In December 1980, TIME Correspondent Peter Stoler spoke to Maurice Sendak about children’s literature. Parts of the Stoler’s reporting were used for a story that ran in the magazine but the full file has been preserved in TIME’s archives. We have adapted it to help commemorate Sendak, who died this week at the age of 83.
According to Maurice Sendak, your basic children’s story has several ingredients. Among them are warnings to behave, punishment for failure to do so, and a resolution that shows that everything comes out all right in the end. And Sendak says that his early work — until 1963 when Where the Wild Things Are was published — fit the traditional category. “There was a certain niceness about them,” he says.
But traditional doesn’t mean good. Good children’s literature, Sendak says, should recognize kids’ feelings rather than the feelings that adults attempt to impose upon them. “People are always shocked to see kids doing and saying what they want, rather than what adults want them to do,” says Sendak. “Children unnerve adults. I don’t think most adults really like children or feel comfortable with them. I know that a lot of parents don’t observe their own children; a lot of parents don’t watch kids. So they don’t know what kids are really like.” He adds, “Kids always know exactly how they feel, even if they can’t articulate it.”
Most children’s literature, Sendak says, consists of cautionary tales like “Struwwelpeter” (Slovenly Peter), the main character of a popular book by a 19th century German psychologist, all about a disobedient child who refuses to have his hair cut or nails clipped. Sendak considers it “a careless book. It’s about castration in an arbitrary way. If you don’t obey your parents, it’s going to get lopped off.”
Sendak’s celebrated book Where the Wild Things Are takes its inspiration from childish disobedience and the imprecation that Yiddish-speaking parents hurled at obstreperous kids: wilde chaia or “wild pig.” The unprocessed nature of childhood feelings fascinates him. And he sees its allure in one set of stories that have been read to children for generations. Says he: “The violence and destruction in the Grimm Brothers’ stories is logical [unlike Struwwelpeter]. Children are consumed with conflicting feelings: some are civilized, some are barbaric. The Grimm Tales serve as a release for the more violent feelings, feelings that kids don’t get a chance to release in real life. How many kids get the chance to kill their stepmothers? Or drown their little brothers? In real life, you have to suppress these feelings. The Grimm stories provide us with a logical outlet for them. We can enjoy them.”
Which does not mean, says Sendak, that the Grimms were good authors of children’s tales. The Grimm Brothers, he explains, were oral historians, collecting folk tales and getting them down on paper before the coming industrial revolution destoryed the folk culture that produced them. “The Grimms weren’t really writing for children,” Sendak says. “They were collecting stories. They were appalled at the success these stories had with children, surprised that children liked all that sex, murder and rape.” He jokes, “All the good things in life!”
In his earlier books, Sendak says, he was consciously writing for children. “Up to Wild Things, there was a consciousness of doing things for children,” Sendak says. “My first books were as personal as Wild Things but I was calling them children’s books. Once I began Wild Things, though, I began to feel free of the label of ‘children’s book writer.’”
The label shouldn’t be pejorative, Sendak says, but to most people it is. When he won a Caldecott Prize for Wild Things, one of the first things his father asked him was whether he would not be allowed to work on “real books,” says Sendak. “People tend to take children’s books less seriously as a literary form. Those of us who work on children’s books inhabit a kind of literary shtetl. You always have the sense that whatever you’re saying is considered less because of its form. It’s funny: you never hear William Faiulkner described as a writer of adult books. But people like me are described as writers of children’s books. Children’s books are serious. In the Night Kitchen and Wild Things are as serious as I can get. I wonder if people know how serious I am.”
“The books for which I am best known are atypical of children’s books,” he says. For example, Pierre the boy who always says, “I don’t care” is a juvenile anarchist. “He’s a real favorite with children,” says Sendak. “He’s saying ‘F— you’ in his own way.” Max, the boy in Wild Things is the kid who explodes rather than swallow his anger and behave himself. He’s the kid who makes a mess. “Kids love making messes,” Sendak says. “That’s why I love Dr. Seuss; he shows kids making messes, rebelling against toilet training.”
Dr. Seuss is virtually the only contemporary Sendak does like. Among the American canon, he loves Herman Melville and Henry Thoreau, has trouble with Nathaniel Hawthorne and struggles to understand Walt Whitman. He does not particularly care for Isaac Bashevis Singer, even though the illustrations for Singer’s book Zlateh the Goat won Sendak his first major prize. As for authors of classic children’s books, he loathes James M. Barrie — or at least the book for which Barrie is best known for. “It’s a terrible book,” Sendak says of Peter Pan. “I can’t understand the appeal of a book based on arrested growth, permanent infantilism; most kids want to grow up, not to be mothered for the rest of their lives. It’s sentimental and carries some psychological freight of its own. There’s Captain Hook with his arm — and who knows what else — cut off. There’s Wendy, mothering everybody. There’s Peter, whose part is always played by a girl. Talk about confused sexual identities.”
Like Barrie, Sendak has no children. Which brought up the question: how or why a man without children of his own can write books for children. He notes that there have been a lot of children’s writers who have not had children, not excluding Beatrix Potter of Peter Rabbit fame. Still, Sendak admits that writing children’s books is “a strange business for a grownup. Everyone is not as open as [William] Blake in discussing his child-self.” He adds: “I don’t write books for children. I write them for myself. Children happen to like them.” The subjects and images of his books suggest themselves from memories of his childhood, growing up in Brooklyn, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland. “Some of these are things, ideas, that just come to me,” he says. “Certain ideas and experiences trigger memories. There’s a certain perfume that acts just like Proust’s madeleine on me. It’s so evocative that it triggers memories. So do the smells of plaster or earth.” [Editor's note: Toward the end of his life, Sendak would reveal that he was gay, a fact that he kept from his parents all their lives, to his regret.]
He has taken to designing opera sets. “But there’s a problem,” Sendak says. “I work so damned slowly. In my line of work, slowness has developed into a virtue. Who cares when a book comes out? I have a distaste for deadlines, and when I have freedom from pressure, it’s a real pleasure.” His work is painstaking. After drawing pencil sketches and figuring out the layout and story line of a book, he brings off the finished rawings. Then, working in temera, he executes the finished color picture, taking about three weeks to finish each. Small wonder that a book by Sendak can take seven years to complete. That kind of virtue, however, doesn’t work in the world of opera. There, Sendak laughs, “I find that I’m the slow-ass end of things.” And that does not give him pleasure. “What I suffer most from is disappointing people. I want to do good work.”
In the end, Sendak remains concerned about how to describe himself. He is an author but also an illustrator. “Illustrators are funny people,” he says. “When you’re an illustrator, you’re attached to words. The hardest thing about being an illustrator is to know when not to illustrate something. I think I’m learning.” He concludes: “I’m an artist, of course. But I’m also interested in words. I guess that what I’d really like to be is a writer.”