Arthur Yorinks: The Creative Engine
For the past 40 years, Arthur Yorinks has been the power behind the throne for many of America’s most significant artists. But his work stands on its own.
Arthur Yorinks is an esteemed and versatile writer. His work spans opera, theater, dance, film, radio, and children’s books. His 1986 collaboration Hey, Al with illustrator Richard Egielski won the Caldecott Medal, the highest honor for a picture book.
Yorinks was born in 1953 in Roslyn, NY, and attended Hofstra New College. He met Maurice Sendak as a teenager and collaborated with the famed illustrator on five children’s books. Together, they founded Night Kitchen Theater, which produces plays for kids. Yorinks is adapting Sendak’s most famous work, Where the Wild Things Are, for the stage for a 2023 premiere.
As well as writing over forty books for children, Yorinks has completed two opera librettos for renowned composer Philip Glass; helped create a full-length dance-theater piece with dance company Pilobolus; and wrote and directed numerous original audio plays performed live at the Kennedy Center and other venues and broadcast on SiriusXM Satellite Radio and New York Public Radio.
For many writers, storytelling is, by choice, a solitary act. Not, though, for Arthur Yorinks. He’s been a go-to partner for many of modern America’s most renowned artists across a variety of genres. A libretto for a Philip Glass opera, a dance for the American modern company, Pilobolus, audio plays featuring Sigourney Weaver and Frances McDormand, picture books with Mort Drucker, David Small, and Maurice Sendak. Today, Yorinks lives in bucolic bliss on a farm in Upstate New York. He is a gifted storyteller, but one who has never craved the spotlight. The fact he discovered as a prodigious pianist, age seven.
Arthur Yorinks: I’m playing, practicing, all of that. I’m really enjoying it, loving it, it’s for me. And then company comes over and my mother says…
Yorinks: Perform. And I hated it. To this day, I could feel right now that feeling of, don’t look at me, I don’t want to do this. You’re not interested. And so, I became even more shy about that kind of stuff.
Yorinks gave up the piano when he was 16. He decided his future lay in writing when one evening he became immersed in a book from his father’s vast collection.
Yorinks: My father was an odd, by himself kind of guy, but he was an avid reader. But when I watched him read, I thought he looks like he’s having so much pleasure, that I emulated that. There were no kids books, oddly, in the house. I mean, there was maybe a set of Graham or Anderson, but no picture books, nothing like that. I didn’t even know what those were. So, here I am one night and just my large Standard Poodle and I were in the house, I mean for an hour or two. So, I took out Poe and I started reading it and I, you know, it was a story called The Black Cat and I remember this exactly, I stopped, ’cause I was getting scared and then I said, wait a second, this is just words. Somebody wrote this down. What kind of power is that? That somebody puts words together and I’m freaking out here. You know almost climbing under the bed with my dog. I want to be able to do that. And that was it for writing. I mean, I knew that whatever I did, in addition to whatever all the things I did, I wanted to be a writer.
And write he has. Despite the dearth of children’s books in his family home, the adult Yorinks has mastered the form with 39 books published to date, including 1997’s Caldecott medal winner, Hey, Al. Yorinks’s characters don’t talk down to kids, they tend to sound like adults with vivid imaginations and there’s a good reason for that.
Yorinks: I kind of channel, believe it or not, this is gonna sound very strange, the innocence of my mother and my father, they had a similar odd, coming from very different angles. I recall sitting on the stoop of the house and my mother going on and on about life on other planets and the dreams that she had which were quite vivid and fantastical. On the flip side, my father would be known to sit at the table and just start talking, nobody, not directing it to anybody and just was telling a story and it happened to be something that he read or something, but he didn’t care that nobody was listening to him. Except I always listened to him. And so, that not only enabled me, but engendered in me a constant curiosity and that curiosity of asking a question is what I think is a part of childhood. Kids are always trying to figure things out. You know, we’re all, well we’re always trying to figure things out. And what I do when I’m in that mode of writing those books and I never think of them, of course, as writing for kids, so they’re just books to me, of answering questions. And I don’t put limits on the answers. I honestly think if a guy works in a butcher shop and he’s surrounded by meat all the time, his dream would be to turn into a fish. I don’t censor those…
AJC: Or question whether
Yorinks: No question.
AJC: it’s gonna work or not.
Yorinks: That’s right.
AJC: That’s a lot of self-trust.
Yorinks: I’m a pretty insecure guy but when I’m in a room by myself and working, yeah, I do trust what I’m doing.
But Yorinks has often been overshadowed by his collaborators. Perhaps none more so than the legendary illustrator, Maurice Sendak. In 1970, the 42-year-old Sendak was already world famous for Where the Wild Things Are when a 17-year-old Arthur Yorinks and a friend knocked on his door.
Yorinks: And the door opens and there’s Sendak. And clearly, he was like, who are these two kids? And I said something, like the exorcist, words were coming out of my mouth, I had no idea what I was saying. You know, I admire your work, the typical bologna. He was very polite, he didn’t open the door and let us in, but he just said, “Look, I’m in the middle of a book. If you’d like to talk, I’d be happy to talk to you on the phone.” And it was very cordial, nice, all of about three minutes. So, door closes, we go off. And then comes the dilemma. Every month or so, I would dial his number, rotary dial, no caller ID. “Hello?” Click. I, yeah, it was terrible. I did it like four times. Now I had a Standard Poodle which I mentioned earlier. The odd thing about this dog, she never barked. Dialing Maurice, “Hello.” I was so distracted, I thought, “Oh my God, I’ve never heard this dog bark.” And all of a sudden, like in the cartoons, you know, hello, hello? And it’s Maurice.
AJC: Speech bubbles are coming out of the phone.
Yorinks: And I, then this is totally, again, ridiculous. He’s gonna know it’s me, I can’t hang up now. So, we had a conversation. And the conversation was basically a disguised interview, of course. What do you do, what do you blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And it was met with, and I’m trying to lie, I’m trying to make up things. You know, “How old are you?” “I’m 17.” Oh, oh. You know, I mean, at every moment, and I don’t think that fast so, I’m just spurting out the truth. So, he gets to the last question, which I didn’t know was the last question. He says, “Have you ever read Winnie the Pooh?” “Yes, I’ve read it.” “What did you think?” And I thought, what does he want to hear, what does he want to hear, what does he want to hear? And as my brain is saying that, the words come out of my mouth, “Oh, I hated that book.” There’s a pause. I, you know, after all this, I just said the wrong thing and as I’m thinking that, he says, “Why don’t you come over for lunch on Tuesday?” I said okay. So, I went to his house on Tuesday. I had a tuna fish sandwich and a ginger ale on his little patio in the Brownstone. We talked and though we had this disparity in age, generation, whatever that is, we were very similar. So, we hit it off. We hit it off, we became good friends. Unlike what a lot of people think of Maurice as a kind of a morose and serious guy, of which he was, he was—
AJC: And grumpy.
Yorinks: And grumpy and, you know, but he was absolutely hilarious and that was the thing we shared, humor.
For years, Yorinks and Sendak avoided working together. They didn’t want to mix friendship and business. But in 1992 they broke their pact by founding a children’s theater company in New York City called Night Kitchen, which they ran as partners for nearly a decade. During that time, they also wrote their first kids book together, The Miami Giant. Their fifth, Presto and Zesto in Limboland was released in 2018, six years after Sendak’s death. Without his dear friend and collaborator, Yorinks has had to go at it alone again to write a stage adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. It premiers at the New Victory Theater in New York City in the Fall of 2020. As always though, Yorinks would like to stay in the shadows.
Yorinks: I wrote this thing with the intention that when people see it, the book has only 300 words or something like that, so obviously I had to make something up, but my goal was that, oh, did Maurice leave this play laying around?
It’s a plausible scenario. If Maurice Sendak had left behind an unrealized play, he might well have counted on his friend, Arthur Yorinks, to get the job finished.