How to Turn a Rotten Childhood into Immortal Beauty

October 18, 2012 | By

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The artist and children’s book writer Maurice Sendak lived a full and fruitful life. Before his death in May 2012, his book was adapted into a feature film, and he was honored by everyone from the band Arcade Fire to satirist Steven Colbert.

But Sendak wasn’t always convinced of his own genius. In 1961, the 33-year-old Sendak was hired to illustrate Nikolenka’s Childhood–the only children’s book written by Leo Tolstoy, author of Anna Karenina and War and Peace. After struggling for months with the book, Sendak wrote to his editor, Ursula Nordstrom, saying he didn’t think he could do it. Who was he, Sendak asked, to bring pictures to this master’s work?

In a funny, moving, and stern letter published on the blog Letters of Note, Nordstrom reprimands him. “You may not be Tolstoy,” she writes, “but Tolstoy wasn’t Sendak, either.”

Nikolenka’s Childhood isn’t your basic Dick and Jane story. The main character, Nikolenka, is at times both naughty and depressive. Abused by his father, he’s a habitual liar who runs away from his family to the city. Considering the other works by both authors–Sendak wrote about stolen babies in Outside Over There,  and a child being baked in an oven in In the Night KitchenWar and Peace is, well, about the horrors of war–the subject matter of Childhood is hardly surprising.

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