Maurice Sendak on the First Book He's Written and Illustrated in 30 Years

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A conversation with the author of Where the Wild Things Are on his latest creation, Bumble-Ardy

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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.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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