Mau­rice Sen­dak’s lat­est trans­ports its he­roes to a night­mar­ish realm

Waterloo Region Record - - Books - MICHAEL DIRDA The Washington Post

As an au­thor and artist, Mau­rice Sen­dak en­riched the world with two of our most beloved pic­ture books, “Where the Wild Things Are” (1963) and “In the Night Kitchen” (1970).

Yet Sen­dak’s cre­ative en­ergy also spilled over into more com­mer­cial projects and he of­ten il­lus­trated the work of oth­ers, usu­ally favourite writ­ers. Just glanc­ing at my own shelves, I can pick out a half-dozen Sen­dak­en­hanced books: Lore Se­gal and Ran­dall Jar­rell’s “The Ju­niper Tree and Other Tales From Grimm,” Iona and Peter Opie’s col­lec­tion of chil­dren’s rhymes, “I Saw Esau,” Ge­orge Mac­Don­ald’s “The Light Princess” and “The Golden Key,” Her­man Melville’s enig­matic novel “Pierre.”

I men­tion these be­cause “Presto and Zesto in Lim­boland,” which is be­ing pub­lished as a newly dis­cov­ered work by Sen­dak, ac­tu­ally got its start as work-for-hire. In an af­ter­word, co-cre­ator Arthur Yorinks ex­plains that the Lon­don Sym­phony Orches­tra com­mis­sioned Sen­dak to pro­vide 10 pic­tures to be used as pro­jec­tions for a per­for­mance of Leos Janacek’s “Rikadla,” a mu­si­cal set­ting of Czech nurs­ery rhymes. Later, the same art­work was brought out again for a char­ity con­cert in the United States, then slipped into a drawer and for­got­ten.

But not by Yorinks. Dur­ing the 1990s he and Sen­dak had es­tab­lished the Night Kitchen Theater group, ded­i­cated to putting on plays for young people, and the two had be­come friends. A ver­sa­tile writer, Yorinks had worked with artist Richard Egiel­ski on “Hey, Al,” which won the 1987 Calde­cott Medal. With artist David Small, he also pro­duced one of my own favourite chil­dren’s books, the hi­lar­i­ous “Com­pany’s Com­ing,” in which a nice mid­dle-aged Jewish cou­ple — Shirley and Moe — dis­cover that a fly­ing saucer has landed in their back­yard. Less suc­cess­ful was Yorinks’ “The Mi­ami Gi­ant,” de­spite ex­u­ber­ant, gar­gan­tu­an­sized art by Sen­dak him­self.

One day around 2000, as Yorinks tells it, Sen­dak took out the 10 for­got­ten pic­tures and the two of them “be­gan riff­ing on a story” that might trans­form these tableaux of strik­ingly ex­pres­sive farm an­i­mals, an­noyed peas­ants and bawl­ing chil­dren into “a co­he­sive pic­ture book.” Yorinks scrib­bled a few notes and, after some fur­ther dis­cus­sions, typed up the nar­ra­tive they’d come up with — at which point ev­ery­thing again dis­ap­peared into a drawer as both artist and writer moved on to other projects. Then a few years after Sen­dak’s death in 2012 at age 83, the pic­tures and type­script were re­dis­cov­ered.

Like Sen­dak’s ear­lier clas­sics, “Presto and Zesto in Lim­boland” opens by trans­port­ing its he­roes to a threat­en­ing night­mar­ish realm. The run-on sen­tences are pos­i­tively breath­less, al­most ditsy:

“It was Thurs­day — no, no, it was Satur­day when — no, wait a minute, I think it was Sun­day — oh, I don’t re­mem­ber what day it was, but one day Presto and Zesto, good friends, took a walk and ended up in Lim­boland.”

As the un­named nar­ra­tor quickly ex­plains, “they didn’t mean to go there, who would go there, but they had a lot on their minds, and to tell you the truth they were both up­set that there wasn’t any cake for lunch.”

In Lim­boland, our he­roes meet a “ma­niac shepherd boy” who only eats cake; hear that two sugar beets are get­ting mar­ried; learn that to re­turn home they’ll need to pro­cure a set of bag­pipes as a wed­ding present for the amorous veg­eta­bles; and dis­cover that the only bag­pipes to be had be­long to Bumbo, who re­sem­bles a Wild Thing gone over to the dark side. While seek­ing this dev­il­ish mon­ster, our less-thanin­trepid duo en­counter a very large bear busy fash­ion­ing a wed­ding out­fit: “The bear had scis­sors and Zesto re­mem­bered what his mother al­ways said: ‘If you see a bear with scis­sors — RUN!’ “

While the text of “Presto and Zesto in Lim­boland” is in­sou­ciantly ram­shackle, Sen­dak’s art ex­hibits its char­ac­ter­is­tic charm with­out be­ing es­pe­cially mem­o­rable. In the book’s most-ar­rest­ing im­age, an old goat looks truly goat­ish, half Pan, half jaded de­bauchee, as he casts a rak­ishly ap­prais­ing glance at the reader. Of course, Sen­dak — noth­ing if not trans­gres­sive — reg­u­larly in­serted sex­ual el­e­ments into his work, rang­ing from Mickey’s nu­dity to the full-length AIDS and child abuse al­le­gory “We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy” (1993).

Since “Presto and Zesto in Lim­boland” draws on re­pur­posed art, the pic­tures some­times re­tain egre­gious el­e­ments that are never ex­plained: For in­stance, why is a mole-like crea­ture hold­ing a ruler and a cat bran­dish­ing a dag­ger? At other times the text sim­ply ac­knowl­edges the art’s ab­sur­dity: A uni­formed drum­mer boy, ap­pear­ing dra­mat­i­cally out of place in a farm­yard scene, is blithely said to have “strayed from his march­ing band.”

Partly be­cause of such in­con­gruities, one can look at these pic­tures, again and again, while spec­u­lat­ing on their mean­ing or how the parts fit to­gether.

Hap­pily, then, while this “new” Sen­dak may be a left­over, it’s not a post­hu­mous em­bar­rass­ment — though the last pages of the story do come across as rushed and flat: “Yes, the cake was de­li­cious ... and Presto and Zesto had two pieces each be­fore they said their fond good­byes and re­turned home, safe and sound.”

Still, set­ting aside any mi­nor cav­ils, you will cer­tainly en­joy “Presto and Zesto in Lim­boland” and, if it doesn’t seem too static or just plain weird, so will your chil­dren.


Mau­rice Sen­dak in 1963. Ten “lost” pic­tures and type­script were found after Sen­dak died and be­came “Presto and Zesto in Lim­boland.”

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