Maurice Sendak poses with a character from his book “Where the Wild Things Are.” 2002 photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.
Maurice Sendak, the author and illustrator of children’s literature who was best known for his book, “Where the Wild Things Are,” died early Tuesday in Danbury, Conn., at age 83. He had suffered a stroke on Friday.
Sendak came to fame in 1963 after the publication of “Where the Wild Things Are,” for which he won the Caldecott Medal. He authored dozens of children’s books over the following years, including another big hit in 1970, “In the Night Kitchen.”
In 2002, for a segment about an exhibition on children’s illustrations, Jeffrey Brown sat down with Sendak to talk about his roots as an artist and his interest in exploring children’s perceptions of everyday life.
(You can watch the full segment here.)
Here’s a transcript of Jeff’s conversation with Sendak:
JEFFREY BROWN: For you personally, no question, you are an artist and always have been.
MAURICE SENDAK: Yeah. From the word go, I fell into a family of artists. I am a professional rude, crude artist. I’m very lucky because there was no, ‘What are you going to do when you grow up?’ There’s only one thing I could do, or as my father said, ‘Boy, you’re going to be a bum, because you only have one thing going for you,’ and that was true. By the way, he was not happy about that.
JEFFREY BROWN: In a number of the books, and I think you’ve talked about this, the action centers on a moment of distraction, or a moment of chaos, when something changes.
MAURICE SENDAK: I’m fascinated in my own life every day, but what is the little thing that happens, the little slide, that little turn you take, sort of like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. Why? It is arbitrary. Why? It is what you make of the little slip in time or strange moment in time…
In “Where the Wild Things Are,” Max has this scene all the time, and his mother usually laughs, and she enjoys it. This is a bad day for her… 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.
Somebody calls him some wild thing, and then he blurts, ‘I’ll eat you up.’ Wow. That’s hot stuff, and she does what she has to do, which is what they call “time out” now, that ludicrous phrase. But that’s all it is, get outside of the item, just turn her head for a minute, intentionally, but she didn’t know it was intentional and the baby is taken away.
It’s those freak moments that really excite me, and how does the kid, the person, the animal, whatever get through that, survive. I’m not going to go on to say, as I almost did, God help me, and learn from it. No. I don’t believe we can learn anything.
I’m 74 years old. I’d like to believe an accumulation of experience has made me a sort of a grown-up person, so I can have judgment and taste and whatever. But those moments are in all our lives, aren’t they, those little split seconds where everything goes awry. It’s so much more interesting to invest in how the child reacts to all of this, because we cover our tracks.
We will hide our immediate reaction to something strange and unnatural, or whatever. A child glares at it, and that’s what makes it more interesting to work with children. That’s the answer to the whole question. It’s the freshness and the precision of how they deal with these things, so they can look at it, and don’t avoid it the way we do. I speak generally.
JEFFREY BROWN: What makes a book like “Where the Wild Things Are,” what makes that one last?
MAURICE SENDAK: I haven’t got a clue. Truly, I don’t know why. That it has that quality, yes, no question. How many people have a five-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.
We’ll have more about Sendak on Tuesday’s NewsHour. Below, you can watch President Obama read “Where the Wild Things Are” at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, something the president has made something of a tradition at the event.