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Maurice Sendak delights children with new book, 12 years after his death

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A new book by Maurice Sendak came out this week. "Ten Little Rabbits" helps young children learn how to count using whimsical images. Sendak died in 2012, and he didn't have any heirs. But his estate is handled by people who were like family to him. Here's NPR's Elizabeth Blair with the story.

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ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Makes sense that the author of "Where The Wild Things Are" lived in the woods in the not-too-wild Ridgefield, Conn.

LYNN CAPONERA: All right. Our guests are here.

JONATHAN WEINBERG: How nice. Hello.

BLAIR: The two people in charge of all things Sendak met the author when they were kids.

WEINBERG: I'm Jonathan Weinberg. I'm the curator at the Maurice Sendak Foundation, and I've known Maurice since I was 10, is when I first met him. His partner, Eugene Glynn, who was a psychiatrist, was my mother's best friend. My mother died when I was quite young, and my father also died. So they were - Maurice and Gene were like surrogate parents.

CAPONERA: And I'm Lynn Caponera. I'm the executive director of the Sendak Foundation. I grew up down the street. My parents lived down the road. I met Maurice and Gene when I was 11.

BLAIR: When Caponera was 18, she went to live with Sendak and his partner to help around the house. Her apartment was right underneath Sendak's studio. She says he was quite the night owl.

CAPONERA: I would hear him, like, all night, whistling and playing music, and you could hear it. When you know things were going right, he would be whistling like crazy, so, like, actually whistling while he worked. So it was (laughter) - you know? So it was really wonderful.

BLAIR: Sendak and his partner Eugene Glynn's main house was built in 1790, with some additions made along the way. Caponera and Weinberg give us a tour.

CAPONERA: We always like to start in the studio.

BLAIR: Sendak's studio is almost exactly as it was when he died, says Caponera - slippers on the floor, sweater draped over his chair, art supplies on his desk.

CAPONERA: He used these very just cheap - paints you would use in kindergarten, really. I mean, they're little cake paints and tempera poster paints over there.

BLAIR: There's all kinds of art everywhere in Sendak's home - 19th-century oil paintings and photographs, Winslow Homer engravings, little mechanical toys Sendak made with his brother and a vast collection of Mickey Mouse memorabilia.

Here's a bit of trivia for you. Sendak's very first job was doing window displays for F.A.O. Schwarz, and there are some items from the store in his studio - toy soldiers and a little bird.

CAPONERA: He said they had sort of a contest with the workers there to see what you could steal from the store. So, you know - so we have these - they're probably not going to come after us, I hope. But we have these, and we have this little bird, and that's - he's in "Hector Protector." And Maurice was very proud that he said he got a train set out once (laughter). So besides being a great illustrator, apparently, he was a good thief.

BLAIR: Mischievous, clever, resourceful, bored, frustrated - Sendak's characters run the gamut. In "Ten Little Rabbits," the new counting book, Little Mino the Magician looks pleased when one, then two, then three rabbits pop out of his hat. At four, he yawns. At six, he's annoyed - by the nine page, exasperated, as the rabbits crawl all over him.

CAPONERA: Maurice has this way of creating these expressions that not only kids get to - but as an adult reading this, you're not going to get bored.

BLAIR: Did he know this would be published?

CAPONERA: Well, he didn't know because, you know, he kind of left sort of the instructions that, you know, like, you'll know what to do - you know? - which sort of is open-ended. And hopefully, you know, you do know what to do. And, you know, it's sort of a daunting thing to think you're sort of guiding his legacy.

BLAIR: Guiding Maurice Sendak's legacy is a big responsibility, but Sendak believed Lynn Caponera could handle it. In 2011, about nine months before he died, he was interviewed on WHYY's Fresh Air. Terry Gross asked him who was helping him. He told her about Lynn.

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MAURICE SENDAK: She is a youngish lady who puts up with my oldness, that is, I'm fighting and struggling against. She puts up with my bad behavior. And she loves me, and I love her.

BLAIR: In addition to the counting book, a retrospective of Maurice Sendak's work will travel to Los Angeles in the spring and Denver in the fall.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.