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  • There’s a Mystery There: The Primal Vision of Maurice Sendak by Jonathan Cott
  • M. Tyler Sasser (bio)
There’s a Mystery There: The Primal Vision of Maurice Sendak. By Jonathan Cott. New York: Doubleday, 2017.

To borrow from Jonathan Cott’s title, there mysteriously is a dearth of scholarship on Maurice Sendak, an author and illustrator whom we frequently include on our lists of the most important children’s book artists. Despite there being a few booklength projects on Sendak—Making Mischief: A Maurice Sendak Appreciation (2009), The Art of Maurice Sendak: 1980 to Present (2013), and Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work (2013)—there remain only two truly academic studies: John Cech’s Angels and Wild Things: The Archetypical Poetics of Maurice Sendak (1996) and Selma Lane’s The Art of Maurice Sendak (1998). Perhaps such absence suggests the complicated position of picture books within the larger world of children’s literature, since picture books often are as much or more visual art than literary. Whatever [End Page 117] the reason, Cott’s There’s a Mystery There is another brief biography and semi-critical study that is of more use to scholars for its source material than for its overall argument.

Cott is a contributing editor to Rolling Stone magazine and routinely writes for the New York Times and The New Yorker as well. He has published eighteen books, including Beyond the Looking Glass: Extraordinary Works of Fairy Tale and Fantasy (1973), Pipers at the Gates of Dawn: The Wisdom of Children’s Literature (1983), and, with Sendak, Victorian Color Picture Books (1983). His work with Sendak began with the profile that he published in the Christmas 1976 issue of Rolling Stone, which featured one of the latter’s Wild Things on the front cover. Throughout the subsequent decades, the two maintained a friendship, with Sendak often reaching out to Cott about his latest work, as he did in March 1981 when he sent the critic an advance copy of Outside Over There.

In part 1, Cott rehashes moments from Sendak’s early childhood and his parents’ lives, such as their emigration from Poland to New York prior to the First World War. Sendak frequently was outspoken about his “tough time as a kid” and the fact that he “was aware at a very early age of mortality” (24, 26), so there is very little new information provided in these early pages. Cott reminds readers of Sendak’s interest in windows and escape before running through his oeuvre, saying little about his early collaborations with Ruth Krauss and focusing mostly on the texts that Sendak authored and illustrated before Outside Over There. Part 2 details the story of Cott’s first visit to Sendak’s home near Ridgefield, Connecticut, on 10 June 1976 to interview him for Rolling Stone (57). During this visit Cott discovered Sendak’s passion for Mickey Mouse, toy collections, and Mozart, as well as his early ideas for the book that would become Outside Over There. Some new information about Sendak can be found in these pages, such as the brief discussion of his illustrations for Randall Jarrell’s Fly by Night, a text that rarely finds its way into conversations about either Jarrell or Sendak. Nevertheless, this chapter mostly builds toward Cott’s sustained discussion, in parts 3–7, of Outside Over There within the context of Sendak’s biography and aesthetic, especially as depicted in interviews and conversations with those who knew him personally.

These five chapters catalog conversations and analyses by, respectively, psychoanalyst Richard M. Gottlieb, Jungian analyst Margaret Klenck, art historian and picture book scholar Jane Doonan, and playwright, friend, and collaborator Tony Kushner. Here, then, is perhaps the major contribution of There’s a Mystery There: this work provides the longest published and interdisciplinary discussion of Outside Over There. Sendak often claimed that this book was his greatest artistic achievement, despite the critical and certainly popular preference for Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen. Cott situates Outside Over There within the context of Sendak’s first experience with depression, his aesthetic interest in babies, and the numerous visual...


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pp. 117-119
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