WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is Copyright 1963 by Maurice Sendak,
photographs and text are Copyright Mel Birnkrant.
No one in the toy industry appreciated great artwork more than Harry. He willingly paid more than anybody to hire the best talent available. Beginning with the great designer, Paul Rand who created the Colorforms logo. As Colorform’s so-called creative director/art director, Harry made my job easy. All I had to do was let fabulously talented artists do their thing, with little guidance, and few restraints from me. So now, being true to form, Harry hired the best image maker in the business, an amazing young lady named, Bonnie Erickson. Bonnie had formerly worked with Henson Associates, where she created Miss Piggy, as well as many other leading Muppet characters. Now, she and her husband, Wade Harrison had gone into business together. And within a few short years, Harrison Erickson designed the characters and costumes of some of the most famous sports mascots in America.
These were exciting days. Maurice and I met with Bonnie and her crew of craftsmen several times, in her studio in Manhattan. Each time, a lavish lunch was offered. The first visit was to get acquainted and discuss the dolls, their construction, and the various fabrics that would be required. At this point, we made some important decisions. I had visualized Max as being smaller than the Wild Things, as he appears in the book. Now, his size was debated, and we unanimously agreed that it would be better merchandising to make him nearly the same size as the others, so, all the dolls could sell for the same price. This sketch and overlay, done on the spot, struck everybody as “spot on!” The stars indicate unanimous approval.
Whatever his size, the same amount of labor would be required, and his being larger would offer more perceived value. His face, we all decided would be better rendered flat, rather than splitting it down the middle. And his nose would be a plastic button. In the original drawings, I had given Max the least attention. Now, I quickly sketched the variation.
The Bull became the subject of much discussion. Clearly, the snout and lower jaw line were not fully realized in my drawings. I did two more quick sketches, and Maurice and Bonnie determined how the beard should best be rendered.
Bonnie had gathered a variety of fabrics and furs, and Maurice and I chose the ones that we preferred: heavy felt for the claws, and natural colored unbleached cotton for the printed areas. This was all such fun, like going shopping, or ordering outfits, made to order by a tailor. We chose white terry for Max’s wolf suit, with nylon whiskers. The only disagreement of the entire project was a heated debate about the bull's body. I wanted it to be rendered rather abstractly in blue plush. Several illustrations in the book, including the cover, hinted at that color. Maurice, on the other hand, was insistent on it being the same dirty gray that appeared in just a few of the illustrations. I begged him to make this one concession, as these were toys for children, and the gray would not only be less colorful and appealing, it would make the bull look dull and dirty. In the end, he reluctantly agreed. If you knew Maurice, you would be as amazed as I was that for, perhaps, the first times in his lifetime, he gave in. I believe that, over time, he began to rather like the blue, and was glad he did.
Our second visit to Bonnie was a joyous event. She had made mockups the dolls, and we were more than pleased. Maurice and I both had some suggestions, little nuances and minor alterations, but, all in all, the meeting was a celebration of Bonnie's expertise. And we offered her profuse congratulations for a job well done. Maurice posed for a Polaroid with Bonnie’s mockups, making his best Wild Things face. Bonnie pinned some eyes in place. Can you see the Muppet influence? If you compare these to the decorated dolls, you'll see what a dramatic difference the printing makes. I notice my first drawings are hanging on the wall behind Maurice.
I remember that the lunch was great fun. Maurice had just discovered Kenneth Anger's book, Hollywood Babylon, and he had been so taken by it that he had committed to memory several of the scandalous legends it contained. Now, he took great pleasure sharing these, especially, the one, in which one starlet’s pampered poodle devoured her remains. This, while we were eating lunch.
Maurice freaked out when I informed him that Kenneth was a good friend of the family, and insisted that we introduce him. Thus, a meeting was arranged to take place at our schoolhouse on the following weekend. The disastrous events of that ill-fated day can be found elsewhere.
Several days later, there was another meeting at Bonnie’s studio. On this momentous occasion, she submitted the final samples with all the fabrics we had chosen. They were met with unanimous approval, and I took these precious objects home with me.
Now, came the moment of truth. This was one of the scariest things I ever dared to do, to take up pen in hand and draw right on the one and only final set, in a do or die attempt to emulate the look and feel of Maurice’s inimitable linework. I lightly penciled in the eyes, then, set right in, using a thin marking pen. For once in my life, Fate was being kind. With the Wild Things book, open before me, my heart was beating madly, as I boldly inked in one line at a time. Swept up in an aura of fantasy, I felt as if some unknown force was guiding me. To my astonishment, and grateful for the help I seemed to be receiving, I watched as every line, every crosshatch, every delicate detail, from the Main Guy’s fierce but friendly grin, to the subtle look of mischief on Maxe’s bold, but simple face was taking shape, quite perfectly. Finally, when the final line was penned, I felt, as if I had been blessed. I felt, as if I’d passed a test, or maybe, won the gold in an Olympic event.
It was all smooth sailing from then on, as I worked late into the night, carefully applying the subtle colors in the form of Magic Markers, which happened to be a medium I had mastered, doing countless comps for Colorforms. As the hours ticked by, I colored the bulls entire body to get the shade of the blue just right, and I even lavished flesh on parts of Max that would never be seen, unless he were undressed. And when the job was done, even though, it was the middle of the night, I shot some instant Polaroids. My favorite Wild Thing looked exactly like the illustrations in the book.
Now, the finished prototypes and I were ready for what I hoped would be the final meeting. All those in attendance at Bonnie’s studio that day were swept away by the universal feeling that this occasion was historic. And everyone was nervous, everyone, that is, but me. I knew Maurice would love the finished Wild Things dolls, and he did! So did everybody! No changes needed to be made.
Someone on Bonnie’s staff took photographs, of which only this single copy came my way. From left to right are the two charming young ladies who sewed for Bonnie, then Wade Harrison, Bonnie’s husband and business partner, next is yours truly with those absurd sideburns that now look ridiculous to me, followed by Bonnie, who was extremely happy, and, last of all, Maurice, as pleased as he could be. On the table is the book itself and our favorite Wild Thing, as he appeared, before and after.
Then, as the sun was rising, I placed the whole gang of newborn Wild Things on my desk, against a background of white paper, and shot this single Polaroid of all of them together. After that, with Wild Things dancing in my head, I tumbled into bed, still glowing from a job well done.
All the while that this was going on, Maurice was merrily doing sketches. Much to my chagrin, Bonnie promptly acquisitioned these, claiming she needed his originals for reference. Meanwhile, she made me this crappy Xerox copy.
I looked so miserable; Maurice took pity on me, and whipped out this large drawing in 60 seconds.