Maurice Sendak Remembered

Maurice Sendak Remembered When Don Morris Design was producing issues of Nick Jr. Magazine, Editor in Chief Freddi Greenberg hired author Else Holmelund Minarik to create a story called "Little Bear's New Friend," the first new addition to the beloved Little Bear children's book series in over 30 years. Freddi really wanted Maurice Sendak to illustrate the story, reuniting the author and illustrator that created Little Bear. And she decided I was the best person to approach Maurice, who was noted for not doing commissions and not working in magazines.

As soon as I called him up, I felt a clock ticking. I knew if we hit it off I'd stand a much better chance of asking the impossible. So the longer we chatted, the better I felt my chances were of getting him to work for us. Talking with Maurice was a pleasure. I don't remember everything, but I do remember discussing Windsor McKay, the wonderful illustrator behind Little Nemo, his class at Parsons (that I didn't take but friend Steven Salerno did), and the emotional honesty of his work. He grew up with fears that never completely left him, and so his stories and his paintings spoke of things that mattered to him. I also remember laughing a lot. He had this habit of saying something cutting, then immediately finding something funny and usually self-effacing to add to soften things up. It was unexpected and endearing.

So Maurice agreed to make the watercolors for Else's story. She was quite old by then, and Maurice took the project on as a labor of love to his longtime friend. The pieces came without much drama at all; we chatted occasionally about his ideas, and I'd adjusted the production schedule so that we'd publish the story in our Holiday issue. The biggest angst came when we began discussing the delivery of the work. Maurice considered the pieces his children, and didn't trust couriers or shipping companies. I suggested sending a car, but he didn't like taking long drives. So I volunteered to drive up to the Connecticut countryside and fetch the artwork myself.

My son Theo was five at the time, and I enlisted him to come along. We arrived at Maurice's home in time to join him for the lunch he had his cook prepare for all of us. Then we joined him for the afternoon walk with his dog, continuing our rambling conversation in person as Theo tagged behind and listened. When we came back, I was given the Little Bear watercolors to look at. They were quite beautiful, and told the story so well. He brought us into his studio, a spacious open room with many props, paintings, and drawings he'd collected over the years. He showed us the drawings for sets he'd designed. He spoke to Theo so kindly, and listened intently to his shy answers. 

As we were about to leave, Maurice disappeared for a few minutes and returned with a furry crown and scepter, toys made from the "Where the Wild Things Are" book. These costume articles were already unavailable by then, and I wouldn't be surprised if this was the only set Maurice had. But he insisted Theo take them as a way to remember the day. I've thought of this lovely afternoon with this lovely man many times since.
  • Ward Sutton

    WOW!! Incredible story, Don - I'm going to post links to this. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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