your line will be clearer that way, because of the printing problems in doing a book. Most of my books are full color, and they’re printed as full-color works. But I wanted, in Night Kitchen, to really look like a comic strip. I wanted it to look like Little Nemo. I wanted it to be Winsor McCay. I wanted to do a facsimile of a comic book, and in separating you have the perfect clarity of the line, and clarity of the color, and then they’re superimposed on each other, and you’ve got a comic book vividness. That’s why it was done that way.
[An audience member asks how Sendak controls his blending of fantasy and reality]
SENDAK: It’s difficult to tell you what the trick is. What is the turn-around from a fantasy situation into a reality situation in a child’s life? Like Max in The Wild Things. One minute he’s talking to his mother and the next the trees are growing out of the walls, and then he’s talking to wild things. To me, that is a normal day [audience laughter]. I really don’t think that is a trick.
I think we assume that only children have this incredible flexibility — they talk to newspapers; they talk to tablecloths; they talk to bowls of water; and we say, “How charming, how cute.” We do it, too, but we don’t do it aloud. Because we have grown up and we have gray in our beards and we’re supposed to be adults and we’re all just nervous wrecks, basically.
Children have the privilege because we have endowed them with the privilege of having this fantasy life. So they move in and out of fantasy all the time. But, I think, people always say how wonderful that you can do books for children; you have your childhood intact. They give me this really ridiculous sentimental aspect, because I think we all do; I think it’s a survival tactic; if we didn’t live in fantasy most of the day, we’d all be off your famous [Golden Gate] bridge over here, for the most part.
So I think this trick you’re talking about is no more than the observation of real life.
QUESTION: I was referring, though, to how you can have that baby talk but make it believable. Some of the editors would say, “Well, this is a little contrived to think that a fish can rescue a jade bracelet.”
SENDAK: Well, this conviction has to come from you. If your fish is talking, then it’s got to be a perfectly reasonable thing that your fish is talking. If your fish is talking and it doesn’t come really from you, then your editor is correct. That’s a contrivance. Children will know instantly. Kids know instantly when you’re patronizing them, when you’re giving them ersatz fantasy or it’s coming genuinely from the middle of your gut; they know. They are not impressed with the fact that you’ve won the Caldecott Award or that you like Mozart or any of those things; they could not care less. The book goes flying across the room. You notice from their letters; “Dear Mr. Sendak: I hate your book. I hope you die soon. Cordially…”
So this famous trick you’re talking about just didn’t work, as far as this kid was concerned. They are the most brazen audience, because they will not tolerate being bored. They won’t tolerate listening to your blither. You have got to get to it. They know the real thing from the false thing. This gets lost or fuzzy as they get older, we all know that.
But the same principle upon which they function day by day by day is the same principle upon which we function. It doesn’t change. We just get more astute at hiding it, at pretending that we’re grown-ups. They have the privilege of being natural until we stop them.
QUESTION: Do you ever envision your books pictorially, before the text is developed?
SENDAK: No. I really do think in terms of language. Even though my life has been predominantly as an illustrator and I’ve written a very small percentage of the books that I’ve illustrated, I do think in words. I prefer words. If I weren’t an illustrator, then, why aren’t I a painter? You put me in front of a canvas I’m dead as a doornail. I need language as a springboard, or I need music as a springboard. My work doesn’t generate without language. So when I think of story, I think absolutely in terms of text. And pictures come long after that.
QUESTION: What do you think about developing a story in that manner, where the stories are developed pictorially?
SENDAK: Stories shouldn’t be developed pictorially, initially. They should start out textually. Your stories should be immensely constructed by the time you’re illustrating it. You should only be worrying about your text and making something marvelous. Writing it and rewriting it and writing. Let the pictures come later. They’ll take care of themselves.
QUESTION: Are you saying that if you removed the pictures from the story that it would work just as well?
SENDAK: No. Well, that could happen. But I think what happens is if you’ve got enough confidence in yourself and you’ve resolved the text, that the pictures then do a second story, not be a mere echo. “Jane walked into the room and was eaten by the plant.” You don’t need to draw that, although maybe you’d like to draw that. But, in fact, you should draw something else. There should be a counterpoint between your pictures and your text. The best-illustrated books are the books where the text does one thing and the pictures say something just a little off-center of the language, so they’re both doing something. Otherwise you have an echo chamber. The most boring books are where the pictures are restating the text.
Who needs that? The text said it much better. So you cannot separate the pictures from the text, you shouldn’t be able to, not in a well-constructed book. They should fit in like machinery.
QUESTION: How you do research for a book?
SENDAK: Well, I love doing homework for a book, I like the research part of it. The most obvious case is the Grimm, because I’m working on it. I wanted to set the Grimm in the correct time, which means 1800. It happens also to be my favorite time. It’s Mozart’s time: it’s the end of the 18th century, beginning of the 19th century. I like the way people looked then. I think the costumes were fabulous at the turn of the century. And that’s where the Grimm comes from, that’s the air that it lived in. So I’ll do lots of homework, reading about the brothers. I read every book published in English about the brothers. And they’re all very bad; let me assure you. If anybody here publishes books, do a translation of a serious book about the brothers Grimm: we desperately need it. It’s all about these cute brothers who write stories, and it’s fatuous.
But I did that, then I looked at costume books of the period, films of the period. Not of the period, but films about the period. There was a movie which I saw, which was wonderful, by a French director named Eric Rohmer, and it was The Marquess of O by Heinrich von Kleist, who’s one of my favorite playwrights. The setting of that movie and the look of the woman in that film was very much the smell and the sense of the Grimm I was looking for. So, you do about as much of that as you wish, and then you start sketching and you start drawing. What you hope is that the homework, kind of like a big blender, goes into the inspiration and comes out into the book.