A conversation with the author of Where the Wild Things Are on his latest creation, Bumble-Ardy
Maurice Sendak's new illustrated book, Bumble-Ardy, has been a long time in the making--its earliest incarnation was an animated short created for Sesame Street in 1970. The book tells the story of a young pig named Bumble who throws an illicit, chaotic birthday party for himself to make up for a lifetime of uncelebrated birthdays. Like Sendak's classic, Where the Wild Things Are, Bumble-Ardy begins with an unruly child protagonist who feels confined by the strictures of domestic life, and who invents a way to explore his wilder energies.
Sendak spoke to me by phone from his home in rural Connecticut. We discussed Bumble-Ardy's long composition, the way children use fantasy and imagination, his all-time favorite hate letters from young anti-fans, and why--after 60 years--writing and illustrating for children is still a fundamentally mysterious process.
Since Outside Over There, you've been incredibly busy--designing operas, illustrating contemporary works and classic texts. But this is the first book you've written and illustrated in 30 years. Was Bumble-Ardy a long time in the making, or were you holding off on work with your own words?
I was doing other things. I became a set designer for opera. I'm a great opera buff, I love classical music, and I needed a time-out. I'd been touring the country and Europe, and in retrospect it seems like a very fortunate choice, because I sure as hell wouldn't be doing it now. So everyone assumes I wasn't doing anything, but I was very preoccupied with other things.
And then, when I came home, and old age and illness started to settle on me, it made sense to do a book again--if I could. I'd been playing with this idea on and off for years. It started as a little thing on Sesame Street that was exceedingly slight. I really don't remember why it was done except the year of his birthday was given to me--to contrive a little poem about his age. Then I forgot about it, and I turned it into something else a few years later, but I was displeased with it, and put it away again.
It often happens this way--you work for years and years until something eventually appears. I didn't know [Bumble] was going to be a pig, I didn't know all kinds of things when I began. But then I began fresh all over again. I don't know how long it took me in the long run--but this notion that I suddenly sat up in bed, had an idea, and sat down and did the book is kind of silly. It's been around my neck for a long time. And I'm so glad it's finished, it's published, and out of my life.
Bumble's parents, for eight long years, didn't allow him to celebrate his birthday. Then he throws a huge revel while his aunt's not home, even though she got him his first-ever gift and cake. Is this duplicity a response to his parent's original mistreatment?
He doesn't trust anybody. His betrayal of his aunt, which seems kind of minor, is typical of what I feel he is like. He's an orphan, after all. And why should he trust anybody? And to get a child's trust--you may know or not--is a very hard thing to do. They're so used to not believing adults--because adults tell tales and lies all the time. I wanted him to be suspicious. And I wanted him to be aggressive for his own needs. There wasn't any reason for him not to tell his aunt, it was just better in his own terms of life to frustrate her. He doesn't know why. And I don't know why. That's what a book is for me: a lot of questions, very few answers.
I think, for children, there's something both thrilling and terrifying about the idea of life without supervision--life without parents. Was that something you were exploring in Bumble-Ardy?
Most children--I know I did when I was a kid--fantasize another set of parents. Or fantasize no parents. They don't tell their real parents about that--you don't want to tell Mom and Dad. Kids lead a very private life. And I was a typical child (I think). I was a liar. I was out to protect my parents from hard truths. Although what I assumed was a hard truth was really--hard to realize what it could be now.
Bumble is a tough little bastard. And he's had a hard time from the word "go." And he knows he's supposed to be good and kind and all of the things that are expected of children. When he tells her that he'll never turn 10, it tells you how much he does not comprehend the business of living and dying. And that's something so much on the minds of children. They may not bring it up, because they don't want to disturb their parents--but children do a lot not to disturb their parents. And they know a lot.
I knew a little girl who told her parents--because her school was close by the twin towers when it happened--and she told her father that she saw the butterflies coming out of the windows. And only later said: "They weren't butterflies. They were people." But she lied, at first, to make him more comfortable. And that's what kids do--they are immensely courageous. And they sacrifice a lot. And they try to play mute and dumb because--well, it's kind of the expectation of their parents.
That's what all the fairy tales are all mostly about--about the vulnerability of children and how they figure out tricks and ways of living in the world and making up parents. Make-believe parents. And I think that's probably one of the hardest jobs in the world. Being a parent, and not succumbing to failure. I think people should be given a test much like driver's tests as to whether their capable of being parents! It's an art form. I talk a lot. And I think a lot. And I draw a lot. But never in a million years would I have been a parent. That's just work that's too hard.
Because it's so much responsibility.
Yes! God knows it's easy enough to have kids. It's easier than taking a driver's test. But I don't know how many people think twice about it.
Aunt Adeline seems to be one of those individuals who is doing a good job--she'd pass the parent test.
She is naturally good. She's a big, amiable woman--but even though he is not her son, she will kill to protect him. I love watching animal films on television. The only things I watch are animal films. I love animals--I love animals much more than I love human animals. And watching a mother bear, or a leopard, or whatever, take care of a child--and the kind of intensity that takes care of that kind of protection--is remarkable. It's built into the creature. And it's so impressive to see a mother bear look like she'll kill you if you take a step further. And that's the only way these kids survive.
Aunt Adeline, in her ferocious loyalty, reminds me of the mother bear in Else Holmelund Minarik's Little Bear books, which you illustrated.
When I did those books, I was quite young. And I wished for a mother bear. I wanted somebody like that in my life. My mother was troubled and she was an ordinary human being, but I had high expectations of her. I didn't know about her problems. I didn't care about her problems--I thought she was there for me! And if she wasn't there for me, she was not really a good mother. So, the expectations of children are very charged and difficult.
So mother bear was a fantasy of the best of a mother: the gentle looks, the kindliness of her body. The way she moved, the way she sat, the way she spoke--she was a dream. A dream mother.
The gift Aunt Adeline gives Bumble is a good one: the cowboy costume allows him to play. The costume allows him an entryway into the realm of fantasy and imagination, so it's a good gift--even though he takes it too far.
The characters who do come to the party, would you let them into your house?
Nor would I. But in a book, where you don't have to pretend to be civilized, and you don't have to pretend to be conscious of what's appropriate, that a little boy could go haywire, and on purpose bring the weirdest people and creatures, where he feels safe among them. And that is something that's hard to describe, and hard to explain. And by instinct I had those people come in. I didn't plan a tall lady or a big lady or a fat pig or whatever. But if I were a kid, those are the types of people I'd like to have at my parties.
I found them frightening! The way their shapes change--it's hard to tell what's a mask and what's a face. Maybe I'm imposing an adult fear on that. Maybe for a child it would just be thrilling.
But you are an adult. You have to do what your body tells you to do. Children can distort, and play with figures and ideas, with a fluidity that strains us--which we grow out of. Except for if you're a children's book illustrator, and you're out of your mind. [laughs]. I'm 83, and I'd like to believe that I was civilized, but I'm not. Otherwise I couldn't do the work that I do. I don't know how to do a children's book. I don't even know what a children's book is. I always know that my work is deemed suitable--more suitable--for children. I don't believe that, but who cares? Who cares.
Why don't you believe that you write for children?
I don't know what that means. How do you write for children? I really have never figured that out. So I decided to just ignore it. I knew that my books would only be published as children's books. And I once objected fiercely to that. I wanted Outside Over There to be realized as a complex work of art. Well, it wasn't. And I had to live with that. And yet, perhaps, in some ways, it's my favorite book of everything I've ever done. But it's a weird book. It's a weird book. It's a weird world.
What kind of readers are children? Why does the fact that something's given to children mean that it's not literature?
They have no money, so they can't go in and make their own choice. So Mommy or Granny or somebody nice brings them the books. And they will do anything to make the adult content, so they will like the book. Kids are very gracious. And they won't insult anybody by saying "I hate that book." Except when they write to me, and they said "I hate that book."
Has that happened to you?
Oh yes. And those are the most gratifying letters. I have pierced their armor.
A little girl who wrote said: "Why are there babies in Outside Over There? What the hell is the matter with them? And why do they all wear head covers? And why do they all wear big, swimmy clothes?" She was furious! She said, "Don't you know how to dress a baby properly?"
Okay, that's not what put her off--but that's what she thinks put her off. Her mother included a little note, saying she was furious all the time--not the mother, the child. Because the mother was pregnant, and she explained to me very carefully how happy her daughter would be when a baby came in the house. And her little daughter was saying to her--but wasn't being heard--I don't want a little baby in the house. Throw her in the garbage.
It was wonderful, because she found something that spoke to her outrage. So I was so happy for her.
So that's a sign of success--that you challenged her emotionally about something.
Yes. I knew how to interpret her anger. I knew how to empathize with her anger. And you know, that's what a book should be once in a while. I love reading. I love reading--it's one of the best reasons for staying alive. Reading. I've experienced many emotional, traumatic things in my life--from reading.
On Bumble-Ardy's first page, Bumble's reading a newspaper that says "We read banned books!" Is that just a sly authorial intrusion, or a knowing nod to smart parents? Or does it somehow address or inform the content of this book in particular?
I have been banned in my lifetime. I was banned for In the Night Kitchen. Because the boy had a pecker. A boy without a pecker--that is something I would condemn. But that is such a mindless thing to get excoriated about. But you see, if it's a children's book--then you don't have a pecker. Well, bullshit. Boys are boys and girls are girls. What the hell are we fighting about?
So I have many arguments about what they deem appropriate or inappropriate for children. I guess without meaning to, I have been inappropriate. No, not on my terms--on their terms. But it's not important. It's not important.
But, as an artist, how do you decide what's appropriate and what's inappropriate for children?
I don't think about it. I just want to be taken up by an idea and get all excited. And put Mozarts's symphonies on a player and get more excited.
Music's been such an important part of your process .
Yes. I was taken by surprise on [the 10th anniversary of ] 9/11--I tried to spend the whole day away from it. I did not want to be pulled into it again. And that night on Channel 13, they planned Mahler's Symphony No. 2. I'm a great fan of Mahler, but I've never loved the Symphony No. 2--the "Resurrection" symphony. But I found myself blubbering and in tears at the end of the symphony. And that's only something music can do. I didn't hear any of the speeches, I didn't want to watch, I didn't want to hear. But I needed somebody to pull me out--and it was Mahler! And I welcomed the tears, and I welcomed my ability to respond so passionately to art--especially music. I love music beyond all other forms of art. It's a reason to go on living.
It's a testament to the wordless power of music to make us feel emotions.
Unbelievable. And at the end of the Resurrection Symphony, he inserts words, which, sung by two women--it's so impossibly beautiful. It's so incomprehensible! As it should be. It should not be understood. Except in the way that that little girl hated those little babies: in a passionate inward way that you don't have to explain. That you don't have to tell your therapist about.
In interviews you've spoken disparagingly about what you call "Kiddiebookland," the kingdom of saccharine, squeaky-clean books that depict children as innocent and guileless. Why do the authors and publishers of these books misjudge children and childhood?
Well, when a kid writes to me--as a kid did write to me--and says: "I hate your book. I hope you die soon. Cordially." Well, the combination of "I hope you die soon" and "cordially" is wonderful. It shows how bewildering the whole thing was to her--and to me.
She was allowing herself to hate. "I hate your book." But she'd learned in school that you're supposed to end your letter with the words "cordially" or "best wishes." And so they combine both without thinking there's something goofy in such a thing. But that's their charm, and that's what we lose by growing up--lose, lose, lose. And if we're lucky, it happens again when we're old. And I'd like to believe that it is happening to me. Things that were so wonderful to me come back now. And I'm so grateful--because I wouldn't know how to start otherwise. But it's happening. And I think Bumble-Ardy is in a first, for me, in many ways.