Published: September 26, 2006
Mommy? is the newest children's book from artist Maurice Sendak, who is famous for putting child characters in jeopardy in stories like Where the Wild Things Are. And Mommy? is no exception: A small child wanders among scary monsters like Frankenstein and the Mummy, looking for his mother.
But the mood turns lighthearted when the youngster realizes that he can outwit the monsters. The book is Sendak's first pop-up (although that format presents its own dangers — "Don't get your fingers caught," Sendak warns). He collaborated on the book with author Arthur Yorinks and paper engineer Matthew Reinhart.
Sendak says his own unhappy childhood is the reason that danger lurks in his picture books. The Holocaust claimed the lives of many of his family members. The kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby terrified him. He had an uneasy relationship with his father.
"Childhood is a tricky business," Sendak says. "Usually, something goes wrong."
That theme got him into trouble with adult critics in the past, but he's not worried about how his younger readers will react.
"Kids," he explains, "are so shrewd." [Copyright 2013 NPR]
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Maurice Sendak's latest book puts a child in danger again. Generations of children have known his classic, Where the Wild Things Are. It's the story of a little boy named Max who gets sent to his room, which turns into a fantasyland full of monsters that he tames.
Sendak's latest book has monsters that leap off the page. It's a pop-up book, which he made of many moving paper parts.
Mr. MAURICE SENDAK (Author, Mommy?): I think since I'm getting old, I thought they were putting me into an old age home where instead of weaving baskets I would paint hands and feet and heads.
INSKEEP: Which is what he did. That intricate book is called Mommy? And it's his first pop-up book, although he's been collecting them for years.
Mr. SENDAK: I have some of the earliest done in the 17th century, and great ones done in the 19th century by a German who did them to perfection. And his name was Lothar Meggendorfer, and he is very hard to collect because, like all toy books, they've been mostly destroyed by children.
INSKEEP: That's the downside of pop-up books, isn't it?
Mr. SENDAK: That's the downside of pop-ups, yeah.
INSKEEP: What did Mr. Meggendorfer write about or illustrate in his pop-up books?
Mr. SENDAK: Well, it wasn't that he illustrated anything. He took just a goofy line like this man is playing pool. And then on the other side there's this enormous this picture of the man. But it's not just pushing a pool stick, but it's his fussiness and how he'll try it once and then his arm is raw and then his eyes rolls with frustration. This was one tab pull - he does a whole physical/emotional display of how uneasy he is as to what he's about to do.
INSKEEP: The man's expressions changed and his body language changes.
Mr. SENDAK: Yeah. So this is really cutting into human nature in a way that's utterly astonishing.
INSKEEP: Interesting that you were drawn to the uneasiness in those 19th century books.
Mr. SENDAK: Well, because it was so human.
INSKEEP: Can I dwell on that uneasiness for a moment? Because in your books so many children are placed in jeopardy, place themselves in jeopardy and the story is how they get out of it. This pop-up book is about a kid who walks into a house of monsters.
Mr. SENDAK: Well, of course, what you've picked up on is probably the only theme that I have. And it's also a view that sometimes got me into serious trouble when I was a younger artist. You know, now that I'm old, you know, they treat you like Helen Keller when you get old.
INSKEEP: What do you mean?
Mr. SENDAK: They aren't as angry at you for doing odd things. A lot of people were angry at my books because they put children in jeopardy, just what you're talking about. And the idea of an American children's book where the child is not perfectly safe was something that was new.
I didn't know it was new. I didn't set out to break any new ideas. I was just doing what was only in my head, which was of course mostly autobiographical because childhood was a terrible situation.
INSKEEP: Why was childhood a terrible situation for you in Brooklyn?
Mr. SENDAK: Well, Brooklyn, by the time my brain began to function, we were in the war. And we were Jews. And all of my father's family had been exterminated and much of my mother's family had been exterminated. So from very early on I knew of mortality.
INSKEEP: People have said when they've criticized your books, oh why would you expose children to this fear and this jeopardy? I actually want to know something a little different. Is it emotionally hard for you to place children in jeopardy in your drawing? When it gets time to do that page, does it take something out of you?
Mr. SENDAK: No. Because really I think all children are in jeopardy. I think it is unnatural to think that there is such a thing as a blue-sky, white-clouded happy childhood for anybody. Childhood is a very, very tricky business of surviving it. Because if one thing goes wrong or anything goes wrong, and usually something goes wrong, then you are compromised as a human being. You're going to trip over that for a good part of your life.
INSKEEP: If I may say - and you may hear me flipping up pages of this pop-up book here...
Mr. SENDAK: Don't get your fingers caught.
INSKEEP: Oh I'm trying not to. I'm trying not to damage anything. I'm opening up this page where the kid is confronted by a mummy and pulls on some of the mummy's garments and wrappings and sends him spinning, just spinning. There's a kind of joy in this book, even though...
Mr. SENDAK: Yes. Well, look, I don't want these kids to suffer. The fact that I intimate that they do is because I have to tell the truth.
INSKEEP: I'm just looking at this kid as he goes through dealing with Frankenstein, dealing with any number of classic monsters here. It's like he doesn't even realize that he's defeating them. He's just doing what he does.
Mr. SENDAK: Well, he's having a good time. I mean it didn't take him long to figure out that all they did was look terrible but they had no brains in their head. And once he catches on, then they all really act stupid...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SENDAK: Which adults have a way of doing, if you may have noticed. Kids always are so shrewd. They know immediately, they can run circles. I've seen mothers weary over the effect of their child running circles around them.
INSKEEP: Don't exclude the fathers from that, by the way.
Mr. SENDAK: Well, I do exclude the fathers, unfortunately. Because like most children, their fathers are working. I don't remember my father in my childhood except that he came home late and that he had his Schnapps. And then my mother said, do you know what he did, pointing to me. And then he'll nod and then he'll put his newspaper down and then he'll take his napkin off; and then he'll give a scream like Tarzan, come chasing me around the table and whack me.
You know what that does to your digestive system to wait all through the dinner for that to happen?
INSKEEP: Explains why you were a sickly child, I guess.
Mr. SENDAK: Yes. It explains even now why I have a bad stomach.
INSKEEP: May I ask, as I look at this intricate book, do you mind if children destroy your books?
Mr. SENDAK: No. I mean even if I did by now, what difference would it make? But it'll be destroyed out of pleasure. They'll pull too hard or they'll push too hard or something like that. And then the publisher will be very happy because if the parents really loved the book or he did, they'll buy him another copy.
INSKEEP: Maurice Sendak, it's great speaking with you.
Mr. SENDAK: Same here. I've enjoyed it.
INSKEEP: Maurice Sendak's newest book is called Mommy? If you're near a computer, I want you to see what we've been describing. You'll find pictures and more from Sendak, an audio slideshow at npr.org.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.