An unpublishable tribute to Sendak…

Sendak is dead. It’s very awful.  Not just because he was brilliant, but because he was contrary, and we NEED that.  Sendak wasn’t the kind of man to “like” everything in sight.  He was the kind of man to poke at it.

I want to share something today, a book I never published.  This was actually my very first book to come close to publication. I sent it out, and it went to acquisition almost immediately, at a major house.  Ultimately it wasn’t accepted because they had something too close to it on the list already.

But even though it took me another 5 years to find a publisher, I never really sent it back out after that, because when I looked at it again, I realized that it was COMPLETELY derivative of not one but TWO Sendak books.  It’s basically a mashup of Where the Wild Things Are, and Outside Over There.

Which was a huge wake-up for me–the realization that children’s literature is deeply embedded in me (as it is in all of us). So deeply embedded that we don’t even realize when we’re pirating.

Sendak is in me, in theme and story, in rhyme and rhythm.  How could he not be?  He may be gone now, but more than just about anyone I can think of, his voice will live on, because his books will love on, for as long as anyone’s can hope to…

Here, for your reading pleasure (I hope) and my plagiaristic shame, is an early picture book. I wrote it in 2000, I think.  The little sketch is by my friend Aaron Becker, who will publish his first picture book shortly.  I asked him to attempt an illustration of my manuscript back when I wrote it, long before either of us knew better….

Tillie and the Wild Corn Bears


The day she left her farmhouse to wander through the green,

Tillie wore her scamper-boots, with plans for wandering.


She packed a satchel full of lunch and drinks and cookies too.

And right before she left the house, she grabbed her gold kazoo.


She made her way through rows of corn, and heard the tractors hum.

She watched the birds go flitting past.  She thought she heard a drum.


But then the beats grew fainter, so Tillie wandered on.

Beneath a sky so bright and blue and hot and full of sun.


Then— just as she had thoughts of lunch, she heard that sound again—

Perhaps of someone dancing, or the rhythm of the rain.


The pounding of a hammer or the beating of a chest.

Poor Tillie didn’t know she’d found The Wily Corn Bears’ nest!


She clambered from the cornrows onto a little hill,

Where Wily Corn Bears jumped and twirled and danced around, and still


Brave Tillie moved in closer— until it was too late!

They pushed her down and tied her up and strapped her to the gate.


They hooted and they hollered. They pulled at Tillie’s hair.

They’d never seen a Tillie, and she’d never seen a bear.


The corn bears scowled at Tillie.  They made a yelping sound.

They opened up her satchel, and wolfed her sandwich down.


They gobbled up her cookies and swallowed down her juice.

When Tillie saw them chomping, she tried to wriggle loose.


She summoned up her courage, and then began to speak,

“That sandwich was my supper, you thiefy little sneaks…”


But corn bears don’t know human talk, and so they barely heard.

She might as well have been a goldfish burbling at birds.


She might as well have been a bluebird singing to a child.

Corn bears don’t know human words.  The words they know are wild.


They just kept right on chomping, so Tillie gave a shout—



The corn bears heard her bellow, but they puzzled at the sound.

They snickered corn bear snickers, glanced sneakily around.


And then they turned to Tillie, wondering at her yell.

They poked and prodded both her knees.  They pinched her arms as well.


They unlaced both her scamper-boots.  But now she shook in fear.

She wrestled to and fro against the ties that bound her there.


Tiny bear-claws combed her hair, tangled up her braids.

She felt the tiny bear-claws, and then she felt afraid.


Her hem was frayed and falling, her pockets torn clean through

Tillie felt quite sure that there was nothing left to do.


She trembled while she waited.  She felt a creeping dread.

Until two corn bears stole her socks to wear upon their heads.


They wore the socks like little hats, which socks aren’t meant to be,

Then pulled them tight around their snouts, which caused both bears to sneeze.


But that made Tillie giggle, and woke her from her fright.

She struggled with the ropes she wore, the ties that bound her tight.


She managed then to free one arm, and with that arm she tried

To grab the Wily Corn Bears as they went running by.


She reached out for their silky backs, their pointy little ears,

But found instead her fingers fell on something lying near.


She found instead her satchel, discarded on the lawn,

And in the bag her gold kazoo, and then she found a song.


The creatures twirled around her still, shapes moving through the air,

She felt their claws against her skin.  She shuddered deep with fear.


But when she blew her buzzing tune, The Wily Corn Bears fell,

In huddled lumps at Tillie’s feet, and ceased their Corn Bear yell.


She played as she untied her ropes, as she dashed down the hill

She played as she ran through the green, quite breathlessly, until


She saw off in the distance, the green that was her own,

Her own familiar yard and porch, her bicycle, her home.


Still buzzing on her gold kazoo, she scampered up the stairs.

She ran into the kitchen and found her mother there.


The moral of this story: Don’t wander fro and to—

But if you have to wander, remember your kazoo.


10 Responses to “An unpublishable tribute to Sendak…”

  1. Jenny Schwartzberg Says:

    That’s fun! I do see the echoes of Where the Wild Things Are but also of Little Black Sambo and of Vachel Lindsay’s poetry. Thank you for sharing that.

  2. Venessa Ann Schwarz Says:

    Very sweet Laurel! You’re talent is amazing. I didn’t know Sendak had passed away. I saw him on Colbert a few months back and surprised by his, well … great ability to “poke.” But I have to say it was extremely funny and honestly he was and always will be a “great” in children’s literature. Thanks much!

  3. Trish Says:

    Shades of Rosetti’s Goblin Market, too. Nice tribute, really nice writing. Thanks for being so on top of things.

  4. Mom Says:

    I remember Tilly!
    But then, I remember how many times I read Wild Things to you and I can approximate the number of times that you read it to yourself.
    Nice to see her again.

  5. Sandra Bornstein Says:

    Thanks for sharing your wonderful story.

  6. Bonnie Says:

    I LOVED your story and your words and rhyming. And like Sendak, it was scary, but I couldn’t stop reading and children won’t be able to stop either. Your first line was pure Sendak and the Wily Corn Bears were wonderful wild things.

  7. Eula Says:

    Oh, I want your Tilly book for Juneau!

  8. Cynthia Says:

    Wonderful story!

  9. Kerry Clare Says:

    I’ve always found you quite Sendakian. The line between wild rumpuses and clatter and din hullaballoo is not so wide…

  10. Ilana Waters Says:

    “…when I looked at it again, I realized that it was COMPLETELY derivative of not one but TWO Sendak books…which was a huge wake-up for me–the realization that children’s literature is deeply embedded in me (as it is in all of us). So deeply embedded that we don’t even realize when we’re pirating.

    Sendak is in me, in theme and story, in rhyme and rhythm. How could he not be?”

    Hi Laurel–BEAUTIFUL poetry. But I think your last line says it all. “How could he not be [in me]?” If you hadn’t told me these works were derivative of Sendak, I never would have guessed it. To my mind, no “pirating” took place. All authors are inspired by each other.

    Please don’t deprive the world of this lovely work because you feel you are somehow “stealing.” “There’s nothing new under the sun,” and other writers are living in us constantly. In that way, we carry on their legacy, as you have done with Sendak. He is gone, bless him, but world needs NEW Sendaks. NEW “Where the Wild Things Are.” Can you imagine a world with no books inspired by other authors? I tell you, the shelves would be empty.

    Well, that’s just my opinion. But if a house liked your work enough to consider it so strongly, I think it deserves a second chance. And I’m sure Mr. Sendak would agree (in his own cantankerous, pokey way) ;-)

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