In the first picture book he has both written and illustrated since Outside Over There (1981), Maurice Sendak conjures up yet another rambunctious young mischief-maker, this one in the form of a gawky, quarrelsome pig.
At nine, Bumble-Ardy is older by far than either Mickey or Max, and he bursts on the scene of this brightly lit faux melodrama with a Dickensian backstory of parental neglect and an outsized craving for birthday cake and kisses. Who could begrudge the slobbering little wise guy his boorish (boarish?) behavior? Why, the whole world, of course.
Loosely based on a two-minute animation Sendak created with Jim Henson for Sesame Street in 1971, Bumble-Ardy revisits his long-standing preoccupations with childhood outsider-hood and saving-grace resilience, but with a new twist of extravagance taken straight from the operatic playbook of Giuseppe Verdi.
We talked about all this at the artist’s kitchen table in a conversation recorded on May 12, 2011.
LEONARD S. MARCUS: It looks as though you had fun making your new book, Bumble-Ardy. Even the title suggests that.
MAURICE SENDAK: Actually, I didn’t. It was a very difficult time. I was working on it when my partner and friend was dying of cancer. We set up a room in the house to be like a hospital room. Eugene died, and then I had bypass surgery. I was doing the book to stay sane while all this was going on.
LSM: It’s a book about someone — a pig-child — who insists on having a birthday party even if he has to give it to himself.
MS: Well, one of the beauties of being an artist is that you can create a whole new world, with circumstances that are better in your invented world than they are in the real world.
I had been reading a fabulous book (The Man Verdi, by Frank Walker) about Verdi, whom I adore. Verdi was in his late seventies and had written what he said would be his last opera, Aida, when from out of nowhere a young poet called Arrigo Boito came into his life. Boito had composed a wonderful opera about Mephistopheles and was going to write another opera about Nero, and he gave himself up to Verdi in collaboration. A whole new world of Italian music was springing up, and Verdi was seen as old. Boito got Verdi all excited about the possibility of doing another opera, another kind of opera. In fact, Verdi composed his two best operas, Otello and Falstaff, in his eighties. And so I thought that if I were going into old age I would want to do what Verdi did, which is to write extraordinary things, and to really find myself. I’ll be eighty-three shortly, and I want to be renewed. We all want to be renewed, don’t we? Bumble-Ardy was a step toward renewal.
LSM: How do you see the hero of the story?
MS: Bumble-Ardy is a very wicked little child as far as I’m concerned. He’s not to be trusted. He’s never given permission to have a party, but he has one anyway, even though sweet Adeline doesn’t want anybody to come to the house, to drink her special drinks. Adeline is a simple, ordinary woman — wonderful and healthy and strong — and she loves him in spite of everything. Does he love her? “You bet!” he says, as if that were an appropriate answer. But can any child love who has been so mishandled by his original parents? Thank God that Bumble-Ardy’s parents are dead so we don’t have to wonder what they did to him. We only know that they were famous, and famous people have unhappy children for the most part. They don’t have the time to take care of them. So he’s a troubled pig-boy, a kid you’ve got to watch.
LSM: Maybe Adeline expects too much. I thought he gave the perfect answer when she becomes upset with him and, desperate to calm her down, he says, “I promise! I swear! I won’t ever turn ten!”
MS: Yes, I like that! For me that’s the best line in the book. He thinks that’s really a promise. He’s definitely an unhappy child.
LSM: It seems that you were looking back at some of your earlier books in this one. “Some swill pig” sounds a lot like “some swell pup.” And one of the party guests — although you have made him a pig — bears a striking resemblance to the Oliver Hardy bakers of In the Night Kitchen.
MS: That same pig appeared in another project I worked on just a few years ago, a staging of Peter and the Wolf, which I translated into Yiddish and sang on a stage in New York City. Thank God very few people knew I was doing it! But the kids in the audience loved it — even though it was all in Yiddish. Instead of a wolf it was a pig: “ein Schwein.” That is the pig that you say looks like Oliver Hardy. I liked him so much in my Peter and the Wolf that I wanted him for this book, too.
LSM: The colors in Bumble-Ardy are among the warmest and brightest of all your books.
MS: It was not a conscious choice but, yes, there is a palette in this book that is different from that of my other books. It’s Verdi-esque. Verdi was such an enormous help to me as I worked on the book. I had lost my sister recently, too, which meant that my whole family was gone. I was the baby of the family. There were five Sendaks and there were five Wild Things, and now there’s only one Sendak, and he’s about to bite the dust, too! Life, as I said before, was very difficult at that time and so it was natural that there would be a change in the look of things. Also, I was very impressed with my own strength in doing this under the circumstances in which I was living.
LSM: There is a house without walls in We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, and Bumble-Ardy lives in one, too. Do you see the two books as somehow linked?
MS: I never thought of Bumble-Ardy in that way. But I still have that same deep feeling for children who are in dire trouble. I see Bumble-Ardy as a lonely, unhappy kid who is doing the very best he can to be in the world, to have a party. I was ungainly. I was heavy. I probably looked like a little pig. I don’t know. You can start making up any kind of story if you want to, as you well know.
LSM: The party scenes in Bumble-Ardy look like something out of a Coney Island sideshow.
MS: That big face on the midway at Coney Island. I loved that! We lived only two subway stations away from Coney Island, and we used to go to the boardwalk and beach there very, very frequently — my mother, father, sister, brother, and I. For my father the one calamity was that my brother and sister and I never learned to swim. My father, who was very macho, was a strong swimmer and was terribly disappointed to have children who didn’t swim. Once when my mother was sitting in a beach chair — I can still see the big umbrella — she called to my father, “Throw them in! Throw them in! They’ll swim!” So he did. Then he looked down, and there were the three Sendak children lying perfectly still underwater, not fighting for life! So he had to schlep us up and dump us on the sand. He was deeply resentful and disappointed that he had three dopey kids who just lay there. They weren’t fighting to live. Somehow that got into this book, too.
LSM: Did you like to play dress-up?
MS: No, that wasn’t one of my things. All I liked to do when I was a kid was draw. My childhood was like my adult life: drawing pictures with my brother, putting the comics up on the glass window, and tracing the characters onto tracing paper or drawing paper and then coloring them. That and making things was all we ever did. My brother and I built the entire New York World’s Fair of 1939 in miniature out of wax. The floor of our room was covered with little waxen buildings. Nobody else could come in.
LSM: Maybe that was your real goal.
MS: Oh, it was fantastic. My brother, who was older, was the gifted one, much more talented than I. Most of the work was his. I was his assistant.
My sister at that point had her own room. She also had innumerable boyfriends. I had a yo-yo collection that was beyond belief, and the reason I had it was mostly that I would stand in the doorway of the living room watching her and her boyfriend. Finally she caught on how to get this kid out of the way. Give him a yo-yo!
Then one day my sister abandoned me at the 1939 World’s Fair, and that incident is the essence of In the Night Kitchen. The book is a reenactment of standing in front of the place where bread was baked by little men in white caps — Oliver Hardy–type men — as they waved to you, and the smell of bread and cake pouring out of the building. I was standing there with hundreds of other people waving back at the little midgets dressed like bakers when I turned around and my sister was gone! The next thing I know I’m screaming and crying and policemen are taking me to a big place with tons of kids who had all been abandoned like me. At least I was old enough to give them a name and an address.
LSM: How could she have done that?
MS: She was with a date. She had had to take me but she didn’t think twice about leaving me. I was allowed to call my mother from the police station, and my mother was crying, and my sister was already home, and I said, “She did it to me, she did it to me!” Then I got into the police car and I was being driven home and I said, “Please put on the siren when you get to the corner of West 6th Street.” And the police were so eager to calm me down that they did turn the siren on, and when they stopped in front of the building everybody was looking out the window, calling, “Moishe, Moishe, poor little Moishe!” And then I went upstairs and the first thing I did was point to my sister and say, “She did it on purpose!” Later I heard my father clobbering her. It was a great day! If they had asked me I would have become a policeman then and there. Then everyone could have been spared my meshuggeneh books.
LSM: Might there be a little bit of Ursula Nordstrom in Adeline, who steps in almost as a mother to give Bumble-Ardy the things he needs: not everything he needs, but nonetheless an awful lot of what matters?
MS: Could be. She gives him the basics: love and consideration. And she forgives him at the end. I have to say that that was not in my mind. But I’m grateful that it was in your mind because it makes a kind of sense. Even to the big body, the clumsy affection. It was clumsy, but it was real affection. How could I have lived without Ursula? It’s amazing that that happened. God, I had great people in my life. Bumble-Ardy looks like a happy book. That’s the funniest thing about it. But this was survival. I was working very hard to survive.
—Leonard S. Marcus