Though it has never appeared in a published work, the image of the old woman on the cover of Presto and Zesto in Limboland is instantly identifiable as the work of the late Maurice Sendak. Last summer, news that an unreleased manuscript of Sendak’s had been discovered lit up the literary world. The collaboration between Sendak and his friend and frequent co-author, Arthur Yorinks, will be published by HarperCollins on September 4, and PW has the exclusive first look at the cover.
Sendak created the 10 standalone images that comprise the book in 1990 for a performance of the suite Říkadla, a 1927 composition by Leoš Janáček that set to music a collection of Czech nursery rhymes. When he first saw the images, Yorinks was struck by their power. “I saw them in various forms, and of course I saw the finished illustrations. They were just glorious. Brave and cuckoo and funny and crazy in a way that some other things of his weren’t. They were zany, and Maurice was not known for zany. When I saw them I thought, ‘Wow, this really should be a book.’ ”
The two friends spent an uproarious afternoon (“I wish we had a recording of it,” Yorinks said) thinking of a story outlandish enough to plausibly connect all the pictures. “They wove them together into a continuous narrative that has a beginning, a middle, and an end,” said Sendak’s longtime editor and publisher, Michael di Capua. “How can you tie them into a developing logical storyline unless the content of the narrative is nuts? They spread the pictures out, inspiring each other by rearranging the sequence: ‘What if this happens? And then this happens?’ ”
Creating the story was one thing, but publishing it was going to take time—more time than the two friends felt they had. Sendak was committed to producing a book version of the opera Brundibar with Tony Kushner. Yorinks was immersed in theater projects. So they laid the manuscript aside. “There are so many things involved in publishing a book instead of just making a book. We thought, we’ll do that down the line,” Yorinks recalled, a little wistfully, “and we didn’t know how much time we had.”
Fast forward to the reappearance of the manuscript last year, unearthed in the artist’s files by Sendak Foundation president Lynn Caponera. Yorinks and di Capua were buoyed by the prospect of being able to publish the book at last. “The fact that Maurice wasn’t there to contribute is sad,” says di Capua, “but our way of doing things was so ingrained in me at this point that I have this confident feeling that he would approve of the way the book is looking.”
“I happily took it on for so many reasons,” Yorinks said. “The book is about friendship, and so it’s a poignant and bittersweet epilogue to our own friendship. It’s the year Maurice would have turned 90, and I’ll turn 65…. It’s a special thing.”
Changes to the text had to be made, but not many. “I don’t know how many books we’ve done together—a zillion, basically,” said Yorinks about di Capua. “He’s really, really good. He won’t say, ‘Do this!’ or ‘Do that!’ He’ll just question things. He’ll say, ‘I’m not sure about this,’ and then if it hits me a certain way—which sometimes it does—I’ll go, ‘Yeah, something is wrong.’ ”
Sendak’s demanding standards were legendary. “I learned everything I know about making books from Maurice, and one of the main things is this striving for perfection in bookmaking,” said di Capua. “I have a reputation for being a lunatic perfectionist. It’s all because of Maurice. He trained me to think in that way.”
To prepare Sendak’s images for press, they engaged the services of a Vermont printer named Stephen Stinehour, an artisan equally at home with old-style letterpress printing and the digital tools that have revolutionized the field. “Even though the technology is very different nowadays,” di Capua said, “the one factor that remains constant is that it’s not the machines or the technology that matter in getting the best possible reproduction—it’s the human being. Some people, even those who work professionally, really believe that they can have their 12-year-old nephew press the button and perfection will come out. It’s just not true.” Yorinks is similarly enthusiastic: “Stephen created a series of proofs for the book that are so good that one might even call them forgeries, they’re so accurate and beautiful. Maurice would have been thrilled.”
At the design stage, too, changes were minimal. An illustration and a page of text changed places. A typographical ornament was judged a distraction and removed. “It works beautifully,” di Capua said of designer Steve Scott’s cover, “and the typography is stylistically very true to Maurice’s other books. That turquoise-y teal was a color that Maurice liked. I didn’t ask Steve whether he just pulled that out of the air or whether he knew that.”
A Fruitful Friendship
The humor in the book flows from the particular friendship Yorinks and Sendak shared. “We could make each other laugh,” said Yorinks. “Maurice was hilarious, he was unbelievably hilarious. Not that many people saw it, but he was. He was an incredible mimic. He could probably perform the entire film All About Eve and play all the parts. We were both Fred Astaire maniacs. King Kong was big for us. It was his childhood and it was my childhood, too; it was a movie in his childhood and on television in mine.”
“The day we met each other was like a scene out of Presto and Zesto. It was a different time, and he was listed in the phone book. I literally knocked on his door. I was 17. I had no idea about kids’ books. We had no picture books in the house. But I thought, ‘Wow, this guy sounds interesting, and this is maybe insane, but I want to meet him.’ I was with a friend and he didn’t want to be late, but the more my friend said ‘No,’ the more I wanted to do it.”
Sendak greeted the two young men graciously, Yorinks said, and suggested that Yorinks call him. Much later, after months of waffling, he made contact. Sendak asked Yorinks if he had ever read Winnie-the-Pooh. “What should I say?” Yorinks thought in desperation, and blurted out, “Oh, I hated that book.”
There was a pause on the other end of the line. “Oh, God, I thought, what did I do?” Yorinks remembers thinking.
“And Maurice said, ‘Why don’t you come over for lunch?’ ”
“And this book is all about that. It’s about the two of us ending up in a bizarre world and how to just get through it. That’s kind of what we were both dealing with. This crazy mixed-up life, and you just have to get through it.”
Yorinks paused. He used a Yiddish word that means “overcome with emotion.” “I’m getting all verklempt thinking about it,” he said.
“I can picture Maurice in his studio,” he continued, slowly, “working on his books, listening to some opera or some piano sonata blasting on his stereo—he had a very good stereo, so you could really blast the speakers—and I can picture myself when I was in a tiny apartment in Manhattan listening to music, too, and here this book is just such an amalgam of our way of being in the world together. In joy, in pain, working, struggling, in search of some way of existing in the world.”
Presto and Zesto in Limboland by Arthur Yorinks and Maurice Sendak, illus. by Maurice Sendak. HarperCollins/Michael di Capua Books, $18.95 Sept. 4 ISBN 978-0-06-264465-7