Maurice Sendak’s Presto & Zesto in Limboland: Arthur Yorinks on Collaborating with the Late, Great Author

After iconic children’s book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak died at age 83 in 2012, Sendak’s assistant discovered a fully illustrated manuscript for a picture book called Presto and Zesto in Limboland. Sendak’s editor contacted writer and director Arthur Yorinks, Sendak’s friend and collaborator for forty years, and asked him to complete the story. In the 1990s, Yorinks and Sendak had brainstormed a story for the pictures, which Sendak had illustrated for a collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra. Yorinks revised the notes he’d taken with Sendak, and the whimsical result was published this year.

We chatted with Yorinks via email about Presto and Zesto and his friendship with Sendak.

In Presto and Zesto in Limboland, the protagonists take a walk and end up in an absurd world, Limboland, whose zany rules they struggle to understand. From Alice in Wonderland to Oz, why are wacky worlds such a staple of children’s literature?

The so-called “normal” world seems much more wacky than any fantasy world (to anyone actually looking, and most if not all kids “see”). Hence, the best of children’s literature is just reflecting what’s around us.

The illustrations for this book came before the story. Did you and Maurice Sendak normally work that way, or did the story usually come first?

Almost all the time, the story comes first; perhaps an image might come to mind that sparks a narrative, but the story is primary. The pictures of Presto & Zesto were so wonderful, we broke our own “rule” and made up a story to go with them.

You said that coming up with this story together was like being jazz musicians, riffing off each other’s ideas. Do you prefer collaboration or working on creative projects by yourself?

The honest answer is both, and in essence, for me, both are the same. Here’s what I mean. I like very much to work with other people, and in books, that usually means an illustrator. But I still feel like I’m collaborating when, all alone, I’m working on my text to refine it and shape it. If I’m not thinking of the picture book as a whole, then I’m thinking about the reader—and the reader for me—is me!

We never actually see the protagonists Presto and Zesto in the illustrations until late in the book. How do you think this affects a reader’s experience of the story?

It’s one of my favorite aspects of this book. It’s very cinematic and film-like to see what’s going on from, in this case, two people’s point of view. It’s an old movie tactic, but for a picture book I think it’s very unusual…and a lot of fun.

In the Night Kitchen, Sendak’s 1970 book, has been frequently challenged or banned because a naked little boy scampers through the story. Did Sendak ever tell you what he thought of the challenges to this work? Presto appears with the back of his pants torn off in this book, which kids will surely find funny. Was Sendak more interested in what kids thought than adults?

Maurice didn’t “do” anything pictorially in his books that weren’t meant to be, meaning that they served the story. He didn’t care about those “adults” who thought ill of a little boy naked. And pants falling down or even being torn off (by a spider yet) is one of the oldest comedy bits in the world.

The pop-up book Mommy? was one of your previous collaborations with Maurice Sendak. You’ve worked for years in theater, opera, and dance. Is a pop-up book in any way like a theatrical performance?

Most times, yes. In the case of Mommy? it literally is a theatrical performance, so to speak, as its origin was a play I wrote which Maurice designed. The play is called It’s Alive, and had its premiere in New York City in the 1990s. The narrative of our pop-up book is simply a shrunken down version of the play.

You’ve recently been adapting Where the Wild Things Are for the stage. Do you have any idea when that production will launch?

With fingers crossed, it should open at The New Victory Theater on 42nd Street in New York City in the fall of 2020.

Did working on this book bring back any memories of your friend that you had forgotten?

A good part of the joy of working on the book was that the “Maurice memories” part of my brain kicked in and for a time Maurice was with me once more. I can’t say that I discovered any “new” memories for my years with Maurice have, since his death, been tucked away in the brain attic, if you will. Every so often I spend a little time there – but when working on the book, I kind of lived there for a while.

Presto and Zesto in Limboland is on shelves now. 

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