About two decades ago, children’s book writer Arthur Yorinks persuaded his longtime friend, the legendary Maurice Sendak ("Where the Wild Things Are"), to make a book from illustrations Sendak had created for Czech nonsense rhymes. Yorinks remembers them “laughing like crazy . . . two storytellers improvising off each other” in Sendak’s Connecticut studio. The charming romp that resulted, now published as “Presto and Zesto in Limboland” (Michael di Capua Books / HarperCollins, $18.95, ages 4-8), was put aside in the press of other work and had been forgotten by the time of Sendak died in 2012. In a recent telephone conversation, Yorinks explained how the manuscript was rediscovered, and he mused on Sendak’s impact on his life and career. It has been edited for length and clarity.
You and Sendak gave the book’s protagonists your nicknames for one another. How did those nicknames come about?
It’s an odd little story. I grew up in New Hyde Park, and most of my adult life I’ve lived in New York City, but about 30 years ago I lived for a while in Westchester. I said, “Maurice, let’s have lunch; I’ll come over.” Whenever I visited him from the city I would take a train to Brewster, and somebody would pick me up. I had no idea where his house was geographically — and apparently neither did Maurice. He told me it would take half an hour; I got in the car, and I was there in three minutes! I pulled into his driveway, and he walked out and said, “Ah, Presto!” I said, “Well, if I’m Presto, you’re Zesto” — and that was that. We named these characters after ourselves as an homage to our long friendship.
How did that friendship begin?
I literally knocked on his door when I was 17. I read an article about Maurice in The New York Times Magazine. I didn’t even know children’s books existed, but this article said he loved 19th-century literature, and that was important because I did, too, and was enthralled with the power of words at a young age. Now I’m a teenager, I want to be a writer and move to the city, and I read about this guy who also loves 19th-century literature and has a cool studio in Greenwich Village. It’s about a four-hour story, but long and short of it is, I rang his bell, he told me to phone and then invited me to lunch. We turned out to have a lot in common, though we were different generations. He would have been 90 this year, and I’m 65; I can’t believe it.
Did he influence you to become a children’s book writer?
It wasn’t about trying to be my teacher, but he did introduce me to [editor-publisher] Michael di Capua and said, “I think some of these short stories might make interesting picture book texts.” So, lo and behold, I was writing children’s books. Maurice and I made a vow that we wouldn’t work together, because our friendship was more important, but then I wrote this very cuckoo manuscript [“The Miami Giant,” 1995] and Maurice suddenly said, “You know what, it ain’t gonna do anything to our friendship if we work together. Let’s have some fun.”
“Presto and Zesto in Limboland” was originally a series of drawings attached to unconnected rhymes. How did you two create a cohesive story?
Frankly, we weren’t sure whether it was a book or not. We started with them walking and talking about cake for two reasons. One, both of us really do complain that you can’t get decent cake anymore. Also, whenever you visited Maurice in Connecticut, you would inevitably have to take a walk around three o’clock; this was a very strict routine. We had taken thousands of walks together at that point, and the idea of walking and talking seemed to fit. A journey is a classic part of storytelling.
But you didn’t publish it then.
It started as a semilark; Maurice was very involved with another project, and so was I. We couldn’t do more than to say, “We’ll get back to it,” then we didn’t. After Maurice died, Lynn [Caponera, Sendak’s executor] found the manuscript filed in one place, the pictures filed in another, and recognized that they were meant to be together. She called, and then Michael got in touch to ask if I’d be willing to work on it again. It was the best epilogue to an incredibly important relationship in my life. That we would have one last shot at communicating through a book — it just couldn’t be any better.
Arthur Yorinks signs copies of "Presto and Zesto in Limboland"
Original Sendak artwork for the book will be on display.
WHEN | WHERE Saturday, Sept. 8, at 1 p.m., Books of Wonder, 18 W. 18th St., Manhattan
INFO 212-989-3270, booksofwonder.com