Maurice Sendak
Childhood Books I Remember

HomeArts: What were some of the books that were most important to you as a child?

Sendak: To have become a reader was faintly miraculous for me, given how nightmarish reading was made for us in school. I have the most intense memory of what reading meant: You went to assembly and you sat, row by row, class by class. And then a teacher on stage read the story. Reading consisted of listening with your hands folded in your lap. Kids assigned by teachers to be monitors walked up and down to see if your hands indeed were clasped tightly. If your hands were folded during the entire reading, you might get a tiny gold star, which you would paste in your book. So of course all you thought about were your hands.

I dreaded it, but we had to endure. And you see how anti-reading, how anti-life, the situation was. There are very few books from school that I loved. In fact, there's only one--Chicken Little. And I remember it not because Chicken Little is such a great story, but because of the pictures. It was a school reader, and the pictures were simple and they were all yellow. And I loved to turn the page and see all those yellow pictures: little, fat, yellow pictures running all over the pages.

The other book that meant an awful lot to me was one of the books that Harold Bloom chose: A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson. That has very happy associations for me because I was an extremely sickly child, which was fairly normal back in the 30's before sulfa drugs and so on. Kids caught everything back then: the whooping cough, scarlet fever, all of that. I got everything and spent a good part of my early years in bed. And A Child's Garden of Verses was read to me by my brother. Some of the poems I memorized. I remember one in particular about the counterpane, with soldiers on the blanket ["The Land of Counterpane"] because that was what my life was like.

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