Maurice Sendak, magician of the soul, is at it again.
The legendary children's-book author, who gave the world "Where the Wild Things Are" three decades ago, has created his first original picture book in 10 years, "We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy."
It is a reinterpretation of two classic Mother Goose nursery rhymes, "We Are All in the Dumps" and "Jack and Guy," and it is a publishing event: one of the most successful children's authors of the 20th century, 64 years old, coming out of retirement to create something new.
This is a book unlike any of the 80 others written or illustrated by Mr. Sendak, a book about acquired immune deficiency syndrome and homelessness and skies darkened with black clouds from a concentration camp that cooks children. A book that describes a homeless band roaming the gutters of nihilistic '90s New York City, their suffering a living curse on an age that championed the mighty and chewed up the meek. It is a cry of anguish, a shout of rage, that starts with monstrous rats stealing a helpless baby.
The occasion of its publication is marked on the cover of the current New Yorker: a drawing of down-in-the-dumps urchins living in boxes under a bridge. Mr. Sendak calls it "I Love New York."(Inside the magazine, Art Spiegelman, author of "Maus," sends up Mr. Sendak in an interview done as a cartoon strip. "Childhood is cannibals and psychotics vomiting in your mouth," a raving cartoon-Sendak proclaims.)
This is definitely not "Where the Wild Things Are," in which Mommy sends Max to his room for harassing the family dog, whereupon Max sails far, far away to where the wild things are, conquers the monsters and gets home in time for dinner. Nor is it "In the Night Kitchen," in which Mickey (named for Mickey Mouse) gleefully escapes from a pie to return to bed on sugar-dough wings.
" 'We Are All in the Dumps,' " Mr. Sendak says, "is 'In the Night Kitchen' 20 grubby years later."
Maurice Sendak is sitting with his back to a mirror in the Adrienne restaurant of the posh Peninsula Hotel on Fifth Avenue; he does not want to see his own reflection during lunch. What he would see is a slightly slumped, balding man, with white goatee and gray mustache; a man picking contentedly over a plate of grilled quail with arugula, marinated beets, mango and hazelnut oil. So much has been written about the dark, difficult, curmudgeonly artist that one is surprised to find a plump, 5-foot-8 man with the warmth and irreverence of an old philosophy professor and the whimsy of a storybook goblin, which Mr. Sendak resembles.
So, then. Is his book too frightening? Too far down in the, well, dumps? Mr. Sendak fairly snorts when he hears this question, his hands fluttering dismissively like nervous birds.
"I always have to deal with you journalists, you censors," he says. "Journalists, parents, for them it is always too frightening."
Parents have forgotten, Mr. Sendak says, what a wrenching experience childhood is. "It's miserable," he says, "but of course parents don't want to admit that their children are sometimes in misery, that they cannot protect their children from the misery of the world."
Children, Mr. Sendak says, are survivors, more acquainted with the harsh facts of life than parents wish to admit.
"Think of the little girl who says to her father right after her mother's funeral, 'There's a lady down the street, Daddy, and she's single. Maybe you can marry her quick . . .' It's not heartlessness," Mr. Sendak says, "it's an intense need to survive. That's my point. . . .
"Dickens had it right. Look at "Oliver Twist." . . . Children have to be taken care of, and if nobody will do it they will take care of themselves. They will re-create a family, come hell or high water."
In high school, Mr. Sendak landed a job enhancing "Mutt & Jeff" newspaper strips for comic books. Uninterested in high school, he went to work as a window dresser for the New York toy store F.A.O. Schwarz, where the book buyer, impressed with his drawings, introduced him to Harper & Row editor Ursula Nord
strom. In 1951, Mr. Sendak illustrated "The Wonderful Farm" by vTC Marcel Ayme. At 23, he was discovered -- and hasn't stopped creating children's books.
But in 1980, after the publication of "Outside Over There," Mr. Sendak believed that he had done all he could with children's books, and began a second career, designing sets and costumes for operas from Houston to New York to Los Angeles. He founded the Night Kitchen Theater, a children's repertory company that he hopes will produce works of real passion for children. Writing had been so solitary.
"I needed to be around people," he says. "I wanted to mentor young artists, to help train them as I had been trained."
But a funny thing happened when Maurice Sendak got out into the world. "By watching friends die of AIDS, by working for the Night Kitchen Theater, I've become a more social, political animal," he says. " 'Dumps' reflects this . . . this is the first book that I've done which is not preoccupied with my private concerns and dilemmas."
In Los Angeles a few years ago, the Mr. Sendak who had vowed never to write another children's book "saw a kid lying in a box on the street with his bare feet sticking out." The juxtaposition of a posh Los Angeles street "with a kid sleeping in a cardboard box inspired a fantasy -- a city of homeless children."
He thought immediately of two Mother Goose nursery rhymes that he had combined in a picture book 30 years ago but never published. "I knew I had reduced these strange, enigmatic verses to a 'mere kiddie book,' " he says. So he shelved the project. "But the two verses stayed in my head."
In Mr. Sendak's imagination, "We Are All in the Dumps" evoked a band of homeless children, like the "child cities" that exist on the fringes of urban areas in South America. Jack and Guy became abandoned ruffians, inspired by the glowering stares of a fiercely moral woman-in-the-moon (modeled after Mr. Sendak's mother) to rescue a baby and kittens before the rats take them to St. Paul's. Not the church of Mother Goose, but the children's and kittens' concentration camp of Mr. Sendak -- St. Paul's Bakery and Orphanage. Jack and Guy save the baby outside St. Paul's and take him to the homeless camp, where children wear AIDS memorial skeletons on their ragged clothes and huddle in New York Times real estate pages for warmth. ("Very Smart Living From $70,000," the headlines say. "Want a kitty to cuddle? No children allowed.")
In the grim, Brothers Grimm-style world of Mr. Sendak, an abandoned baby being raised by homeless children is a happy ending. The infant is smiling, asleep in Jack's arms in the city ruins. He is loved.
The reviews have been "incredible," Mr. Sendak says proudly. One critic calls "We Are All in the Dumps" "wonderful and magical and achingly sad." Another writes: "This book makes me feel lighthearted, and braver-than-usual, and full of hope for humanity."