Lynn Caponera, president of the Maurice Sendak Foundation, was going through the late artist’s files last year “to see what could be discarded,” she said. “I was asking myself, do we really need all these?” when she found a typewritten manuscript titled Presto and Zesto in Limboland, co-authored by Sendak and his frequent collaborator, Arthur Yorinks. Caponera, who managed Sendak’s household for decades, didn’t remember the two friends working on a text with that title, so she scanned the manuscript and e-mailed it to Michael di Capua, Sendak’s longtime editor and publisher.
“I read it in disbelief,” said di Capua. “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.”
Not only is the manuscript complete, so, too, are the illustrations. Sendak created them in 1990 to accompany a London Symphony Orchestra performance of Leoš Janáček’s Rikadla, a 1927 composition that set a series of nonsense Czech nursery rhymes to music.
Voila! So it is that Sendak, considered by many to be the most influential picture book creator of the 20th century, will have another publication in the 21st, five years after his death. PW has the exclusive news that Michael di Capua Books/HarperCollins plans to publish Presto and Zesto in Limboland in fall 2018.
This will be the third book collaboration for Yorinks and Sendak, following The Miami Giant (1995) and Mommy? (2006), which were both also edited by di Capua. In addition to their publishing collaborations, the longtime friends also co-founded the Night Kitchen Theater. The title of the new book references an inside joke between them.
Though Yorinks had often visited Sendak at his home in Connecticut, “I only knew where he lived in relation to the train station.” So when Yorinks later moved to Connecticut himself, he called Sendak and said, “‘I think we’re close,’ but Maurice thought I was about a half hour drive away,” Yorinks recalled. “Then I got in the car and I was there in three minutes. When he opened the door he said, ‘Presto!’ That became my nickname.” Yorinks, in turn, dubbed Sendak “Zesto.”
Yorinks had seen the pictures Sendak made in 1990 for Janáček’s symphony and remembers thinking, “What a shame that they would be seen just once.” Di Capua had the same thought. “We talked about getting really good translations of the Czech verses but they were like Edward Lear squared,” di Capua said. “It just seemed hopeless, like trying to translate Finnegan’s Wake, and Maurice had many other fish to fry.”
So the illustrations went into a drawer for seven years until the violinist Midori asked Sendak if she could use them for a symphonic piece she was putting together to raise money for her foundation, which provides music education programs to underserved children in New York City public schools.
Before they went back in a drawer again, Yorinks was direct. “ ‘They could be a book, no?’ ” he asked Sendak. “We both agreed they could, but what was story?” On a drawing table in Sendak’s studio, they laid out the 10 illustrations—which they always called the “sugar beets” pictures because one of the rhymes was about the marriage of two beets—and riffed.
“It was a hysterical afternoon of cracking each other up,” Yorinks said. “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.”
Over the course of the next few months, they refined the text. Di Capua says the book might have been published 20 years ago but for Brundibar, the book Sendak produced with the playwright Tony Kushner about the opera performed by the children imprisoned at Terezin, a Nazi concentration camp. “[Sendak] became a bit obsessed with that,” di Capua recalled.
Yorinks was being pulled in different directions, too. “At that time, I was more into theater than books,” he said. “In all honesty, we just forgot it.”
When di Capua called Yorinks to ask if he wanted to go forward with publishing the book, the response was unambiguous: “He asked, ‘Are you interested?’ I said, ‘Holy mackerel. Are you kidding me?’ ”
Only minor revisions to the text were needed, which Yorinks did happily. “The memory of writing it originally flooded back in a wonderful kind of way,” Yorinks said. “We always had a lot of laughs for two really depressed guys.”