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Sendak still at work at age 83

Maurice Sendak's eyes harden and his off-center smile curls as he considers the idea of writing a memoir.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Maurice Sendak's eyes harden and his off-center smile curls as he considers the idea of writing a memoir.

"I didn't sleep with famous people or movie stars or anything like that. It's a common story: Brooklyn boy grows up and succeeds in his profession, period," he explains in his friendly growl. "I hate memoirs. I hate them. What you have is your private life. Why make it public? And how different is it from anybody else's life? People want to read things like, 'Did you have an affair with Oprah Winfrey, really and truly?'"

The world cares about the 83-year-old Sendak, whether he likes it or not. He's a dark soul who has been canonized, a hero who never asked for the job. With a sigh, and a wink, he confides that bookstores still contact him for appearances and children still call out and ask if he's the guy who wrote "Where the Wild Things Are." He even has an "in" at the White House; President Barack Obama read "Where the Wild Things Are" for the 2009 Easter Egg Roll.

Some contents in the unwritten book of Sendak: He loves Herman Melville, Mozart and Scottish author George MacDonald. He detests e-books ("ghastly"), Twitter ("Twatter") and Winfrey (although he wouldn't necessarily say no to an interview). He doesn't bother much with living writers besides Philip Roth, whose naughty "Portnoy's Complaint" he positively adores. "It was so dirty!" Sendak exclaims with the joy of a teenager who snagged a copy of Penthouse.

Wearing jeans and a thin, buttoned shirt, he sits at the breakfast table of his 18th-century farmhouse in the Connecticut countryside, where artists and their fortunes have often settled. He looks out on a wondrous garden of elm and maple trees, and grass a damp green.

Outside, it's a Maurice Sendak kind of day, gray and rainy, but with a stimulating breeze. Indoors is an exhibition of old age (walking sticks, pills for every day of the week) and playtime. On tables, walls, chairs and sofas are carvings and cushions of the real and the created, from Disney characters to the beasts from his books to a statuette of Obama, who has landed on the plus side of Sendak's checklist. A mellow German shepherd, Herman (named for Melville, not Goering, Sendak points out), rests at the author's feet.

Like an actor who keeps prematurely announcing his retirement, Sendak is back in the business that he swears he no longer cares about. "Bumble-Ardy" is the first book in 30 years he has written and illustrated, although the story dates to the 1970s, when he and Jim Henson collaborated on an animated project for "Sesame Street." The title character is an orphaned pig whose parents have gone to the slaughterhouse and whose aunt won't let him have a birthday party — so he throws one for himself.

"He's my usual kid. He's not very nice, he's disobedient, he's unkosher," Sendak says of Bumble-Ardy. "He's just a kid, and in my books I like children to be as ferocious and inventive and troublesome as they are in real life. We're painting pretty pictures about the world and there are no pretty pictures to paint. I like interesting people and kids are really interesting people, and if you don't paint them in little blue, pink and yellow it's even more interesting."

"You can see a lot of the usual Sendak romp in 'Bumble-Ardy,' the mayhem and the threat of family dissolution and the recovery at just the last minute," says Gregory Maguire, whose fourth and final "Wicked" book, "Out of Oz," comes out in November.

"But the recovery is never total. I love how you can see Bumble-Ardy's shifting off the page. He makes a promise to be good, but he's already thinking about the party next year."

Sendak's books are less about the kids he's known — never had them, he says with relief — than the kid he used to be. The son of Polish immigrants, he was born in 1928 in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. The family didn't have a lot of money and he didn't have a lot of friends besides his brother and sister. He was an outsider at birth, as Christians nearby would remind him, throwing dirt and rocks as he left Hebrew school. The kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh's baby son terrified him for years.

He does not remember having special talent — his brother, Jack, was the chosen one. But he loved to dream and to create, like the time he and his brother built a model of the 1939 World's Fair out of clay and wax. At the movies, he surrendered to the magic of "Fantasia," and later escaped into "Pinocchio," a guilty pleasure during blackened times. The Nazi cancer was spreading overseas and the U.S. entered the war. Sendak's brother joined the military, relatives overseas were captured and killed. Storytelling, after the Holocaust, became something more than diversion.

"It forced me to take children to a level that I thought was more honest than most people did," he says. "Because if life is so critical, if Anne Frank could die, if my friend could die, children were as vulnerable as adults, and that gave me a secret purpose to my work, to make them live. Because I wanted to live. I wanted to grow up."

As a young man, Sendak designed window displays for F.A.O. Schwarz and worked as an illustrator for children's books, including the "Little Bear" series by Else Holmelund Minarik. Sendak received first billing with "Where the Wild Things Are," published in 1963, adapted into a movie of the same name in 2009 by Spike Jonze and still a template for countless storytellers.

"It's the perfect picture book," says Brian Selznick, author of the award-winning "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" and a new release, "Wonderstruck," dedicated to Sendak. "It's a story you immediately identify with emotionally. You completely fall in love with the character of Max. You feel like you've been to your own place of where the wild things are. It's something we all imagine we'd like to be able to do."

"I like his somewhat stagy depictions of images on a flat plane. I like the way he stages his books as if the characters are in a pantomime and how he's always tipping his hat to illustrators he's been influenced by," Maguire says. "His stories speak to me. They remind me that books have a long life."

None of Sendak's books are memoirs, but all are personal, if only for their celebrations of disobedience and intimations of fear and death and dislocation, sketched in bold figures or in haunting waves of pen and ink. "It's a Jewish way of getting through life," says playwright Tony Kushner, a close friend. "You acknowledge what is spectacular and beautiful and also you don't close your eyes to the pain and the difficulty."

Revenge helped inspire "Where the Wild Things Are," his timeless tale of a boy's mind in flight in a forest of monsters, who just happen to look like some of Sendak's relatives from childhood. "In the Night Kitchen," released in 1970, was an after-hours dance with a deadly reference to the Holocaust (a boy is nearly placed in an oven) and a naked boy crowing like a rooster, the kind of image that led to calls for the book to be removed from library shelves.

"It was so fatuous, so incredible, that people would get so exercised by a phallus, a normal appendage to a man and to a boy. It was so cheap and vulgar. Despicable," Sendak says. "It's all changed now. We live in a different country altogether. I will not say an improved version. No."

"People say, 'This is dark,' and 'That is scary,'" Selznick added. "People have said it's inappropriate for children. But, of course, none of that is true. It is appropriate for children, and that unsentimentality and lack of fear is inspiring."

Sendak feels old, but happy, relieved to have escaped youth and all its worries. After the death of his longtime partner, Eugene Glynn, and after triple bypass surgery, he continues to compose daily and is busy with a project about noses, the bigger the better. Mortality is an appointment he is resigned to keeping.

"I want to be alone and work until the day my heads hits the drawing table and I'm dead. Kaput," he says. "Everything is over. Everything that I called living is over. I'm very, very much alone. I don't believe in heaven or hell or any of those things. I feel very much like I want to be with my brother and sister again. They're nowhere. I know they're nowhere and they don't exist, but if nowhere means that's where they are, that's where I want to be."