May 28, 2013

By Susan Tofte

‘Just tell them if it’s true’: Maurice Sendak and Sesame Street

Sesame Workshop Founder Joan Ganz Cooney with Maurice Sendak

Susan Tofte is Sesame Worskhop’s Archivist.

“I don’t believe in children.  I don’t believe in childhood.  I don’t believe that there’s a demarcation.  ‘Oh you mustn’t tell them that.  You mustn’t tell them that.’  You tell them anything you want.  Just tell them if it’s true.  If it’s true you tell them.”   – Maurice Sendak.

In June 1968, the staff of Children’s Television Workshop (CTW, now known as Sesame Workshop) gathered in Cambridge, Massachusetts with a group of educators, scholars, child psychiatrists, television producers, authors, illustrators, composers, and puppeteers to determine what Sesame Street should attempt to teach in the show’s first year.  The seminars were designed to bring a diverse group of thinkers together to tackle a problem that no participant had tried to solve.  The challenge: find a way for the creative intuition needed to create a television show to work along side a deliberate objective curriculum.  The first seminar covered social, moral and affective development of children.  Among the 20 participants was writer and artist Maurice Sendak.  Instead of taking notes, Sendak doodled as the discussion of what four-year-olds understand conceptually drifted through his unconscious.  He doodled about sibling rivalry, children challenging their parents’ authority and violence on TV.  The sketches are classic Sendak – irreverent, subversive and witty.

After the seminars, Sendak’s involvement with Street continued.  He was an early member of the National Board of Advisors for CTW and consulted with Workshop founder Joan Ganz Cooney and producers on early storyboards and outlines for the show.  Some of the doodles from the seminars were used in the first promotional brochure for the Workshop.  The cover image of the booklet features a drawing of a child with a television for a head holding a Children’s Television Workshop banner.  Sendak also drew the first logo that appeared on early CTW stationary and press releases.

In addition to his work behind the scenes, Sendak contributed two animations that aired during Sesame Street’s second season.  He collaborated with Jim Henson on two animated films – writing and designing stories full of mayhem and ruckus.  “Seven Monsters,” a subversive story about a group of seven monsters wrecking havoc on a village, was turned into a storybook in 1977.  “Bumble Ardy #9”, Sendak’s best known short, is a tale of nine pigs showing up to celebrate a boy’s 9th birthday, eating birthday cake and drinking wine. The animated short was the basis for a book that was published in 2011.  It was the first book in 30 years that Sendak both wrote and illustrated and was the last book he published before his death.

It is unknown what circumstances led to Maurice Sendak’s invitation to participate in the early seminars for Sesame Street but there is no doubt that Sendak’s influence was felt during the early development of Sesame Street.  Both Sendak and the creators of Sesame Street believed that children understand a great deal more than most adults believe; that when creating content for children, one must take children seriously as children.


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