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Maurice Sendak delights children with new book, 12 years after his death

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An image of Mino from Maurice Sendak’s posthumous book Ten Little Rabbits.

Maurice Sendak/HarperCollins Publishers

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Maurice Sendak/HarperCollins Publishers

An image of Mino from Maurice Sendak’s posthumous book Ten Little Rabbits.

Maurice Sendak/HarperCollins Publishers

In Ten Little Rabbits, a new posthumous picture book by Maurice Sendak, Mino the Magician waves his wand and, poof, a rabbit appears. Another wave and out springs a second and then a third. By the forth rabbit, Mino yawns. By the sixth, he’s annoyed. Ninth, he’s exasperated, as the rabbits crawl all over him. So back they go, one rabbit at a time, giving readers the chance to count up and back again by the time Mino is done.

But it’s the unruly rabbits and Mino’s many facial expressions that kept this reader turning the page. Once again, Sendak’s knack for capturing just about every kind of emotion is on full display, 12 years after his death, in this book being brought to the public for the first time.

Look no further than 5-year-old Maurice Sendak (circa 1933) to see the model for Max, Pierre, Johnny and now Mino the Magician in Ten Little Rabbits.

The Maurice Sendak Foundation

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The Maurice Sendak Foundation

Sendak fans will immediately recognize Mino. While their names and adventures might be different, the boys in Chicken Soup With Rice, Where The Wild Things Are, One Was Johnny — Mino, Max, Pierre, Johnny — and other Sendak stories look very similar.

“Well, he’s Maurice,” says Lynn Caponera, executive director of The Maurice Sendak Foundation. “He” also didn’t look like most of the other boys in children’s books in the 1950s, says curator Jonathan Weinburg.

“Maurice really had created a kind of child that isn’t…the prettiest little boy. He has a kind of…an ethnic look, Jewish, almost European look to it. And Maurice was the child of Jewish-Polish Americans,” Weinburg says.

“The characters of my earlier books are really only sort of cockamamie self-portraits,” Sendak told Terry Gross, host of WHYY’s Fresh Air in 2003. “Unfortunately, I look like Max and the Wild Things, as children tell you in their brazen way. ‘Oh, Mommy, he looks like the Moishe, the big, wild thing.’ And you just want to crack them.”

A whistling night owl

Sendak had no heirs when he died in 2012, but Caponera and Weinburg were like family to him. They first met Sendak when they were kids, 11 and 10 years old respectively. Weinburg says Sendak and his partner Eugene Glynn, a psychiatrist, were like “surrogate parents.” Glynn “was my mother’s best friend,” he says.

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Ten Little Rabbits is a new, count-along picture book by Maurice Sendak, published 12 years after he died.

HarperCollins Publishers

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HarperCollins Publishers

Ten Little Rabbits is a new, count-along picture book by Maurice Sendak, published 12 years after he died.

HarperCollins Publishers

Lynn Caponera’s family lived down the street from Sendak and Glynn’s Ridgefield, Conn. home. Her brother took care of the property, which was built in 1790, and Sendak once called Caponera’s mother “a saint.”

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HarperCollins Publishers

HarperCollins Publishers

When Caponera was 18, she moved into an apartment on the property and helped take care of the house and the dogs. She quickly learned that Sendak was a night owl. Her apartment was right underneath his studio.

“So I would hear him like all night whistling and playing music,” she recalls, “And you could hear when things were going right. He would be whistling like crazy. So like actually whistling while he worked.” She adds it was “a really wonderful way to come up in the morning and see what he did.”

Weinburg adds that Sendak, “could whistle entire operas from beginning to end” — a claim that is difficult to fact-check. But some of his fantasy sketches actually note on the back what song he was whistling when he was working on them.

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Artist Maurice Sendak signs prints July 26, 1990 in New York.

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Susan Ragan/AP

Artist Maurice Sendak signs prints July 26, 1990 in New York.

Susan Ragan/AP

Like some of his characters, Sendak had a mischievous streak. His very first job was designing window displays for FAO Schwarz. On a recent visit to Sendak’s home, Caponera points out a little toy crow from the store whose likeness shows up in Hector Protector.

Sendak got it during a contest among the workersto see what you could steal from the store,” Caponera laughs, “Maurice was very proud that he said he got a train set out once and…so besides being a great illustrator, apparently was a good thief.”

Sendak’s studio is as he left it

Weinburg says Sendak “was constantly learning and teaching himself” different styles and “emulating” other artists.

Throughout Sendak’s home there is all kinds of art everywhere: 19th century oil paintings and photographs, Winslow Homer engravings from Harper’s Weekly, mechanical toys Sendak made with his brother, a vast collection of Mickey Mouse memorabilia and much more.

Maurice Sendak’s home studio, left, remains as it was during the time he was working there, down to the sweater on the chair and the slippers on the floor. He kept an image of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, right, by his desk for inspiration.

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Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR

His studio is almost exactly as it was when Sendak was alive, says Caponera. Slippers on the floor, sweater draped over the chair, art supplies on his desk. “Cheap…cake paints” like the kind you’d “use in kindergarten,” she notes.

Among the many photographs by Sendak’s desk is one of Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired the main character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. She doesn’t look too happy; Sendak loved it.

“Maurice used to say that he really identified with that photo because, you know, being an illustrator is a very lonely job,” Caponera says. “You’re usually hours and hours doing tedious work at a drawing table by yourself. So he liked to think that Alice was sort of looking over him and that she looked so dejected because she’s so tired.”

Overseeing Sendak’s legacy can be “daunting,” Caponera says. She says she’s confident he would have approved of the new edition of Ten Little Rabbits.

He initially thought the count-along picture book would be part of Nutshell Library, his 1962 collection of pocket-size books Alligators All Around, Chicken Soup with Rice, One Was Johnny, and Pierre. But “he decided to go in a different direction because the other books in Nutshell Library are much more elaborate,” Weinburg says.

Eventually, in 1970, Sendak turned Ten Little Rabbits into a 3.5 x 2.5-inch pamphlet for a fundraiser for Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum.

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Ten Little Rabbits was originally created in the style of the books that are part of the Nutshell Library. In 1970, Sendak turned it into a 3.5 x 2.5-inch booklet for a fundraiser for Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum.

Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR

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Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR

Ten Little Rabbits was originally created in the style of the books that are part of the Nutshell Library. In 1970, Sendak turned it into a 3.5 x 2.5-inch booklet for a fundraiser for Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum.

Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR

This is the third posthumous book of Sendak’s to be published, after My Brother’s Book (2013) and Presto and Zesto in Limboland (2018). And in addition to the new book, Caponera and Weinburg have organized a major retrospective of Sendak’s work that will head to the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles in the spring and then to the Denver Art Museum in the fall.

Caponera says Sendak’s instructions for how to guide his legacy were pretty much “You’ll know what to do.”

It’s evident he trusted her. Nine months before he died, at age 83, Sendak did a sweeping, poignant interview with Terry Gross. He reflected on his career, losing extended family in the Holocaust, depression, getting older and, as he put it “trying to understand what it means to be an artist.”

Gross asked him if he had someone helping him. Sendak told her about Lynn Caponera. “She is a youngish lady who puts up with my oldness; that is, I’m fighting and struggling against,” he says. “She puts up with my bad behavior and she loves me and I love her.”

Meghan Collins Sullivan edited this story for radio and the web. Isabella Gomez Sarmiento produced the audio.