Even Maurice Sendak Worried About Not Being Tolstoy

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In 1961, a 33-year-old Maurice Sendak, tasked with illustrating one of Tolstoy’s books, wrote to his editor Ursula Nordstrom — the publishing legend behind in children’s literature — expressing some trepidation about his own artistic abilities in the face of the great Russian writer; specifically, he complained that Tolstoy and Melville filled their books with furniture, while his world was “furniture-less” and “all feeling.” Her response is a wonderful, poignant, and incredibly supportive reassurance that we can all take to heart: that every artist has their own brilliance.

“Sure, Tolstoy and Melville have a lot of furniture in their books and they also know a lot of facts (‘where the mouth of a river is’) but that isn’t the only sort of genius, you know that,” Nordstrom writes. “You are more of a poet in your writing, at least right now. Yes, Tolstoy is wonderful (his publisher asked me for a quote) but you can express as much emotion and ‘cohesion and purpose’ in some of your drawings as there is in War and Peace. I mean that. You write and draw from the inside out — which is why I said poet… You may not be Tolstoy, but Tolstoy wasn’t Sendak, either.”

Indeed. Two years later, Sendak published Where the Wild Things Are — edited, of course, by Nordstrom. (She also edited Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, Goodnight Moon, Harold and the Purple Crayon, and Where the Sidewalk Ends, among other children’s literature classics.) Read the full letter from the publishing legend over at Letters of Note.