On Tuesday, a slim children’s book by the late, great Maurice Sendak and his close friend Arthur Yorinks arrives in stores. Called Presto & Zesto in Limboland and published by Michael di Capua Books/HarperCollins, it’s not the sort of book to ever become a Caldecott Medal-winning classic like his fantastic Where the Wild Things Are. But because it’s by Maurice Sendak — a cultural icon for the likely millions of people who were raised on (or raised their kids on) his unique children’s stories — its publication is causing a bit of excitement.
Sendak, who passed away in 2012, wrote the story with Yorinks, 65, a fellow children’s book writer. Yorinks recalls that almost 20 years ago when they were hanging out at Sendak’s home in Ridgefield, Conn., they decided to mold a story around a collection of 10 illustrations that Sendak had created in 1997 for the London Symphony Orchestra to accompany a composition by a Czech composer — a musical piece based on nonsense rhymes. The pictures look similar to the trippy illustrations in Sendak's In the Night Kitchen (1970), and a little bit like those in 1963’s Where the Wild Things Are, with cartoonish monsters and monstrous-looking humans.
“They were so beautiful and so Maurice,” Yorinks says in a phone interview, his voice thick with emotion. Even though the illustrations didn’t make any obvious sense in relation to each other, he adds, “We said, ‘What the hell.’ We walked into his studio one day for fun and just started riffing on them. We were cracking each other up. Everyone thinks of Maurice as this sort of curmudgeony guy, very serious … but he and I had a lot of laughs. He was hilarious.”
They set it aside, distracted by other projects. Then a few years ago Lynn Caponera, Sendak’s close friend and assistant — and now president of the Maurice Sendak Foundation, found it in a drawer in Sendak’s Ridgefield home, and contacted Sendak’s longtime publisher, Michael di Capua (who has called its appearance “miraculous”). Now, ta-da, it's an honest-to-goodness published book.
It should be said: The story is weird. That’s not surprising coming from Sendak, a writer who, as the New York Times wrote in his obituary, “wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery and plunged it into the dark, terrifying and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche.”
Not super dark for a Sendak book, the plot essentially involves two main characters, Presto and Zesto — the nicknames that Yorinks (Presto) and Sendak (Zesto) used for each other — who take a walk and find themselves in a bizarre place called Limboland. “A maniac shepherd boy” tells them that a pair of sugar beets (no joke) are getting married, and they need to find them a present or, a goat explains, “we’ll all be stuck in Limboland forever.” Problem is, the only worthy present is a set of bagpipes, currently in the possession of a scary monster named Bumbo. The nonsensical tale evolves from there.
Yorinks, who wrote two other books with Sendak, The Miami Giant (1995) and a cute/mischievous pop-up book called Mommy? (2006), says, “There are themes that relate to our obsessions, ‘How does one survive in a crazy mixed-up world?’ “ But, he adds, he doesn’t want anyone to take their silly little story too seriously: “What we meant for this to be was a good story and for people to have some fun … It’s not junk — we were very serious about the artistic part of it — but in the end try not to think too much about it. It’s meant to be fun.”