Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Maurice Sendak on THE BARN

Maurice Sendak, who died today, met and corresponded with my father some 43 or 44 years ago. Only four of the letters and just one of the envelopes from Sendak have survived, and I’ve often wondered if Sendak saved anything Dad sent to him. I’m especially curious about his letters, but maybe his presentation copy of The Barn still sits somewhere on a shelf or in a box at the Sendak house.

It was the first book that Dad both wrote and illustrated and it was came out during their brief acquaintance. Dad’s author’s copies were en route from the publisher at the end of June 1968 and he must have mailed one to his fellow author-illustrator not long after. It took a while for Sendak to acknowledge it, though. He wrote in October or November:
You have had dreadful thoughts of me - no doubt! The Barn came weeks ago - & I haven’t been able to write. Please forgive me. The book is terrific & how marvelous that it is all you! That is as it should be. I think it has some of your finest drawings. Thank you so much.
He also - very candidly - explained the delay:
My summer was horrible. My mother, who was ill for two years, died at the end of August. It was ghastly. And my father came all to pieces. The last two months have been taken up with trying to keep him alive. He is in the hospital now - & has an operation coming next week. Of course I haven’t worked. Although - over the last two weeks I found myself wanting to draw again! Hopeful. I’m dreadfully sorry I couldn’t go up to the Bronx Zoo & see your pictures. I would have loved that. But, quite literally, my life hasn’t been my own - & there was no possibility. I hope I can see them - I really hope they all sold! but I’d like very much to see what you’re doing. When all is quiet & somewhat sane again - let’s make plans to meet.
I’m not sure if they ever met again, though they did make a plan the following March. Sendak’s subsequent letters, however, show that a sort of misunderstanding arose over their respective depictions of skunks (in The Barn and The Dangerous Year, illustrated by my father, and in A Kiss For Little Bear, illustrated by Sendak. More on that later). But despite their differences and strong opinions I think they had a real respect for each other’s work and, for better or worse, they weren’t afraid to speak their minds. I like how Sendak closes the letter I’ve quoted here:
I feel bad about not having written to you - I really do. But you will understand. Write when you can.





  1. How wonderful for you to have these treasures. I heard a fairly recent Fresh Air interview with Maurice Sendak and he seemed quite emotional about death and the thought of death. So having his life "not his own" during that time confirms my thought. But on a lighter note, how great for your father and him to have a discussion about the depiction of skunks. I'll look forward to that story.

  2. What a lovely story to read today. Thanks.

  3. Ian- Many, many years ago, my girlfriend was a book designer for Little, Brown and she found that she could request anything she wanted from their warehouse in suburban Waltham Massachusetts. She knew my love of your father's works and she ended up requesting all of the art for THE BARN. I visited her in her office up on Beacon Hill, and we didn't quite drool over his images, but it was a close thing.

    I remember how fascinated I was with the picture of the wood grain that was used for the end pages. At the end of the week, the images were returned to Waltham, and my circle of friends made plans on how to break in to the warehouse and liberate all of the art for all the books he had done for LB. To the best of my knowledge, his art is likely still there, unless at some time in the past decades they'd thrown away a lot of artwork, which makes my blood run cold. I'd love to see that art once again.

  4. Luckily, THE BARN art was shipped back to him - which is more than I can say about a bunch of his science fiction paperback covers! But Little Brown was good about returning things - to him, at least. I'm pretty sure everything's accounted for.

    And I LOVE those endpapers - the whole book is so solid - one of his very best children's books.

  5. Such a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing Ian.
    I'm fascinated with this technique in particular. Would you have the original drawings he made for Julie of the Wolves? what did he use, Is it ink on paper?

  6. I think he kept a few of the JULIE illustrations, though I still need to do a proper inventory. Those - like THE BARN - were done in ink and dry-brush on gessoed illustration board - a medium that really suited his sensibilities.

  7. Thanks for sharing this, Ian. I've learned a lot from seeing your father's work, which has both grace and greatness.