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Hear Him Roar: An Interview with Maurice Sendak

by Alicia Potter

In 2003, I had the great honor of interviewing Maurice Sendak. The occasion was the release of Brundibar, his stunning and haunting picture book collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner. I’d been assigned to write about the title and Sendak for the parents’ magazine FamilyFun.

Adapted by Kushner from a 1938 Czech opera performed 55 times by the children of the Terezin concentration camp, Brundibar stands out as a culminating, uncharacteristically vibrant work for Sendak. Provocative too. Children wear yellow stars, Nazi slogans adorn backdrops, and, with his feathery moustache and brown military dress, the title character is an obvious riff on Adolf Hitler. At one point, Brundibar bellows: “Little children, how I hate’ em/How I wish the bed bugs ate ‘em/When they’re rude and answer back/Stuff ‘em in a burlap sack!” Later, children fly away on ravens while their mothers grieve.

When I spoke to Sendak over the phone that November, he was at home in Ridgefield, Connecticut, busy with publicity rounds for the book. And while that made him none too happy, he was otherwise as I hoped: gracious, prickly, funny, moving, and above all, absolutely fearless.

Here is our conversation.

Can you talk a bit about your technique for this book and why you chose it?

It’s a technique I’ve never attempted before. Surprisingly, a good deal of it is Crayola—children’s crayons that they use in school. And some colored pens and pencils that you can mix with water and make them watercolor. I’ve never used this combination of techniques, and part of it came from preparing for this book. I looked at lots of books on the Holocaust, especially books that relate to this particular camp, Theresienstadt, where there are books of children’s drawings and drawings that the kids did while they were in the camp. And they’re all extremely beautiful, in very bright crayon.

So I thought about how to approximate the look of the work of the children of the camp and yet be myself. The vivid colors have touched me very much because we all know what the children’s lives were like and yet they portray their lives in gorgeous colors.

It seemed to be a significant clue to me that in telling this story, which historically is sad, to put it mildly, I had to do the same thing: to be brave and show the vivid, bright, happy colors. Because there is another side to the story that the children were enchanted with, which was how beautiful the world was. It’s a terrible story because they were never going to experience it. I wanted to emulate that emotion: that in telling a story that’s heavy with layers of meaning, I wanted to keep the top vivid, colorful, and bright and be as brave as a kid as possible.

Do you see this as a continuation or deviation of past works, or a little of both?

I see it as the finale—as the climactic event in all of the books that I’ve done that relate to the hardships of the lives of children, whether it’s with parental problems or social problems but especially the ones with Holocaust problems.

And I connect this book most to the book which I wrote and illustrated some years ago, We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy. That was a very difficult book for me to do and I think Brundibar is a continuation but with a much deeper feeling and a much more forgiving feeling. I feel as though that work now is done, and at 75, if I’m lucky, I can take up another theme altogether. I’m very, very happy with Brundibar. I’m proud to say it’s the one book I’ve done that I feel was a completion of a kind of emotional ache I went through my whole life.

Other books of yours allude to the Holocaust in their imagery. But in this one, it’s incorporated very prominently. Can you talk about how it felt to reference it so openly?

It feels wonderful. It feels like a terrible burden has slid off my back. Because this has haunted me from my childhood, and there’s no solution to it, obviously. There’s no solution to such hopeless inhumanity, and we’re suffering that today in various countries in the world; the same horrible things are going on. I don’t know; what do we do? So I do a book that praises the courage and good humor and great-heartedness of children, and I don’t have any other answer to humanity.

Do you expect people to find the book overly provocative? To read “stuff ‘em in a burlap sack” and get a little put out over something like that?

Oh sure. Oh sure. But I’m frankly amazed at the reaction to the book. I don’t know what I thought. But I expected it to be seriously received. That I did expect, because between me and Tony, it’s a very serious work and it’s a very accomplished work and we spent years on it. That it should be a successful book is amazing, just amazing. I don’t know what it’s touching. It’s touching some chord in people.

There are so many layers to it. It seems as though a lot of picture books today can be flat or one-joke, without a lot to discuss, really. This [Brundibar] was striking in terms of how layered it is, both the language and the illustrations.

I do come from an older generation, to put it mildly, who lived through a pretty terrible century, although I’m beginning to find this century is quickly catching up with the last century for sheer terribleness. I, too, am very disheartened by not just books for children that are flat, but that all art seems to be flat. And movies and television.

I don’t know; there’s something scary about the lack of energy in the world of art. I don’t know. I can’t answer it. I’m so puzzled just as you and everybody else. There should be a burning … People should be expressing themselves passionately now and it’s just the opposite.  People without much talent who are famous in Hollywood decide they can write a children’s book.

Anyone you’d like to call out for it?

No! I’m not going to pick anyone out. I’d like to put them all in a big sack with a big rock on it and throw it in a river!

Children are all we have in terms of whatever hope the planet has. To not address them significantly, seriously, lovingly and treat them as complex as they are because they’re our only hope. To assault them with trivia is an insult to them—and a danger. A danger because if they get weak and sloppy like we are now there’s no hope. You’ve got to be strong. You’ve got to be good. And you have to have your heart and brain in the right place, and I think our culture’s failed them.

You mentioned that you’re interested in exploring new themes. Is there something that you’re working on or thinking about that you can talk about?

Yes, there’s something I’m thinking about, and it’s a big one, but I don’t want to go near it. Brundibar took three years, the book and the opera. I’m old now and I want to preserve myself. I want to take some time off and get healthy. And just read the books I miss reading and listen to the music I haven’t been able to listen to and sleep a whole lot! I wish I could say go to the movies, but there are no movies I want to go to.

I just don’t see any movies out there, which is part of the decline of the stuff we’re talking about. And sometimes I think I’m just an old grump. Old people always say it never was like that, the old days. But I know a lot of young people who are dismayed by the lack of anything real going on today.

I’m lucky to have a library near me that has lots of children’s books from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. I went to Barnes and Noble recently and couldn’t find a William Steig book.

He just passed away. He was an old and good friend of mine. We were World II kids. We were Depression kids. We came up the hard way and I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. I don’t look back on THAT. But it made us very serious. It made us very determined, and I don’t see that determination coming out of these stupid wars that we’re in and holocausts all over the country and hundreds and thousands of people being killed for no reason. Here we go again! Here we go again!

It’s not just children’s books but adult books are so bad! Platitudinous. So I find I’m a great snob! I will read the classics. I will read the books I’ve already read, make sure I read them again, the ones I really loved. But I’m very wary of anything new.

Although there is an exception. I went to a movie that I actually liked! It’s called Lost in Translation. It was beautiful. It was subtle. It was an artist’s movie. This woman [writer/director Sofia Coppola], she’s a young woman, and has the grace and tact and intelligence of a moviemaker that you haven’t seen in ages. And also she gives the film, and I mean this in the very best way, a feminine touch. Like all the subtle female feelings that go into characterizing somebody and observing somebody. It’s one of the subtlest, most delicate movies I’ve seen in a long time. For her to have the nerve to make a delicate movie, where you don’t have Russell Crowe with his foot kicking in the wall, I don’t know … Maybe there are signs, maybe there are signs.

I think we have to wrap up pretty soon, but I wanted to ask if there was anything we haven’t talked about that you wanted to?

Well, you didn’t ask me how we can all plot against Bush, but I don’t think you want you that. Now this is for FamilyFun? I don’t think I’ve told you anything fun.

Oh, I don’t think you have to. Being honest is better.

Well, that’s all I can be. It’s all I have to give. I don’t want to be a jackass like so many of us that are in the world now.

The only thing I would add is the enormous privilege of working with Kushner. There’s somebody in his forties, so that’s a whole generation away. I could almost be his father. And to find somebody who is that brilliant, brilliant a writer, an unbelievable writer and person and collaborator with a sense of humor, with a sense of politics that I don’t have! Working with someone of a younger generation is like taking fresh blood in a hospital. You learn. Two books we did together; the art of me [The Art of Maurice Sendak] was his essay and the best thing about me I’ve ever read, and Brundibar. His love of things Jewish and what happened during the World War and what happened in Europe. That was maybe the best part of the whole thing: to collaborate with a younger artist who’s a mensch, who’s a friend, who’s loyal, who doesn’t lie, who’s good. I’m very lucky there.

I don’t often meet artists of a younger generation. There are huge separations in this country, and categories, and if you’re a children’s book artist, you don’t meet “real” artists. And if you’re a children’s book writer, you don’t meet “grown-up” writers. It’s unbelievable! It’s unbelievable that we don’t all know each other as artists! So to meet a great playwright with a great mind and still young and with hopefully a long future, I think maybe that was the best part. And also I have a good friend. We ended up good friends.

I noticed that Brundibar is categorized for “all ages,” instead of the usual cut-off at eight. What to make of that?

Maybe we’re growing out of that because the old books, mine included, were like, four to six. God forbid a six-and-a-half-year-old read it! As though there were such a thing as children’s books, and if they are just children’s books really, then they surely are not worth children reading them. Because children don’t like to read things that are written down to them. The whole urge is to grow! And to read things a little difficult, a little more sophisticated. So when you get these wacko boring books … I don’t want to mention anything because there’s probably a book like that. But it’s contemptible to children. And maybe they read it to please their parents or grandma or whoever, but they’re books that are instantly forgotten and as well they should be.

Well, anyway, one thing I don’t want to sound like is an old drag. Oh poor old man proclaiming the world is over! And blah, blah, blah. I don’t know if that’s true. I can only live for the moment. Probably this has been a problem always between culture. Popular culture and real culture: they don’t mix well.

But you just had People magazine spending a day with you!

All day! Now I have to go to New York and spend the week there signing books at Barnes and Noble and meeting people, and I’ll be thinking every minute of being home reading a book or just lying in bed. But this is the big week. This is the last of it.

Because soon comes Thanksgiving and the whole world goes to sleep. Everyone goes and sees the parents they don’t want to see and spends time with the sisters they don’t want to see. I shouldn’t be cynical. But it is the end of e-mails, phone calls, everything, because everyone disappears over the holidays. I can’t wait. I can’t wait. I’m going to watch a lot of foreign movies on TV.


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