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Remembering Maurice Sendak and His ‘Riotous and Strange’ Inner Child

May 8, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Known for illuminating fantastic nightmares in picture book form -- like his most famous book "Where the Wild Things Are," writer and artist Maurice Sendak died Tuesday at age 83. Jeffrey Brown spoke with Sendak in 2002.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, remembering writer and artists Maurice Sendak. He died earlier today after suffering a stroke.

Jeffrey Brown talked with him in 2002. Sendak is the author of scores of books, including “Where the Wild Things Are.”

Their conversation began with Sendak discussing the challenges of creating books with pictures for readers of all ages.

MAURICE SENDAK, author, “Where the Wild Things Are”: It’s rhythm, it’s syncopation. It’s where you stop writing and start drawing. It’s a continuous thread — words, pictures, words, pictures — and it has a tempo, almost a metronome at the beginning, because why would children go through a book?

So you’ve got to catch them with your metronome right from the start so they syncopate with the book.

And you have children, so you know that children hum and move when they are reading a book and going — and turning pages, and looking at pictures. The timing has to be intuitive to an incredible degree.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the key to reaching children, you’re saying, is this interaction, the whole interaction? It’s not like I would say, well, it’s the story or it’s this one grabbing them with an image? It is more?

MAURICE SENDAK: I’m not doing this because it is designed to entice children.

I don’t know how to write for children. I don’t think anybody knows how to write for children. And those who say they do and thus are marketed are frauds, basically. We can’t get into the very complex brain of a child. I don’t know how to do that. And if it works, fine, but it usually works with adults as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you are not writing books for children, but you’re trying to address what?

MAURICE SENDAK: Me. We do this for ourselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: You as child or you as. . .

MAURICE SENDAK: Me as me.

And there is probably something wrong with me.

(LAUGHTER)

MAURICE SENDAK: There’s probably more child living in me than adult. And that is not a Peter Pan thought at all, because it’s quite hurtful and strange.

MAURICE SENDAK: Well, two perceptions. You know you are an adult and have to be — act as much as you can like an adult, but to be driven by something else internally, which is riotous and strange, which we call the kid.

JEFFREY BROWN: I know you’re someone that has studied art history and has looked at a lot of artists. But picture book art as art, in what way is it art?

MAURICE SENDAK: In any way that art is. It is just another form of art. It is very, extremely beautiful art.

You started by asking, what is the relationship to this to poetry? Well, it is as crafted as poetry. It is as erudite as poetry. And yet it is as simple as your face.

JEFFREY BROWN: In a number of the books — and I think you have talked about this — it centers on a moment of, I think you called it distraction, or a moment of sort of chaos or. . .

MAURICE SENDAK: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Something changes.

MAURICE SENDAK: Yes.

I’m fascinated by that. It’s the — well, I’m fascinated in my own life every day. But what is the little thing that happens, that little slide, that little turn you take, sort of like Alice falling down the rabbit hole? Why? I mean, it is arbitrary. Why? It is what you make of the little slip in time or strange moment in time.

“Wild Things,” Max has this scene all the time, and his mother usually laughs, and she enjoys it. This is a bad day for her. It just is. We don’t know why. We don’t have to know why. And he does the same thing he’s been doing all the time, but she doesn’t like it this day. And he is not prepared for her not liking it.

Why has it changed? Why is she angry? Why is she upset? Why does she drive him to frantic distraction that he has to yell at her? He’s frightened. This is a change of enormous proportion.

JEFFREY BROWN: What makes a book like “Where the Wild Things Are” last?

MAURICE SENDAK: I haven’t got a clue, truly. I don’t know why.

That it has that quality, yes, no question. I’m very — how many people have a 5-year-old child care for their fathers all through his life? That manic kid in that silly wolf suit has made my life pleasurable. Not many people have children who are so financially dependable, which also has allowed me to invest in all kinds of experimental work. One should be happy to have one book like that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That was Maurice Sendak talking with Jeffrey Brown in 2002. Sendak died today at age 83.

President Obama read “Where the Wild Things Are” at the Easter egg roll at the White House last month. That video is on our Art Beat page.