When Maurice Sendak died on May 8, 2012, the world mourned the loss of such great talent. His trove of wonder and whimsy, into which we escaped as children (and sometimes adults), would grow no more. Or so we thought.
Nearly two years ago, Lynn Caponera, president of the Maurice Sendak Foundation and long-time manager of the Sendak household, was at the late author’s Connecticut home rifling through his files. She was trying to decide if there was anything that could be discarded when she discovered a typewritten, completed manuscript, titled Presto and Zesto in Limboland, attached to a collection of pictures referred to as the “Sugar Beets” (one of the illustrations featured two sugar beets getting married). She worked as Sendak’s caretaker for 40 years and, after reading a bit of the manuscript, vaguely remembered the author working on the story with Arthur Yorinks, his friend and fellow children’s book writer, revealed Yorinks in an interview with CBC Radio’s Laura Lynch, on the As It Happens radio show.
“I just thought it was really wonderful to find it,” Caponera told CNN. “It was sort of like bringing Maurice back in the house.”
Caponera scanned the manuscript and emailed it to Sendak’s former editor and publisher, Michael di Capua. “Coincidentally,” Yorinks tells Lynch, Di Capua, is also his “long-time editor… and he was stunned that this was sitting in a drawer.”
“What a miracle to find this buried treasure in the archives. To think something as good as this has been lying around there gathering dust,” Di Capua told Publishers Weekly.
Caponera and di Capua then contacted Yorinks who filled them in on the story behind Limboland.
In 1990, Sendak created 10 illustrations for a one-night London Symphony Orchestra performance of Leos Janacek’s Rikadla, “a 1927 composition that set a series of nonsense Czech nursery rhymes to music,” the Publishers Weekly article explains. Each illustration (one of which was the sugar beet wedding drawing) represented one of the nursery rhymes and would be displayed as the related rhyme was being played. After the performance, Sendak tucked them all into a drawer. Yorinks had seen the illustrations and thought that beautiful as they were, it was “a shame they would be seen just once,” Publishers Weekly reported.
— Liz Donatelli (@pubLIZityLA) July 7, 2017
Seven years later, Sendak was approached by acclaimed violinist Midori. She had composed a symphony to raise funds for her music education foundation and wanted to use his illustrations as a part of it, to which Sendak agreed. Out they came and back in the drawer they went when the fundraiser was finished.
One afternoon, Yorinks recounted to Lynch, he and Sendak retrieved the illustrations “on somewhat of a lark… They were so beautiful to me,” he said, “and I said to Maurice, you know, ‘Why don’t we try making a book out of this?'”
They needed a story that would tie the pictures together. Of the story they would tell, however, they had no clue. So, they cleared Sendak’s drawing table, spread the illustrations out, and let their imaginations go wild, regaling one another with made-up stories. “It was a hysterical afternoon of cracking each other up,” Yorinks told Publishers Weekly. “But after a few hours, a narrative thread began to coagulate. The story became an homage to our own friendship so we named the characters after ourselves—Presto and Zesto.”
Presto and Zesto
The names, Yorinks reveals, were nicknames the two had for one another. Yorinks and Sendak had been friends since the “late 60s and early 70s,” Yorinks told Lynch. He lived in New York City and would visit Sendak in Connecticut, via train. He eventually moved to a town “in New York that Maurice’s house bordered on,” and said to the Where the Wild Things Are author one day, “I think I live near you.” Sendak invited him to lunch at his home and estimated it would take Yorinks 30 minutes to arrive. Four minutes after he left his own new home, Yorinks found himself at Sendak’s door.
“Maurice was totally shocked and he gave me the nickname of Presto because I just appeared out of nowhere. And I didn’t want to be the only one to have a nickname, so I named him Zesto,” Yorinks explained. “Indeed, the story’s about two good friends who have to make their way in this very mixed-up world, and that’s how Maurice and I felt at the time.”
They spent the next few months fine-tuning the story, “and there was suddenly a book,” said Yorinks. They set it aside with intentions to revisit Limboland, but got caught up in other projects before they could see it through to publication.
Di Capua told Publishers Weekly that Sendak “became a bit obsessed” with Brundibar, a book he published in collaboration with playwright Tony Kushner, about an opera performed by children at Nazi concentration camp Terezin.
Yorinks admits that “At that time, I was more into theatre than books. In all honesty, we just forgot it.”
Return to Limboland
Until almost two decades later, that is. When Yorinks was contacted by Caponera and di Capua with news of the discovery and an offer to publish the book, “this was like a bolt out of the heavens,” he told Publishers Weekly. “He asked, ‘Are you interested?’ I said, ‘Holy mackerel. Are you kidding me?'”
Speaking with Lynch, he described feeling “a mixture of utter joy and a bit of surprise. I remember that time so vividly, and for it to suddenly come flooding back was really joyous.” But it is a bittersweet turn of events for him, because Sendak died before he could see the book published. “He would have absolutely loved this because it was a project of love and joy. And at the same time, it’s horribly sad that he’s not here with me to share in this part of it,” Yorinks said. He is happy for news of the manuscript’s discovery and pending publication, however, because it reconnected him with “my dear friend, who I missed a lot since his passing… that moment in time when this book was created. And it was a really nice way to return to this very important friendship I had for over 40 years.”
Limboland was not the only imaginary world Sendak and Yorinks created together. They collaborated on The Miami Giant, which was published in 1995, and Mommy?, published in 2006. They also co-founded the Night Kitchen Theater, a US-based theater for children.
Presto and Zesto in Limboland is due to be published by Michael di Capua Books and HarperCollins in 2018. It tells the story of two friends, Presto and Zesto, who become stuck in Limboland. Their only chance of escape is to find the perfect wedding present for bride and groom sugar beet — the Limboland monster’s bagpipes.
“It means a lot that it’s coming out into the world,” said Yorinks. Sendak “really would’ve just been jumping for joy.”
[Featured Image by Susan Ragan/AP Images]