Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Sendak Fellowship

I wrote this piece for the March/April 2012 SCBWI Bulletin. They are kindly letting me post it here as well.

Among the very first books that I ever touched, were the five Little Bear books by Else Holmelund Minarik and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.  The bittersweet episode in which Little Bear thinks his mother has forgotten about his birthday was especially fascinating to me as a young child.  The story is touching and beautifully told, but what really got into my guts, and stayed there forever, are those perfect ink drawings.  The disappointment you could see on Little Bear's expressions; the different personalities of Hen, Duck, and Cat; the melancholy of the humble birthday soup: all this is illuminated by Sendak's pen in such a sensitive manner. The last time I took a good look at those drawings was years ago, but if I close my eyes I can still see them so clearly.

As an adolescent, I began imagining for myself a future as a visual storyteller of some kind.  Looking around for inspiration, I encountered Hieronymus Bosch, Alfred Kubin, Elzie Crisler Segar, George Herriman, Wilhelm Busch, and other artists in various fields. Since I didn't go through any kind of formal education to speak of, these people and their work were fundamental in my artistic progress, for better or worse.  But when I sat down at my table to learn how to use that wonderful drafting tool that is the dip pen, I knew what to keep near at hand: Maurice Sendak's drawings.
In Italy, where I was born and grew up, most of Sendak's books were not nearly as popular as they were in the United States and elsewhere in the world.  Only when I moved to New York in the mid nineties did I fully understand the range and importance of his work.  I began collecting his books, which kept me company on my path to the profession.
One day in February of 2011, opening the mailbox to clear it up from the usual utility bills and advertisements, I found a curious item: a letter.  It was addressed to me, and bore the letterhead The Sendak Fellowship.  I opened it, expecting to read a request for a donation to a children's literacy program or something of that nature.  Instead, the letter was an invitation to spend four weeks in Connecticut, in a house a few steps from Maurice Sendak's, in the fall.  I would be given a studio where to work on my projects, if I felt like it.  In fact, there was no obligation to produce anything specific, or anything at all.  In addition to this, and to me most importantly, I would have a chance to meet Maurice Sendak.  Maurice Sendak!  I said yes, but I was scared.
The notion that Sendak actually knew my books enough to invite me to his place was unsettling.  I have always been afraid that one day I'll hear a knock at the door and some stranger in a uniform, an Art Police officer, will notify me of my lack of qualifications and therefore my inadequacy to be in this business.  I will have to surrender my pen and nibs and my India ink, my watercolors and my paper.  Something like this might happen one day, and I was afraid the time had come.  Sendak himself was to notify me personally. 
A few months before the fellowship began, I learned the names of the three other fellows who would be in Connecticut with me (four illustrators are invited each year): Denise Saldutti, Frann Preston-Gannon, and Ali Bahrampour. I was very familiar with Bahrampour's picture book, Otto. The Story of a Mirror, a wonderful, truly original book.  I thought: if he is also being invited, maybe I don’t have to be too afraid.  After making that first book, he seemed to have disappeared from the children's book world, so they couldn't possibly want him out, as he already was out.  I began to think that the Sendak Fellowship must have been some kind of rehabilitation center for picture storytellers.  And for me, it was. 

Everything in my stay was delightful: the convivial atmosphere; the incredible kindness and efficiency of Dona McAdams and Lynn Caponera, who organize the program; my studio, with windows that looked into the woods, populated by birds, frogs, toads, turtles, chipmunks, deer, and very long and fat earthworms.  In that studio, I was able to draw and think freely, with no deadlines or pressure of any kind, just for the pleasure of it.

The main reason why I draw and tell stories is to be in that state of grace and intimate isolation you reach when you are completely immersed in your creation.  We all know it is often a delusive state, but still.  In that world that you are building, you want to be honest, you want to be true to yourself.  But when you make picture books for children, there are so many hurdles, taboos, things that you are not allowed to show or tell.  You get used to this notion; you come to accept it as a given; you censor yourself.  And you produce books that are not as good as they could be.  You forget why you are doing this.

Sendak reminded me that it doesn’t have to be that way.  He is a very warm, sweet and witty person, but also very honest.  He told me what he liked in my books and what he didn't like. His main concern was that some of my choices were too safe and tame.  “You need to be brave,” he said to me. I tried to blame the publishers, and he did acknowledge that today’s industry, at least in the United States, is not as favorable and nurturing as it was forty or fifty years ago.  But that, he told me, should not be an excuse.  He is completely right, and I already knew that. But talking with him, while walking in the woods with his dog Herman, made me remember why I draw and tell stories. 

This is a drawing I did while in Connecticut,
based on a drawing I did in fourth grade


  1. I'm reading Dear Genius (Ursula Nordstrom's letters) right now and your account here ties in so neatly with the spirit of it all. I find such generous encouragement so remarkably beautiful.
    So very much looking forward to seeing the brave results soon!

  2. Wonderful essay. Thank you, Sergio, for reminding me of the purpose and responsibility of the storyteller.

  3. Beautiful! You touched so delicately at the heart of it. Thanks for reminding me of the joy and of the need to be brave.

  4. Sergio, this is such a complicated issue. Every time we talk to another human being we make compromises, censor ourselves. That's the nature of communication. When we write for children, we're not necessarily writing just to be intimately immersed in our creation, but to share something with other human beings at their level.
    Perhaps it is odd then that the work of mine that I feel proudest of, that really expresses my own truest artistic self, is not the work that speaks directly to most children, or indeed, will ever get published. I know, I have tried! But I remember I am a grown-up with sophisticated taste refined over a lifetime. I am not saying we have to sell out and talk down to people (children and typical parents) with less sophistication, but I think Sendak was shaped in another age, where quirkier, more adult perspectives were permitted in children's books, and from what I have read he seems more concerned with his art than with his audience.
    "Night Kitchen" or "Outside Over There" would surely not be published by a major house today, if they were done by an unknown author, and maybe would not have been even in their time without the prior commercial success of "Where the Wild Things Are". My own children hated those later books, as artistic and brave as they may be, and my kids were a pretty sophisticated trio of young readers. I think it's pretty easy for Sendak to tell others they ought to be braver and take more chances.
    Editors and publishers are necessarily concerned with selling quantities of books and the courage of the author to have some personal creative integrity is not really that relevant today. Neither is art. "Safe" and "salable" are most often economic necessities, and taking chances is discouraged. And of course it is an excuse, but it is a good and valid excuse. It is reality.
    If you've found a way to step outside of that modern paradigm and get your braver work published, more power to you! But until there are more small, independent presses willing to print books that are a hard sell to the masses, I think the journey for most authors and illustrators in America will be a difficult one, fraught with hurdles and taboos.
    Maybe someone will convince me otherwise, but I feel that building a career in published books and being true to a personal artistic vision are not necessarily compatible. I have come reluctantly to accept that I must try to think commercially to be viable, visible and make a living making books in the real world. To those who make the decisions on what to publish, a "good" book is one that makes money, and that is not necessarily the uncompromising one. Am I wrong? Or should we just make books for ourselves, and ignore the rest of it? Or do you believe that publishers and the public will recognize and acknowledge the attempt to step outside the boxes, and validate our efforts to go further than we dared?

    1. Oh, no, I hope I didn't make it sound as if I thought I were a brave little author. On the contrary, I am fairly cowardly. There are many ways one can approach this business, but I surely appreciate more the authors who are brave enough to create what they think is the best possible story and the best possible pictures, without second-guessing what the readers will be able to understand. That second-guessing can be so pretentious and annoying.

    2. Yes, second-guessing is a mistake. Talking down to kids is a mistake. I've made many books and they have many mistakes in them! I can tell when I read them to groups of kids and see what flies past them without connecting, and then I wish I could go back and change things. Today Sendak died, and I am sorry I never got to meet him, or know him, like so many did. For those of us who are artists trying to make a living being a storyteller and illustrator, the struggle to see inside ourselves and capture a little of who we are and what we believe goes on. It's a worthwhile struggle!

  5. Wow! Just... wow! On so many levels I love what you have to say here. And to meet Maurice Sendak? Dream!

    I have to tell you that right now I am reading a vintage version of Hurry Home Candy to my kids. It was one of my favorite books as a child, in part I now realize, because of those very same ink drawings by Maurice.

    You will perhaps be pleased to know that your work is touching children in the same way. I gave my kids the card you signed for them in Bologna and they were ecstatic - big fans they are (as Yoda would say). :-)

    Finally, although I am sure it pales in comparison to meeting Maurice Sendak and having real live kids as fans, I have included you and your blog on my list of authors, illustrators and poets I admire on my website. :-)

  6. Loved reading this Sergio. It breaks my heart that I won't see him again. His inspiration however, will never die for me.

  7. Thank you so much Sergio for sharing this. I found it fascinating and touching, especially about how you were given that precious time to draw and think freely, and about being true to one self.

    I wonder if you or other Sendak mentees could answer a couple of question I have.
    Did he ever talk about his first publisher? I often wonder what would have happened if Ursula Nordstrom hadn't spotted his models in FAO Schwartz that day! He had the talent but surely her strong nurturing from the outset was instrumental to his success too. Especially as kids books are a collaborative process and a publishing team also help make - or break - a book.

    Also did Sendak ever mention in passing any work of his own that he was more critical of? I love how Edward Ardizzone talked of pages he'd like to stick together and how Arthur Rubenstein the pianist admitted he play a bum note from time to time. Just curious if Sendak ever talked about mistakes...

    Erzsi just sent me a film of Neil Gaiman's speech which is a nice counterpoint to this - about honesty and survival, making mistakes, and making good art.

    And boy, Sergio, you do make good art!

  8. Hi Bridget!

    He did have very fond memories of Ursula Nordstrom, both professional and more intimate.
    Funny you mention Ardizzone: Maurice owned some of his work. He was in general very critical of his own work, especially of the work in progress.

    Thank you so much for your kind words!


  9. To walk along side of Sendak...amazing. I agree with Sendak's perspective and passion. What an incredible and deserving experience you had.