On December 1, 1964, Ursula Nordstrom wrote a letter to Nat Hentoff, who was on assignment for the New Yorker. (Hentoff’s piece on Maurice Sendak ran January 22, 1966-well over a year later.) Nordstrom-who had never been a teacher, a librarian or a college graduate-published Sendak, Gorey, Silverstein, White, Wilder and Brown from 1940 to 1979, at which time she and her partner Mary moved up to the country.
Yes, I think A Hole Is to Dig was something new. It came from Ruth Krauss’ listening to children, getting ideas from them, polishing some of the thoughts, exploring additional “definitions” of her own. It really grew out of children and what is important to them. (A brother is to help you.) Some of the definitions seem quite serious to children but those aren’t the once the adults smile over and consider “cute.” For instance, “Buttons are to keep people warm.” Adults think oh isn’t that darling, but it makes perfectly good sense to children…. A Hole Is to Dig was the first of all the Something is Something books, and has been mushily imitated ever since it was published….
You asked me how “revolutionary” Where the Wild Things Are is. There have been a good many fine picture books in the past. (Some by Margaret Wise Brown, and illustrated by one of two or three or four talented artists.) But I think Wild Things is the first complete work of art in the picture book field, conceived, written, illustrated, executed in entirety by one person of authentic genius. Most books are written from the outside in. But Wild Things comes from the inside out, if you know what I mean. And I think Maurice’s book is the first picture book to recognize the fact that children have powerful emotions, anger and love and hate and only after all that passion, the wanting to be “where someone loved him best of all.” I’m writing this in a terrible hurry, so forgive me, please. A lot of good picture books have had fine stories and lovely pictures (Peter Rabbit, the best of Dr. Seuss, Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats), and some have touched beautifully on basic things in a child’s life, physical growth, going to bed, coming to terms with a new sister or brother (this is making them sound sappy but they are far from that-I’m thinking of Ruth Krauss’ The Growing Story, Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, Charlotte Zolotow’s Quarreling Book, the Hobans’ Baby Sister for Frances). But it just seems to me that Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are goes deeper than previous picture books. And of course his use of three consecutive double-spreads to show what happened when Max cried, “Let the wild rumpus start!” has never been done in any book.
From Dear Genius, the collected letters of Ursula Nordstrom.