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 favorite writers. Just glancing at my own shelves, I can pick out a half dozen Sendak-enhanced 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 favorite 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’s “The Miami Giant,” despite exuberant, gargantuan-sized 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.”
At the mention of “cake,” any Sendak devotee will recall the little boy Mickey and the bakers of “In the Night Kitchen.” Yet while Mickey’s dream-adventures might be described as surreal and dark with implicit references to the Holocaust, those of Presto and Zesto are far more purely nonsensical, as if produced by free association. 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-than-intrepid 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. Such inexhaustibility has always been one of Sendak’s strengths: Has there ever been a more tantalizing and hauntingly beautiful picture book than “Outside Over There” (1981), so rich with German-romantic motifs and almost Masonic symbolism?
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.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
Story by Arthur Yorinks and Maurice Sendak
Pictures by Maurice Sendak
HarperCollins/Michael Di Capua Books. Unpaginated. $18.95