Reading in the Shadow of Sendak

by Elisha Cooper

Illustration credit: Elisha Cooper

I’m pretty sure I was the least productive Sendak Fellow. The Sendak Fellowship is awarded each year to a small group of children’s book authors, who then spend a month at Maurice Sendak’s summer home, a bucolic cluster of farmhouses, barns, and ponds nestled in the hills of upstate New York. Each Fellow is given a cottage, food, money, a studio, the space to create. But in a place designed for work, I didn’t.

My two fellow Fellows worked. After morning yoga, they headed to their studios. They edited proofs of upcoming books. They painted, they crafted. At night, the lights in their studios glowed. Mine stayed dark. After setting up my studio I didn’t use it the rest of the time I was upstate.

Here’s what I did instead. I biked each morning to the nearby town and got the newspaper. I made scrambled eggs. I ground coffee beans with a hand-grinder and made myself a cortado. I went for runs in the woods above the farm, and cooled off in one of the ponds (the one without snapping turtles). I baked bread for my fellow Fellows. I kayaked down the Battenkill River. I took a road-trip to the Adirondacks. I wrote postcards to my daughters, and letters to friends. One morning I helped milk the goats at a dairy in the next valley.


Mostly, though, I read. I’d retreat to the small red barn called the Corn Crib. This had been Sendak’s studio. Bookshelves lined three of the walls, windows in the fourth overlooked a pond (the one with snapping turtles). The place smelled of old wood. I’d sit in a comfortable chair under the watchful eyes of a Wild Thing puppet head, my feet on a desk, a mug in hand, with NPR mumbling in the background, and I’d open a book.


I reread books I loved: A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. I read a book about the Odawa, the First Nation tribe whose canoes ruled the Great Lakes. I combed through Sendak’s bookshelves, discovering a beautiful edition of Winslow Homer prints. The pile of books on the desk grew; my mug emptied and filled; shadows shifted across the pond. Sometimes, I’d step outside and sketch clouds.


In the evenings, the fellows occasionally gathered for dinner in Sendak’s farmhouse. A local chef cooked for us. He was a forager and had a tattoo of a pig on one shoulder, a troop of inked mushrooms on the other. We ate pork shoulder and drank wine and listened to the kind women who ran the fellowship share stories about Maurice. We were well taken care of.

If this all sounds idyllic, and I sound giddy, well, it was, and I was.

The feeling reminded me of the many Friday afternoons, years ago, when my daughter and I took the subway downtown after our visits to the hospital. We went to the hospital four times a year, for years, for scans to make sure that her cancer had not returned. Her scans were always clear and the fear I had each Friday morning gave way, in the afternoon, to a kind of euphoria. My daughter and I ate sandwiches at a small Italian place in the Village, met my wife for ice cream, and spent the rest of the day at cafés reading books. All afternoon I floated. I felt boundless, filled with relief and thanks. Taken care of by our doctors, and by my family. I don’t wish to go back to those times — the story has a happy ending, with my daughter healthy and in high school — but those Friday afternoons were strangely magical.

Life can’t always be so. Our day-to-day gets in the way. Work, obligations, getting stuff done. But some days we are given a gift, maybe a gift of time, and I’m struck by how often in those times we turn to books.

As I read in Sendak’s studio I thought about the gifted space I found myself in. I thought about gratitude, and grace, and luck. I even thought up the idea for my next book, its foundation taking shape, as if by osmosis, in that room. I may not have been the best Sendak Fellow, but I was an appreciative one, as I sat and read in a studio upstate.