`Rosie' Springs From Page to Stage

CHILDREN'S book author Maurice Sendak refuses to autograph his books anymore. ``Children don't care whether their books are signed,'' he says. ``They don't even know what it means.''

After years of book signings that turned into miserable afternoons for scores of children, Mr. Sendak finally decided to release his young readers from this burden.

``I feel sorry for them,'' he says. ``They're in long lines and their bladders are bursting. When they finally get to the front, they see a little old man with a white beard. And the mother is saying, `Honey, this is the man that did your favorite book.' And they translate that: `He wants it back.' So they clutch the book tightly to their chests.''

To make matters worse, parents then encourage their children to open their books and let him sign. ``But they've been taught all their lives not to write in their books,'' Sendak says. ``Now, it's alright for a perfect stranger to write in their books?''

Although he is still writing books, Sendak also works in theater. In 1990, he founded The Night Kitchen, a national children's theater company based in Purchase, N.Y., at the State University of New York. His goal is to redefine the performing arts for children in much the same way he has redefined children's literature.

His best-known book, ``Where the Wild Things Are,'' was written 30 years ago and has sold close to 4 million copies. Although Max and his monsters are a favorite for many young readers, Sendak feels partial toward the character of Rosie, who first appeared in his third book, ``The Sign on Rosie's Door,'' in 1960.

``Rosie was a real kid,'' Sendak says in an interview just before his play ``Really Rosie'' was performed here in St. Louis.

During the early years of World War II, when Sendak was an aspiring young artist growing up in Brooklyn, Rosie lived across from him on Avenue P. She shows up in many of his early sketches. ``I observed her from morning until late afternoon,'' he says. ``She was so gifted, and I recognized that she was a real artist.''

Rosie was younger than Sendak, and she came from a troubled family. ``She really had a lot to contend with,'' Sendak says, ``and she used it all in her artistry - in her made-up stories, in her made-up movies, in her made-up dancing. I was so touched by how she used the art to continue her life, to figure it out, and make the best of it. She became the prototype for every kid in my books.''

Sendak may have recognized something of himself in Rosie. ``I was another artist - I was only an adolescent, but I had very powerful dreams of doing something with my life,'' he says.

Despite writing a book about Rosie, ``I knew I hadn't done credit to this kid,'' Sendak says.

In the 1970s, when he met singer-songwriter Carole King, they decided to collaborate on a half-hour animated television special featuring Rosie. But Sendak was still dissatisfied with his tribute to this inspiring child.

When he and Ms. King expanded Rosie into a full-length musical for children, ``Rosie became really Rosie for the first time,'' he says.

``Really Rosie'' ran Off-Broadway in 1980 and will now tour nationally under Sendak's direction (dates and places have not been announced). The touring production premiered at Washington University's Edison Theatre here. Sendak wrote the play, designed the sets and costumes, and wrote the lyrics to King's music.

The hour-and-15-minute musical features the vivacious Rosie, her brother, Chicken Soup, and four friends from Avenue P. Rosie tries to convince her friends, herself, and her audience that she's a star. ``You better believe me,'' she sings. ``I'm a great big deal. No star shines as bright as me.''

Just as critics have complained that Sendak's books are too dark for children, there have been complaints about this play's frequent references to death and the negative characterization of parents screaming at their children from the wings.

But Sendak refuses to shy away from sensitive issues. To do so would be an insult to children, he says.

``People think that children are mindless little dummies who don't think but are just cute. People assume that children don't have these thoughts, but I know that they do have these thoughts. I know they do have these worries.''

Sendak insists on using Equity (union) actors and musicians for his full-scale children's productions. But raising money for the company has not proven easy.

``The hardship for The Night Kitchen is that we want to produce complicated theater for kids. That costs more money,'' Sendak says.

``People have an expectation that a show for kids is cheap. The bottom line is: It's only for kids. I say, `This is the best time of their lives. Give them the best now - a full production, lights, sets, music.' ''

Sendak is determined to make The Night Kitchen a success. ``It's taken time for all my books to become established,'' he says. ``I'm used to that now. The idea of The Night Kitchen will take a while to catch on. But [co-founder] Arthur Yorinks and I are patient men. We'll just doggedly hang in, and we will educate people.''

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