Bill Viola once spoke of “falling” or faltering as the optimal state for making art. John Baldessari said, “Art comes out of failure.” Some artists take pride in striving where they risk failure. Samuel Beckett: “To be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail.” Bas Jan Ader: “All is falling.”
In May, one night, while thinking about ‘falling’ I came across a funny and melancholy dance by Pina Bausch on YouTube. A short way into the performance (“1980—A Piece by Pina Bausch”), a woman begins to skip around the stage in a large circle, waving a white handkerchief. “I am tir-ed, I am tir-ed,” she chants in a lilting rhythm while Brahm’s Lullaby plays in the background. Round and round she continues, until she teeters on the edge of collapse. She exudes weariness as her chant grows halting, her steps clumsy. Her arm quakes with the effort of holding the handkerchief in the air…
This morning I finished my second and final year as a Writer-in-Residence with the Toronto District School Board. It has been, without question, one of the highlights of my writing life. I want to thank the coordinator Ruth Hall and all the spectacular teachers, librarians and students who have made me feel so welcome.
I have always said that what makes my day is visiting a school group of racially diverse students who don’t think I look like an “author” when I arrive but who are quite sure that I do (and they do too) by the time I leave. I know that many of the children I meet are being steered away from the arts by ﬁrst-generation immigrant families that want, and often need, their children to acquire social legitimacy and financial stability through their professions. I know that many of these children feel the roar of parental expectations and I hope that I (and others) can represent another path.
Today, nearly half of the 150 kids I met said they want to be writers one day. This makes me feel very hopeful (even if they were lying)! We need more diverse writers just as we need more diverse stories.
MOYERS: Is writing books like this something like guerilla warfare?
SENDAK: Yes. That’s well said. Because you’re really fighting yourself
all the way along the line. And I don’t know… I never set out to
write books for children. I don’t have a feeling that I’m gonna save
children or my life is devoted.
I’m not Hans Christian Anderson. Nobody’s gonna make a statue in the
park with a lot of scrambling kids climbing up me. I won’t have it,
okay? So, what is it… and I got a clue. I was watching a channel on
And they had Christa Ludwig who was a great opera singer back… I saw
her in Europe. She’s now retiring.
And then, she had a surprising interview at the end of the concert
where the guy… she said, “It’s so good now.”
And then, he said, “But, why do you like Schubert? You always sing
Schubert.” And he sort of faintly condemned Schubert. “I mean, he’s so
simple. He’s just a Viennese waltzes.” And she smiled. And she said,
“Schubert is so big, so delicate, but what he did was pick a form that
looked so humble and quiet so that he could crawl into that form and
explode emotionally, find every way of expressing every emotion in
this miniature form.”
And I got very excited. And I wondered is it possible that’s why I do
children’s books? I picked a modest form which was very modest back in
the ’50s and ’40s. I mean, children’s books were the bottom end of the
totem pole. We didn’t even get invited to grownup book parties at
MOYERS: And men didn’t do. I mean, it was a woman’s world, wasn’t it?
SENDAK: It was a woman’s world.
MOYERS: Yeah, men were not supposed to enter the child’s…
SENDAK: And you were suspect the minute you were at a party, “What do
you do?” “I do books with children.” “Ah, I’m sure my wife would like
to talk to you.” It was always that way. It was always. And then when
we succeeded, that’s when they dumped the women. Because once there’s
money, the guys can come down and screw the whole thing up which is
what they did. They ruined the whole business. I remember those days.
And they were absolutely so beautiful. But, my thought was… that’s
what I did. I didn’t have much confidence in myself… never. And so,
I hid inside, like Christa was saying, this modest form called the
children’s book and expressed myself entirely.
I wasn’t gonna paint. And I wasn’t gonna do ostentatious drawings. I
wasn’t gonna have gallery pictures. I was gonna hide somewhere where
nobody would find me and express myself entirely. I’m like a guerilla
warfare in my best books.
When I was six and visiting family in England, my Grandpa Hugh gave this book to me and it has remained on my bookshelf ever since. Milne’s use of repetition and beat make it a perfect read aloud. Also perfect: Milne’s blend of melodrama and humor that manages to both respect and send-up childhood fears. When I was little I often felt an acute sense of responsibility for the wayward adults around me so I particularly loved James James Morrison Morrison who was all finger-wagging, laying down the law, and searching for control in an uncontrollable universe.
The wonderful Danielle Davis of This Picture Book Life invited me to write about three books that I liked as a child that continue to shape me as a picture book writer. This is a new feature on her blog and I can’t wait to read what other writer’s say. You can see my full list here. (With thanks to Sara O’Leary)